Much of the ever-growing conversation concerning empathy’s moral significance has centered around cases where the target of our empathy is another person’s suffering. Today, I want to consider a puzzle that comes into sharper focus when we start to consider empathy with other sorts of attitudes. Briefly, the puzzle is this: there is reason to think that part of being virtuous is ministering effectively to others’ needs, and there is also reason to think that other people may genuinely need to be empathized with, even (or perhaps especially when) their emotional outlooks are at least venially vicious. So, it looks like the virtuous person should be capable of empathizing with vicious outlooks. But empathy with vicious outlooks seems to involve seeing the world in a less than virtuous way, and at least one prominent way of thinking about the psychology of the virtuous person excludes the possibility that the virtuous could see the world in a less than virtuous way.
I will use the term “empathy” to pick out a form of emotionally charged imaginative perspective-taking. Empathy in the sense that interests me is importantly different from both emotional contagion and compassion. It necessarily involves using one’s imagination to “transport” oneself, such that one considers the other’s situation as though one were occupying the other’s position. Let me now spell out the puzzle a bit more fully. The question for me is: which of the claims below should we give up, if any?
- A virtuous person will be capable of ministering effectively to others’ genuine needs.
Of course, a virtuous person may not be able to minister effectively to others’ genuine needs in cases where external/material conditions make that impossible, so perhaps the qualification “psychologically capable” would be useful here.
- A virtuous person will not be tempted by (i.e. her desires, wishes, and emotions will not be attuned to) considerations that recommend acting in a way contrary to virtue.
This claim is famously defended by John McDowell (see especially “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?” and “Virtue and Reason” in his Mind, Value and Reality (OUP: 1998)). The virtuous person’s lack of temptation is said to distinguish her from the merely continent person.
- When we succeed in empathizing with others, we emotionally apprehend the others’ situation in the same light that they do.
We adopt their emotional perspective on their situation, as we picture it in our imagination. This entails that we appreciate first-hand the intelligibility of their emotional perspective. We can say: we understand them empathetically.
- It can be exceptionally painful and isolating not to be understood empathetically.
We often feel bitterly disappointed when people cannot or will not empathize with us. This is true even when (especially when?) we ourselves recognize that our own emotional outlook falls into one or more of the following categories: it is irrational, it is immoral, it is unhealthy.
- We sometimes genuinely need to be empathetically understood, even in cases where our own emotional outlook falls into one or more of the following categories: it is irrational, it is immoral, it is unhealthy.
An inference from (4) above. This inference is potentially dubious. Genuine pains may not always correspond to genuine needs. Nevertheless, we might think that the fact that we are in real pain is at least a defeasible reason to think we have a genuine need for the remedy for that pain.
- Satisfying others’ genuine need to be empathetically understood will sometimes entail adopting (even if only temporarily) emotional outlooks that are irrational and/or immoral and or/unhealthy.
This seems to follow from (3) and (5) above.
- So, a virtuous person will at least sometimes need to adopt emotional outlooks that are irrational and/or immoral and or/unhealthy.
This seems to follow from (1) and (6) above.
- (2) and (7) are in conflict.
I’m curious to know if folks feel the force of the puzzle I’ve tried to spell out. Is one or more of the above claims an obvious non-starter?