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Is Empathy Necessary for Morality?
Thursday, April 27, 2017

Empathy, the ability to perceive and be sensitive to the emotional states of others, motivates prosocial and caregiving behaviors, plays a role in inhibiting aggression, and facilitates cooperation between members of a similar social group. This is probably why empathy is often and wrongly confused with morality. Morality refers to prescriptive norms regarding how people should treat one another, including concepts of justice, fairness, and rights. Drawing on empirical research and theory from evolutionary biology, psychology and social neuroscience, I will argue that our sensitivity to others’ needs has been selected in the context of parental care and group living. One corollary of this evolutionary model is that empathy produces social preferences that can conflict with morality. This claim is supported by a wealth of empirical findings in neuroscience and behavioral economics documenting a complex and equivocal relation between empathy, morality and justice. Empathy alone is powerless in the face of rationalization and denial. It is reason that provides the push to widen the circle of empathy from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole. 

Time: 4:45 pm
Location: RKC 111
Sponsor: Psychology Program
Contact: Thomas Hutcheon.
E-mail: thutcheo@bard.edu
Phone: 845-758-7380

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