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Recently I’ve bumped into the idea that morality can be explained by empathy, a concept often expressed by evangelizing atheists. We learn to empathize, so we do unto others….

The psychology community is big on empathy too, and if you haven’t got “it” you’re probably a sociopath. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” There’s a problem there however, sadists also love to understand and share the feelings of another….their suffering. So do pedophiles. So do con artists, politicians, advertisers, and the entire pharmaceutical industry….

Empathy is not morality. It is presumed that one who has the ability to understand and recognize the feelings of others is going to therefore be respectful towards those feelings. Au contraire! Many don’t. Empathy is a tool, not a morality.

I grew up in unfortunate circumstances and developed a bit of hypervigilence, heightened intuition, sharply tuned empathy. It had absolutely nothing to do with morality at all, it was a survival skill. Just because I can tune in and recognize the feelings of others does not mean I care about those feelings or even that my intentions are noble!

Have no fear, I’m a peaceful sort.

My mother is a narcissist and plumb full of empathy…for herself, but she can’t see that. To give you an idea of what I am talking about, long aqo when I wound up in the hospital, she eventually called me up, full of empathy, distressed…..because she couldn’t figure out who was going to drive her around now that I was out of commission. That is my mother, her narcissism is cloaked in something that almost resembles empathy. However, she can only see herself in other people, like a projection, a hologram. Everyone in the entire world is actually her. She was concerned about me, but only in terms of how it would inconvenience her or cause her distress.

Most of us are not narcissists, but that tendency to project ourselves, our feelings, our identities onto others to some extent is fairly common. We will put ourselves in their shoes, the keyword there being “ourselves.” If I were in your situation, this is what “I” would want. What is sometimes forgotten however is that another person is not you, their circumstances are different than yours, what got them where they are is unique, and what is best for them may be completely different from what would be best for you, were you in their situation!

There’s nothing bad about trying to put yourself in someone else shoes and actually caring about them. That’s a good thing. We need more of that in the world. To truly make it a moral thing however, it needs to be tempered with wisdom and justice, and with less of you in the equation. How you “feel” about what they are feeling, must be let go of, so you can discern what is going to be in their best interests.

Empathy can actually be a very self serving thing, a cruel thing even, devoid of morality. Sometimes people will get into very co-dependant relationships with addicts, where they are full of empathy….and funding all the drugs and alcohol that is killing someone. Empathy can actually enable people to destroy themselves.

So, empathy is clearly not morality. In fact, I’ve given a few examples where empathy can actually be downright immoral. We do not simply empathize and do unto others as we would have them do unto us, sometimes we empathize in order to exploit people, sometimes we do it to manipulate them so we can get what we want, and sometimes we are simply projecting our own selves onto them due to unresolved personal issues.

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is an important life skill and certainly tends to make social situations easier, but there are also people in the world who are moral and yet they lack these skills. Empathy is no more related to morality than intelligence is. Feelings are not morality either.

Morality is a tough thing to define because it is “the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad.”  Good for whom, however? As humans, our vision is very limited, our ability to see cause and effect into the future is not so good, and our own brain’s ability to grasp the implications of the things we do and their impact on others is heavily tainted with biases and influenced by fleeting emotions.

That does sound dreadful doesn’t it? I’m terribly sorry, but we are simply not the sharpest tools in the shed. I happen to believe in God because He is where wisdom lives, along with love, justice, mercy, and morality.