Is empathy enough?

I recently saw a post on Facebook that got me thinking. It said, in essence, that religion is not necessary to be moral; all you need is empathy. I don’t necessarily disagree with the first part of that statement. People can develop a high level of morality without direct religious influence (good luck excluding all religious influence). I won’t contest that. But is empathy the key? The one and only key?

(It should be said that I am not saying anything against the person who made the post. Empathy is sorely needed in our interactions with others, and I doubt we can go too far wrong making it a key component in our lives. But I do feel it fair to look at whether empathy alone is any better a pattern for morality than anything else.)

Let’s start with definition. According to, empathy is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another”.

So can we assume we can define a moral code or system by identifying with or experiencing the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another? I would suggest there is more required than that. Empathy makes no judgment, dictates no particular action. It simply experiences and identifies. I can identify with the feelings or thoughts of a clearly anti-social person, but that doesn’t mean I approve of those thoughts or the resultant actions, nor does it lead me to adopt them myself. One can empathize, yet be entirely repulsed by what they experience. Moral relativism is one possible result of empathy. If we take time to empathize with both sides of any issue or problem we may learn a great deal, but we will not necessarily determine the moral course.

Consider, after all, the story of “Les Miserables”. Jean Valjean is a criminal. He took something that did not belong to him. Certainly we can empathize with his reasons and rationalize his behavior. But if we employ empathy alone we might determine that stealing is moral. But is it? Was his theft of bread a victimless crime? Do we even know? Should we care? Employing the “empathy rule” we probably should. There are others involved in every action.

I don’t recall the circumstances, or if we are told anything about who the bread originally belonged to. Was it a wealthy baker? If so, it might be easy to assume it was a victimless crime. The baker should have given Valjean the bread! But what if the bread that was stolen was in the care of an apprentice baker who was blamed for the theft and expelled from his position? Not so victimless then, is it. What if the baker wasn’t so wealthy, and that one loaf of bread represented his profit margin for the day? Where is our empathy for the baker or his apprentice?

May I suggest that if we’re truly interested in establishing the morality of any given action we have to do a lot more digging than might appear on the surface of the matter. It’s never as simple as understanding the perspectives of one person, or even both direct parties. Each of those lives touches so many others we may never truly understand the true effect of a single action, no matter how much you may understand the reasons for it.

The alternate example, of course, is Inspector Javert, the hand of justice. In his mind there is no justification for breaking the law. To him Valjean’s theft of bread is no better or worse than the theft of the Crown Jewels, a man’s horse, or a sewing needle. Theft is theft. Breaking the law is not excusable, not forgivable. And he’s right. If we show empathy for his position it’s clear he has a very strong case. And yet empathy toward those he pursues suggests otherwise. Blind justice causes a great deal of pain. But the lack of justice can cause every bit as much pain.

With empathy as our sole guide I suspect we can at best determine that moral behavior really all depends on the circumstances, and that is not really much help in establishing a moral guide. I believe it should be clear to most readers of “Les Miserables” who, between Javert and Valjean, they would point to as the more moral man. It could also be said that empathy, or the lack of it, is Javert’s primary failing. That’s not necessarily true, though. His empathy likely lies entirely with the victims of crime, and while that is not entirely right, it’s certainly not entirely wrong.

Nor is empathy particularly far-seeing. Going simply by empathy we might believe that punishing our children for bad behavior is wrong. It causes them great emotional distress. It hurts their feelings. What a wave of negative emotion we unleash when we impose punishment, no matter how fair we feel it to be. And yet the long term consequences of not punishing bad behavior are too great to ignore. Empathy doesn’t care. Empathy simply sees what is.

And that is the point: empathy is too vague to use as the base of a moral system, even though any system that fails to at least include it is not likely to be successful, either. Empathy alone simply enlightens. It does not provide a clear moral guide. If you seek to establish an ideal morality we should all aspire to, more often than not empathy will get in the way. In the end it all comes back to the continual balance between justice and mercy.

I don’t think empathy alone is enough. Since I’m purposely limiting this to a philosophical viewpoint, I also don’t believe religion alone is enough, either. Some may argue whether or not a moral system that trumps all else is even possible, and I’d mostly agree–with our limited wisdom, experience, and understanding I don’t think we’d ever achieve one. But that should never stop us from trying to find the very best one we can. Empathy is not a bad place to start. Just don’t stop there.

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3 Responses to Is empathy enough?

  1. I would say that both compassion (a better word than just empathy, I think) AND reason are needed. A third guidepost might be needed, but I’m not sure what to suggest at the moment.

  2. Morality in and of itself, is a subjective valuative statement. You don’t need ANY particular trait or quality, including empathy, to be “moral” or have “morals”, aside from a subjective scale to measure human behavior by. You can not say someone is moral or immoral without at least an implied standard of behavior. You can HAVE a standard of behavior based on empathy (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you sound familiar?). But you could have a basis of behavior based on other qualities as well. Whenever someone in today’s society says that you don’t need religion to be moral, they are automatically paying some form of homage to at least a large portion of the Judeo-Christian value system, because that is almost invariably what they are comparing their “independent moral structure” and their definition of “morals”to.

  3. Or, to put it another way, I find being moral to be quite easy, because I decide what morality is.

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