Empathy is a fundamental way of relating to other people. It comes in various forms. In ‘perspective taking’ we imagine being in someone else’s situation and imaginatively experience what they are experiencing. In ‘emotional contagion’ we catch the emotions of the people we are with. In ‘affective empathy’ we experience the emotion the other person is experiencing, but the focus is on her emotion or situation. Lastly, ‘sympathy’ describes an emotion of compassion or warmth for another, often someone in need. Most of my work on empathy concern perspective taking and affective empathy.

I have argued that perspective taking and affective empathy or sympathy are not required in order to make moral judgments or to be motivated by them. The reason is that belief in universal order, practical rationality, God’s will, or personal integrity or purity can all act as groundings for moral judgment and motivation. This holds even for harmful actions. However, when it comes to acts of kindness, consideration, helping, and so on, affective empathy seems to play an important role. Perspective taking and affective empathy also play key roles in establishing and maintaining mutually satisfying interpersonal relationships.

My thoughts on the empathy and morality issue has developed over the years. Whereas I still think there are alternative groundings of moral judgment and motivation, each represents a somewhat different outlook on why we are required to consider the welfare of others when we act. Only empathy broadly construed helps you understand the significance of other people’s experiences, and gives rise to you caring for them for their own sake. This type of grounding of many moral norms is more interpersonally appealing and, some would think, gets to the bottom of why morality matters.

Lack of empathy is sometimes thought to underlie psychopathy. But psychopaths fare well on many self-report measures of empathy. The best documented deficit is that they do not see others’ pain and distress as a threat. It is not easy to know how to fit this deficit with conceptualizations of the role of empathy in moral psychology or legal responsibility (see ‘Psychopathy’). However, this research teaches us rather a lot about ordinary empathy, as does research with people with autism and narcissism.

I am just finishing a book on perspective taking. Knowing Me, Knowing You examines what perspective taking is, what it does, and why we need it, in a clear and entertaining way, broadly accessible to people interested in the topic. It interweaves philosophical questions with empirical research in psychology and neuroscience to provide a comprehensive guide to perspective taking.

In Knowing Me, Knowing You I argue that taking another person’s perspective involves adopting a first-person perspective, using one’s own experiences to understand those of the other person, and sharing what that person is going through, all with the aim of understanding what it is like for that person. This sets perspective taking apart from other ways of thinking about people. It is, however, important to know when our imagination produces reliable results, and when it does not. The good news is that we already have a lot of evidence about when that is.

Taking another’s perspective helps us understand that person as from the inside. This approach stresses the importance of subjective understanding, and adopting it has large and positive interpersonal effects. But taking another point of view also produces self-understanding. Without the ability to see ourselves as others would, we may not be able to conceive of our actions in a morally relevant way, nor can we really know who we are. Because of the intimate knowledge perspective taking gives, it lies at the very heart of morality. Without the ability to know what it is like to have the experiences someone else has, our appreciation of what our duty is to them lacks the essential human element.

Sometimes, others can impose their perspective on us. This often characterizes abusive relationships. Finding a way to reconcile different points of view is therefore essential. This can only be done by a form of triangulation whereby we imagine being an uninvolved observer. We can then balance the perspectives of the two participants in the moral transaction with that of the uninvolved observer. But triangulation is not always necessary. It depends on our project. Perspective taking has many excellent uses, and is an essential glue between people, but it must be done right with sensitivity to what one is trying to achieve and the limitations of our imagination.

Read more


Another point of view.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Brussels 2015