Empathy and Morality: What Is the Connection?

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What is the connection between empathy and morality? Do the moral philosophies of Bentham and Kant go far enough?

In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt asserts that popular Western theories about morality fail to fully grasp the connection between empathy and morality. He points to the moral philosophies of Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant in particular.

Read more to learn about the treatment of empathy and morality in Western philosophy.

Misconceptions about Empathy and Morality

This graph helps us understand how our current misconceptions about morality came to be. Levels of empathy are on the Y-axis, and levels of systemizing (the ability to analyze the rules of the system) are on the X-axis. 

People who are autistic fall in the bottom right corner. They are high systemizers and low empathizers. The two people who created much of the leading ethical theory of Western philosophy—Bentham and Kant—are also in that corner.

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, proposed that one principle should govern all action and law: utility. Each law and each action should maximize gain to the community. Bentham had many characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. For example, he was unable to see subtlety and variety in the motives of his fellow humans. 

Immanuel Kant believed that there had to be a singular “good” and thus a singular morality for all humans, regardless of cultural and individual preferences. Today, we describe Kant’s views as deontological, or based on the theory that you can (and should) use established rules, rather than an action’s consequences, to evaluate whether that action is moral. He developed the categorical imperative, a single principle to guide all moral decisions: You should only act in ways that reflect what you would hope to be universal law. Kant was also a loner who was never married and would have been close to the right corner of the chart, although it’s less clear that he had tendencies towards autism. 

The problem with these two theories is not, of course, that these men might have been autistic. Rather, it is that their theories are based on systemizing without considering empathy as equally important. They were asking how the moral mind should work, not how it does work. Recognizing the connection between empathy and morality helps us gain that perspective.

Empathy and Morality: What Is the Connection?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Righteous Mind summary :

  • Why we all can't get along
  • How our divergent moralities evolved
  • How we can counter our natural self-righteousness to decrease political divides

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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