Why Basing Morality on Empathy Does Not Work

Posted at Biblical Landmarks:

Atheists are Good Without God!

An Atheist announced on an internet discussion board, “Atheists are good without God!” It was not the first time I had heard it. Over the past twelve years, on the many atheist forums I had visited, the atheists and even some professing “Christians” had made this claim. To support their assertion, they posted a few “studies” that showed how atheist ethics (devised from their own empty non-belief system) were superior. Atheists had lesser numbers in prison, they claimed, a lower divorce rate, less crime in secular countries, and better raised children because they taught their children (the atheist ethics of) tolerance (which excluded Christians), anti-racism and the “Golden Rule” or empathy. Empathy, they avowed, was the best guide for morality. Empathy, in fact, would create the Utopia the world has, since the Garden of Eden, yearned after for so long. This godless form of morality was purportedly superior to all notions of cold and rigid religious dogma and objectivity.

Upon first consideration, exchanging cold, hard, objective morality for that of warm, gentle, compassionate empathy is appealing. But is it correct? In this blog I will show my readers how in truth it is a recipe for failure and the reasons why.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as: 1. The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it. 2 The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

In other words, the depth of understanding we have for another person is the degree to which we will be able to share their feelings. According to the “Empathist,” how well we enter into another person’s feelings determines how we treat them. The “empathist” insists that we will treat them well. Nevertheless, a moral code based on empathy is a moral code based on feelings. It assumes that those feelings will be a reliable, teachable and heritable guide for morality. Let us delve into this hypothesis.

Melanie A. Farmer in the article, Study Measures Empathy, quotes Kevin Ochsner, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, concerning empathy, “But it turns out, on average, people are not very accurate (in assessing other people’s feelings)…The reason they’re not very accurate is it really depends on what information the other person is expressing.”


HT: A Ruby in the Rough