Newswise — ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 29, 2020) – Who do we have a moral obligation to feel empathy for? The pandemic and widespread financial hardship, combined with the current political climate and Black Lives Matter movement, have put debates about equality and empathy at the center of political fault lines and have created debates about whose suffering should we care about – and whose suffering is okay to ignore. According to new research by a University at Albany psychology professor, while we don’t always empathize with others equally–most of us believe we should.

Brendan Gaesser, assistant professor and director of the Imagination and Moral Cognition Lab, and graduate students Zoe Fowler and Kyle Law explain that psychologists and philosophers have long debated whether empathy can drive us to lead more moral lives — or whether our tendency to empathize with those we know and love, but not with people who are more distant or dissimilar, limits how moral we are able to be.

Before it is possible to understand the role that empathy has in our moral lives and what role it may play in creating a more equitable future, we must understand how people think about and morally evaluate inequality in empathy – something this debate in philosophy and psychology have failed to consider, according to Gaesser.

Caring for ourselves and our family seems obvious, but what about caring for people different from ourselves? How much should we care about people we will never meet, compared to people we are close with?

“Empathy can sometimes be felt in a biased and unequal manner in that we can feel more empathy for the suffering of those similar or close to us and not as much for people who are distant from us,” said Fowler. “But we wanted to know: Do people believe we should feel this way? Do we believe that feeling equal empathy for everyone is morally right? Or do we actually believe that it is morally right to care for your own kin and clan above all else?”

Published in the peer-reviewed Psychological Science, two experiments found that although we may at times fall short of feeling empathy for people who are dissimilar or distant, people believe it is more moral to feel equal empathy for everyone – regardless of how or if we know them. Specific findings include:

  • People said that it was moral to feel biased empathy towards those they are socially close with, but feeling equal empathy was judged far and above as the most “morally right.” This finding extended from people’s third-party moral judgments of others’ feelings of empathy (Experiment 1) to first-person moral judgments of their own feelings of empathy (Experiment 2).
  • People’s moral beliefs are aligned with feeling empathy for everyone equally, and that the bias that is sometimes observed in empathy is not evidence of a bias in people’s moral beliefs generally.
  • While we sometimes feel empathy in a biased way, our moral preference is to feel equal empathy for others’ suffering. To the extent that our society seeks to pursue equal concern for all people’s welfare, it seems that empathy shouldn’t be abandoned as fundamentally flawed and biased. On the contrary, the researchers state that empathy may help guide us towards healing the deep divides we face and moving towards a more egalitarian future.

“Regardless of race, nationality or political affiliation, we are all human beings, and we all deserve to be cared for,” said Gaesser. “We have all walked different paths through life, experiencing varied places, people, and cultures, but we all have the same capacities to suffer, to laugh and to love. This research provides empirical evidence that this principle of equality in empathy is not a distant and obscure idea, but rather, that it seems to be is a tenet of our moral beliefs. Even if we may sometimes fall short of truly caring for all people equally, this is what many of our moral compasses are pointing us towards. And knowing which way the compasses point, may be an important first step in helping us navigate towards that direction” concluded Gaesser.

The full paper can be read here.

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