Empathy and Moral Action

David Brooks:

As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action….

There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern….

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.

The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.

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  • Susan N.

    Whoa. Moderately disturbing thoughts here…

    I can’t help but think of Jesus and the Pharisees of his day. Jesus: The “moral code” is LOVE — love God with your whole being; love neighbor as self. Pharisees: Be moral according to the letter of the law, and reward! You’re “in.” Jesus said: the law without mercy (empathy, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation) is not what abundant life is all about.

    I guess this is a sad commentary on human being. That we are more motivated by what is in it for us than for genuine care for the other person, I mean. Moral code / law without empathy (heart) is just going through the motions for self-serving reasons. The heart motives are important to God.

    I like the suggestion that we go beyond empathy / diversity training, or mere “tolerance” in educating our kids and setting the bar for ourselves. It would be good, wouldn’t it, if we could dialogue openly about our differences, without condemnation. Maybe questioning whether some of our established “moral codes” are actually right and good in the first place? Jesus did this (Sermon on the Mount — you have heard it said; but I tell you…) It is better for us in the long run when we can confront our weaknesses and be honest about our less lovely side (Excuse me, but you seem to have a Voldemort sticking out the back of your head.” and “I’m sorry, Voldemort is sticking out the back of my head again!”)

    My cynical, discouraged “side” wants to insert here, “See what I’ve been telling you? The ‘moral code’ is survival of the fittest — every man/woman for him/herself.”

    I think empathy of a Christ-like, compassionate kind is extremely important. Sometimes it is a thing that needs to be actively, concretely taught (definitely lived by example) to our kids. I have read that children in the autism spectrum benefit from role playing to gain empathy and learn social skills that are not intuitive. Good Lord, these skills are not intuitive to *most* of us, if you ask me. Jesus save us from ourselves!

    I wonder what Kris in her professional capacity thinks of this article’s premise?

  • DRT

    In the paper, Prinz distinguishes between empathy and sympathy. Once that move is made then I agree that empathy alone is not much of a motivator.

    But then Brooks goes further and attributes action to conformance with a code. If he is assuming that the social norm of a society, or a rational code like “I don’t have unlimited resources so I can’t help everyone” is in play then his conclusion holds. I can’t tell from the article.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks for weighing in, DRT. After slowly and thoughtfully reading the Prinz paper, I still can’t say that I entirely agree with the position taken. I will admit that some decent points were made (comparison of liberal/conservative political ideology, collectivist/individualist societies).

    I am so glad that the issue of “shallow affect” — and psychopathy, in its most pronounced form — was mentioned. DRT: Sometimes I fear that the whole world has gone mad and is unable to feel any sense of compassion or responsibility for the suffering of others. The recent rash of bullying/suicides in the news makes me weep inwardly. Something is terribly wrong with that picture.

    That there is a difference between empathy and sympathy — no argument from me on that. Feeling pity for the other who is suffering (Aww, be warm and well-fed, and I’ll pray for you!) is not enough. Hence my nuancing of the term “empathy” with the richer (imho) term — “compassion.” Compassion is concern/sympathy that results in concrete action toward or on behalf of another in need.

    That collectivist/liberal/feminine ideology can be exploited to force conformance or lead to complacency — I get that, too.

    Interpreted from a “gospel” point of view, I think empathy boils down to a merciful/gracious disposition toward others, a willingness to forgive and reconcile, and a (moral) sense of responsibility for the well-being of others, which in the big picture redeems situations and oneself in the process. Why would we defy natural responses? I think that’s a case for standing firm, going against the cultural flow, because God has said that it is good and is the best thing to do. To whom much (grace) has been given, much (grace) is expected.

    A relational conflict that my 11yo experienced with his best friend a year or so ago comes to mind. My son was playing flag football with a group of his neighborhood buddies one afternoon, and came indoors angry (indignant) and hurt, announcing that “so-and-so is not my friend anymore!” His close buddy had yelled, “You suck at football” to my son when he missed a pass. My son yelled back, “I’m trying to get better, and you’re not my friend anymore,” before stomping off and coming indoors.

    I could imagine how hurt my son was, underneath his anger, because he loves his best buddy like a brother. We sat down on the couch, and I prompted him with some questions about the incident, listening to his outpouring of anger and hurt (accompanied by bitter tears) without judging him (shame on you for feeling angry; for crying — shake it off/toughen up). What I did say is that maybe it was just a careless remark, spoken in the heat of the game, or that so-and-so had had a bad day at school and was feeling grouchy and mean. And then I asked my son whether he had ever said something that was wrong/hurtful, and did he wish to be forgiven and given a second chance to be friends? I didn’t tell my son that he should get over it and go talk to his friend as soon as possible, but that when he has taken time to think everything through and feels calmer, he should then go to his friend and tell him that the insult had hurt him deeply. In a week or so, one or the other of the boys (can’t remember who initiated) rang the other’s doorbell, and they took up playing together again. My son did state the offense that had been taken, and how much it had hurt him, and his friend said, “Oh sorry. I won’t say that kind of thing again.” And they have continued being friends ever since.

    Empathy was important in moving forward here in a productive/constructive way because, a) My son had to find a way to forgive by imagining what might have caused his friend to speak in a mean way (uncharacteristic of him, and in their relationship), and, b) recognizing that he too had said and done things to others that he hoped would be understood/reconciled and forgiven. To moralize that his friend was bad, or should have been ashamed (even though the behavior was, in fact, not nice), wouldn’t have helped move the situation forward in a healthy way. Living by a moral code just causes a person or persons in relationship or society to “get stuck” on anger, depression stages of grief. Wouldn’t you say?

    I understand (empathize) with this getting stuck, because it has happened to me enough times. Outrage — I’m good at that. It usually just puts people off; not helpful, I’ve been told… And oh, Prinz states that one does not empathize with self. I kind of disagree, at the risk of someone psychoanalyzing me as a complete weirdo/misfit. I do that occasionally, when I have been unproductively beating myself up (guilt/shame) over a past failure. I need to connect with the truth that I am loved in spite of my weaknesses and flaws by the God who created me, and if He can forgive me, then I should accept that grace and move forward unburdened by it. Paying that grace forward is much easier in that context, and not only appropriate but required given the knowledge that every person is a beloved child of God. Empathizing with a group or institution — yes, I think it is difficult (?) to relate to a thing, vs. a person. Will it create biases to relate to a person? I think we all have biases and bring our assumptions to a given situation or relationship. But that only highlights the need for dialogue to promote true understanding. When we get up close and personal, it’s harder to hold onto our prejudices, I guess.

    I’ve so overstayed my time on JC this a.m. ! Nice to connect with you, DRT. What do you make of the points and conclusions presented in this paper?

    ~Peace, friend~

  • DRT

    Susan, I am going to read this more tonight, but I want to connect with you on the sympathy and compassion side here a bit right now.

    I was quite optimistic in my youth, which I would say lasted until I was 40. I felt that most people would do the right thing in the end, and would adequately consider the needs of others, on par or above themselves. Sure there are many that won’t, but many will.

    In the past decade or so I have been confronted, time and time again, with the blatant selfish behavior of people to a degree that I would never have thought before. Silly me, I always thought that people may act selfish in small things but would do the right thing when the stakes get big. I have come to find the opposite, the bigger the stakes the more selfish for most people.

    I am still trying to determine if society has changed significantly in the past 10 or 15 years, or if it is strictly my realization.

    What I do know now, is that it seems like people feel it is acceptable to look out for number 1. Our American society has beat that into us, and the TV programming seems to support it. I am thinking that the world is changing.

    And the change goes both ways. There are many who are becoming more vocal for the compassion towards others, but my fear is that they are over-shouted by the greed is good crowd and I sense that many are succombing to this way of life.

    A couple year’s ago my oldest son’s best friend (they were also born on the same day) decided to shoot himself in the head because others were judging him without truly understanding *him*. All I could think about was how, when I was a teen, my favorite cousin was also shot (and he died) due to people not really taking action to support *him*. There are real consequences to our inaction, and as you say, we must stay the course and promote real relationships among people.

    Peace and Joy Susan.

  • Adam


    I don’t think Empathy and Love are the same thing. Love requires action. Empathy is merely an emotion. I find that people who rely on emotions rarely act. I see Love as being a possible Code in Brooks’ language.

  • Susan N.

    First, Adam — I believe there is a lot of negative connotation among some Christians with the word “empathy”; it stems from the assumption that those who emphasize feelings and emotions are “self” centered, which of course is a negative trait for a Christ-follower, seeking to imitate His sacrificial, humble ways. I contend that we all have various feelings, some constructive and some not so much, whether we admit to them or not. Pretending they do not exist and do not motivate or demotivate us is to be in a state of denial. Other people have feelings too. Recognizing and seeking to understand ourselves and others is a more honest way of promoting a healthy society, istm. One time, with a person that I was having a lot of trouble connecting with because the conversation never rose beyond a very shallow, cliche level, I asked what “love” really means in practical terms? The way that the word “empathy” is being parsed and dissected here can also be done to the word “love”. Some people qualify the action in terms of being “tough — this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is for the best; that kind of love, which to me, is usually a rationalization / justification for being harsh or indifferent in response to another’s issues or pain. I continue to maintain that empathy, while not perhaps synonymous with compassion, is a vital component of compassion — sympathy/concern that motivates/leads to action. Turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile with a fellow human being allows us to understand and reconcile differences. Grace, too, is undeserved mercy or favor. How is it that God extends so much grace and forgiveness to us? It says in Hebrews that we do not have a High Priest who is unsympathetic to our weaknesses, because he walked in our shoes while He pitched His tent in our earthly domain with human skin on. Therefore, come boldly to the throne of grace…

    DRT – I think I can empathize with your disillusionment of humanity. Have you experienced such callousness among Christians as well? This is what nearly causes me to pack it in and withdraw from religious life altogether. I am so sorry for the tragic losses you have experienced in such a personal way over your lifetime. Sometimes, I’m encouraged to see or know one courageous, compassionate (empathetic activist) person in action. It gives me hope for the world. A friend once said to me, “Sometimes we need Jesus with skin on.” A highly empathetic person is at risk for pain overload, I think. We only have so much influence or resources to effect a positive change. We do the best we can, with what we have, and what we know, at any given time. And pray that God will multiply the “loaves and fishes” to work the maximum amount of good from it.

    Resilient / flexible people tend to fare better in the world. I find that it takes me longer than average to recuperate and reorient when I suffer a loss. I’m not particularly graceful about it either. Trying to learn, but it’s slow going. My daughter is more sensitive and less agile in dodging life’s zingers, unlike my son who is very extroverted and strong emotionally. I’m a bear to deal with, if you’ve messed with my daughter. Talk about outrage! (Not pretty, picture Voldemort!!) Trying to slowly teach her not to become hard, bitter, cold, calculating, etc., but to stay soft-hearted while growing a thick skin. I hate to sound cliche, but I don’t have a better (quick) analogy. A generous amount of time and space, in a supportive context, has been helpful for us. Going back to the empathy model again, I wish for people to allow that room for growth in my own life. Sometimes the consequences of “tough love” or a hands-off/work it out for yourself approach to love are tragic. God. I think of your son’s friend’s parents and family, and your cousin’s family — the terrible loss of their lives that impacted all of you. We can’t go back or beat ourselves up for what we did or didn’t do, but maybe we can say, ‘Never again, not on my watch.’ And tell a different story, a better story. Isn’t that what God was trying to do in and through Jesus, after all the terrible-awful past outcomes (read: epic fail) of the Israel story?

    DRT – hang in there. I am thankful for your voice on JC, and I am a better person for knowing you, even in this remote setting. Appreciating Scot, too, for tolerating these wordy comments from me.

  • DRT

    Susan, quickly, my son’s friend did what he did precisely because the church could not accept him for what he did, and my cousin was neglected by someone very close to me who is a devout Christian. The experience with my cousin taught me to never ever delay in helping someone who is asking for it, because you may not get the chance again.

  • DRT

    Susan, on the plus side, what keeps me going now is the new path I see in Christianity. I largely had written off Christianity because of the self centered approach to salvation and the small god that is commonly portrayed. I could not understand how god could let the world continue down it’s evil track and have christians contribute to the decline, with the church’s support!

    It all changed for me after I discovered Tom Wright and JVG, I finally thought that Christianity has a chance in the world and now oriented my life toward seeing the true Christian world. I want to change the world.

    I bubble over with joy reading books like Scot’s latest King Jesus Bible. Seriously. The whole time I was reading Scot’s book (and I really need to write a review on my site) I was just plain excited because I feel this is exactly the direction we need to go as a religion.

    At lunch today I was at a bible study on 1 Cor 15, I have been looking forward to this for some time. But the others there smirked at me, rolled eyes, and refused to even discuss the gospel. Instead they wanted to talk about how each of them should not sin so they will not go to hell and instead be resurrected. There big concern seemed to be whether just being a Christian is enough or whether Paul actually meant it when he said that they should not try and sin. I am still fuming (not a very Christian thing to do).

    But I now consider it my Christian mission to help usher in the good news to the world! The sad part about it is that I think the place to start is with people who currently think they are Christians. Until we fix that it is going to be hard to bring it to the world.

  • Adam

    Susan, I’ve been doing a ton of research over the last year in psychiatry and neuroscience especially around the word/idea of empathy.

    To start, the psychiatric world still doesn’t know if true empathy exists, or if it does, how to define it. Empathy is GENERALLY defined as “feeling (mostly emotional) what another person feels”.

    How is that actually possible? Your brain isn’t connected to my brain so you don’t actually “feel” what I feel. What usually happens is that people IMAGINE what the other person feels. And this is, quite often, wrong. Unless you tell me what you’re feeling my imagination has about a 50% chance of getting it right, assuming I am SIMILAR to you.

    Similarity plays a huge part in this. Our brains are not capable of imagining things they have never experienced. If I have never experienced the ocean, I can’t imagine the ocean. If I have never experienced a divorce, I can’t imagine a divorce. Therefore, I can’t empathize with you in a divorce.

    Our capacity for empathy relies solely on our similarity to another person. The less similar, the less capable of being empathetic. In the world we live in today, diversity is everywhere and diversity works against similarity. Our world is making it harder and harder to rely on empathy.

    That’s why we need things like Brooks’ Codes. To say that Love is a Code requires a correct definition of Love. I know it as Patient, Kind, does not envy, endures all things…

    Just because someone SAYS they are being loving doesn’t mean they are. Humans are very capable of being very wrong about themselves. If a person is not acting Patient, Kind, etc… they’re not being loving, I don’t care how much they believe it.

    That’s why Codes are good. The Codes tell us what is Loving and what is not. Otherwise, our emotions tell us and those are incredibly unreliable.

  • DRT

    Adam, pretty good.

    I try to *not* be too cynical about people being able to empathize with others. So many times the actual therapy seems to be that they try to put themselves in the position of the other’s feelings, but I have found that people usually come up with a projection of their own state of mind.

    But what else would they conceive? All they have is what they think and feel, unless you believe that people are telepathic, or, empathic… (there is a wonderful episode of Star Trek TNG about an empath)

    Having said that, there are people who have paid attention to the feelings of others throughout their life and really are able to read the state of others better than most. But they too get it wrong now and then.

    I agree with the usefulness of the codes as you have said. People need a sanity check on their perspective. My natural inclination is to say another human is better than codes, but, of course, there are many instances of large numbers of people having incorrect codes. Not an easy problem.

    Believe it or not, my wife just came into the room ( I kid you not) and showed me this story of empathy she just posted on facebook.

    Dear John, I hope you can help me. The other day, I set off for work, leaving my husband in the house watching TV. My car stalled, and then it broke down about a mile down the road, and I had to walk back to get my husband’s help. When I got home, I couldn’t believe my eyes,. He was in our bedroom with the neighbor’s 19 year old daughter! When I confronted him, he broke down and admitted they had been having an affair for the past six months. We won’t go to counseling, I am afraid and need for someone to understand.

    Response – A car stalling after being driven a short distance can be caused by a variety of engine faults. Start by checking that there is no debris in the fuel line. If it is clear, check the vacuum pipes and hoses on the intake manifold and also check all the grounding wires. If none of these approaches solves the problem, it could be that the fuel pump itself is faulty, causing a low delivery of pressure to the injectors. I hope this helps,


    Wow, the world really is all connected.

  • DRT

    Susan, your daughter sounds much like my wife. She wants to follow being as she is introverted, but to live up to her standard of what she expects of a leader is a challenge! Once she turns the corner toward doubt, she becomes quite cold, calculating, and I don’t like being on the receiving end of that!

  • Susan N.

    Adam, interesting thoughts on empathy… I get the potential for “empathizing” to be, in reality, nothing more than projecting my own feelings onto another, and being completely off-base. I’m mostly skeptical of ESP!

    My (unscientific) definition of empathy involves more than simply “imagining” another’s feelings and circumstances, based on what I think I would feel/do in the same situation. It is true that I find it easier to empathize (or relate) to some people and situations than others. I think the key to *real* empathy is actively listening and dialoguing for understanding. Do a “reality check” and ask empathetic questions…

    I have read a wonderful book recently titled ‘The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Reflections for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice’ by Kay Lindahl. Rule #1 for dialogue: “When you are listening, suspend assumptions.” There are 9 “rules” in all.

    Even when whole groups of people are involved (those suffering hunger/poverty, natural disasters, war, etc., in a particular region or worldwide) I think actively listening involves doing one’s homework to understand the complexities of the situation in order to act (compassionate outworking) to relieve their suffering. Dialoguing can include participating in discussions with a group who have similar desire to be active in promoting peace and justice, then working together with them to make a dent.

    On “love” and “doing it the right way” — please forgive me for harping on this point, but to me, love is as slippery and subjective to define as empathy. People have different ideas about what love is. Those who are subscribers to the “tough love” approach…are they ignoring 1 Cor. 13 then? Is that the essential love code from the Bible? The ‘Five Love Languages’ book series points out that most people have a predominant way of expressing and receiving love. I think a part of loving well is understanding what the other person needs, where they are coming from. I may think that I’m being extremely loving toward another person, but if they don’t perceive it that way, has the action been effective? “If a tree falls in the forest…”

    DRT – I am glad that you have found comforting and edifying people and resources to heal and move forward. I am in a good place, too. I think I have come to the conclusion that unless someone wants to listen and dialogue with you, they are not interested in “empathizing” or deviating from their set ways. I have sought out those who are involved in positive activity, rather than be enmeshed in a futile, negative debate. I did that, very openly and publicly, for a long time after we left conservative evangelical life, hoping both to understand what I got wrong and learn how to better fit into that system, or be a voice for change. I gave up — I’m much happier now. Feeling free (in a good way, like I can do something helpful finally with all that energy).

    My daughter had a hard fall (emotionally, spiritually) a few years ago — disillusioned about love not being what it was cracked up to be (cognitive dissonance between the spoken belief and the actual practice). I did not want her to become hard-hearted toward God and bitter (that’s my M.O. — been there, done that). I have had to accept as a parent that when I’m doing a less than stellar job, and she calls me out on it, to consider the truth in her accusation(s) and be willing to say, “I’m sorry; let me do things differently — for you.” She can be exhausting (teenager, hello!), but is so worth it. She’s a treasure. If she can channel her energies for good, then she will be good to go in life.

    The Facebook empathy post: (Shaking my head…) Is that for real? Good grief! The sad part to me is that the poor woman had no one to talk to about her feelings, except Facebook? That was some pretty useless feedback she got. I hope if the story is legit that she has at least one supportive person in her life to turn to. ???

  • Susan N.

    Coincidentally, I was reading a Sojo article that appeared in my FB News Feed this morning, and found this link shared in the comments section:


    I browsed briefly through the teaching section, and it looks like there is some worthwhile material here.