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What's Empathy Got to Do with It?



This paper examines the difference between empathy and compassion, explaining the usefulness of each for different social and interpersonal situations.
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Researchers have long been interested in the relationship between feeling what you believe others feel?often described as empathy?and caring about the welfare of others?often described as compassion or concern. Many propose that empathy is a prerequisite for concern and is therefore the ultimate motivator of prosocial actions. To assess this hypothesis, the authors developed the Empathy Index, which consists of 2 novel scales, and explored their relationship to a measure of concern as well as to measures of cooperative and altruistic behavior. A series of factor analyses reveal that empathy and concern consistently load on different factors. Furthermore, they show that empathy and concern motivate different behaviors: concern for others is a uniquely positive predictor of prosocial action whereas empathy is either not predictive or negatively predictive of prosocial actions. Together these studies suggest that empathy and concern are psychologically distinct and empathy plays a more limited role in our moral lives than many believe.
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abstractEmpathy can be characterized as a vicarious emotion that one person experiences when reflecting on the emotion of another. So characterized, empathy is sometimes regarded as a precondition on moral judgment. This seems to have been Hume's view. I review various ways in which empathy might be regarded as a precondition and argue against each of them: empathy is not a component, a necessary cause, a reliable epistemic guide, a foundation for justification, or the motivating force behind our moral judgments. In fact, empathy is prone to biases that render it potentially harmful. Another construct—concern—fares somewhat better, but it is also of limited use. I argue that, instead of empathy, moral judgments involve emotions such as anger, disgust, guilt, and admiration. These, not empathy, provide the sentimental foundation for morality.
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