Forthcoming Ethics and International Affairs
Empathy, Respect, and Humanitarian Intervention
This essay explores several moral attitudes that undergird a commitment to humanitarian intervention. By humanitarian intervention, I mean assistance or relief, often in the form of a rescue response by the international community, to such emergencies as natural disasters, systematic human rights violations, or genocides that take place within the borders of sovereign states. But equally, humanitarian intervention can be conceived of as aid before the fact, in the form of prevention, as well as more longer-term commitments to international justice that go beyond the notion of emergency relief. But whether the aid is relief or prevention, or short or long-term, and however it is connected to broader questions of international justice, the same question applies: How do we come to feel the ethical imperative to ally with those outside our borders? If, as Kant puts it, "ought implies can," then what makes the "oughts" of intervention psychologically feasible? Of course, in international affairs the issue is, more typically, whether certain proposed interventions are politically feasible. Do they promote our own national interest? Are they cost effective? Even more practically, will food relief get where it is intended to go? Do the rules of engagement allow us militarily to protect the victims we are trying to help?
Here I cast the net of practical feasibility wider by exploring issues of moral psychology, and in particular, the kinds of moral emotions and attitudes that humanitarianism presupposes and exploits. My argument is based on the notion that moral theory is shaped through and through by psychological capacities, both capacities that we have from the start and those we cultivate. This is no new claim. Aristotle held that human excellence or virtue was a matter of human nature functioning at its best. The Stoics held that virtue was acting from reason in accord (homologia) with nature, in general. Natural law proponents build their theory on claims about human nature, however widely those theories differ (from Hobbes's psychological egoism to Rousseau's claims of natural equality and civility). Perhaps Hume put it most boldly--that moral theory requires marching right up to the "capital of human nature." Even Kant, notorious for his insistence that morality is to be grounded in the noumenal realm of reason we share with gods and angels, holds that a complete theory of human morality will include an empirical moral anthropology--what we would call, a moral psychology. Moreover, Kant acknowledges that among the capacities that allow us to do what we ought are emotions and emotional sensibilities. Thus, in a crucial way, Kant's complete moral theory also depends on a theory of human nature.
Of course, human nature is never fully naked. And every theory, especially those of armchair philosophers, has its preferred way of dressing it. But as contemporary moral philosophers, we need to peer at nature a little more empirically than we have. At the very least, we need to rise out of our armchairs and go to the journals of experimental psychological research. According to current studies in that field, a crucial aspect of our capacities as social creatures is that we can empathize with others. Our most basic capacities for understanding others, for accessing their minds, for identifying with their plight, for resonating with their joy, rest on capacities for empathy and protoempathy (that is, precursors to empathy proper). Adam Smith, astute observer of human nature as he was (albeit from his armchair), put it aptly several centuries earlier: We can "beat time" with others, "trade places in fancy." It is through sympathetic imagination, he observed, that we break out of our selves and our parochialism. Developmental research suggests that the roots of this capacity are part of our biological nature. At a remarkably early age we are able to mimic others' emotional responses and experience them as our own, share the gaze of others in tracking a common object, feel what others are feeling in response to a suspicious object, and so on. With the growth of capacities for imagination, we can see from others' perspectives and appreciate how they feel in their circumstances. Empathy and protoempathy are ways we break out beyond the self and achieve a kind of social intelligence or understanding. If, as research suggests, and I shall come to this research in a moment, empathetic capacities are also important contributors to altruistic behavior, then we would expect to find them undergirding a theory of political humanitarianism.
Yet, at least in terms of the formal discourse of humanitarian intervention, empathy is not a clear player. The emotion or moral attitude we are more likely to hear about is respect, which draws not from Smith's moral philosophy, but from Kant's. Here, what comes to the fore is respect for the dignity of persons, and derivatively, respect for human rights. It is respect that is violated in gross abuses of human rights. It is in order to show proper respect to the needy and ravaged that humanitarian aid may be rendered.
Though discussions of empathy and respect have their source in traditions that bring to bear different sorts of moral considerations, I shall argue for the merits of a hybrid model. My claim is that respect for human dignity cannot be galvanized without empathy-- without a reasonably concrete envisaging of others in their local circumstances. But before turning directly to those two attitudes, I offer a thumbnail history of the notion of cosmopolitanism. Most literally, to be cosmopolitan, means to be a "citizen of the universe." Respect for humanity, I shall argue, emerges from this notion of a global moral commonwealth.
Respect and Cosmopolitanism
Aristotle and the polis
Aristotle's ethical theory displays only the barest glimmer of a cosmopolitan spirit. In Aristotle's view it is friendship, philia, that is the primary sphere of beneficence. We give most excellently or finely when we give to those we know and like. Friendship is the context for developing altruism, but it is also the sphere of its best exercise. It is the sphere of justice as well: "the whole of justice is in relation to a friend." In these remarks, Aristotle might have in mind a rather wide notion of friendship, spread globally. His report of common beliefs about friendship suggests as much: Popular opinion has it that we praise "the lover of humanity [philanthropos]. One might see in travels how every human is familiar to and a friend to another." However, when we turn to Aristotle's theoretical development of friendship, we never really find a defense of the true lover of humanity who can extend beneficence beyond a narrow community. Some of the ancients spoke of extending good will to the "furthest Mysian" -- a catchphrase for proverbial remoteness. But Aristotle does not promote the case. The widest sort of friendship, on his view, is civic friendship. And this has as its borders the polis.
The Stoics and the Kosmopolitês
The story is quite different when we come to the Stoics. They maintain that as a rational agent one belongs to a community of rational agents whose bonds extend beyond accidents of propinquity and political and familial boundaries. Thus, the Stoics, stretching the notion of community beyond the borders of Aristotelian civic philia, establish a new kind of affiliation that extends koinônia (community) to all of humanity in virtue of shared reason. The notion is captured in Diogenes the Cynic's maxim that one is a cosmic (universal) citizen (kosmopolitês), or as the Roman Stoics Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus prefer to say, a politês tou kosmou, literally, a citizen of the cosmos or universe. Marcus, in particular, relies on explicit political imagery to defend his cosmopolitan concepts. Reason constitutes a "law"; we are "citizens" of that law, partakers of a "constitution." The cosmos is itself a "commonwealth"; to run from it is to be an "alien" in the universe (zenos kosmou), a political "exile." "In what other common government," he asks rhetorically, "can we say the whole race of man partakes?" Epictetus, an important source for Marcus, defends his cosmopolitanism primarily through theological assertions of our kinship with god, that we are all children of god and servants intertwined in a community of humans and god through reason. We are parts of a greater, providential whole, and "we would never exercise choice or desire by any other way than by reference to the whole." Of course, it is by no means intuitive that what is good for the whole is good for its parts, nor that ultimately we best understand our shared humanity on the conception that we are parts of some larger whole.
Some of the Stoics tried to cultivate the larger sense of community by instructing individuals to think of themselves as standing in a series of a concentric circles that extended outward to the furthest Mysian, so to speak. In Hierocles's well-known rendition of the motif, we must actively imagine those in the farthest orbits of our lives as connected to us in ways that make them more like those closest to the center: "It is the task of a well-tempered man, in his proper treatment of each group, to draw the circles together somehow towards the centre, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles in to the enclosed ones." As he puts it, we must learn how to respect (timêteon) those from the outer circles as if they were in the inner core. Here the term "respect" enters. In parallel thoughts by Marcus, the explicit idea is that we establish a sense of community with others through empathetic identification: You must "enter into the governing mind of every man and allow every other to enter into you own." In both the Hierocles and Marcus tracts, respect is enlivened through an act of imagination. So Hierocles tells us, you must actively envisage others as closer to you than they actually are. And Marcus urges, you must somehow transport yourself to others, or transport others to you, so that they can be mentally present with you in an active and palpable way. Marcus emphasizes this further by graphically reminding us that we are part of a larger whole and that if we cut ourselves off from that whole, we lose the integrity of our own rational agency:
If you have ever seen a dismembered hand or foot or head cut off, lying somewhere apart from the rest of the trunk, you have an image of what a man makes of himself, so far as in him lies, when he refuses to associate his will with what happens and cuts himself off and does some unneighbourly act. You have somewhat made yourself an outcast from the unity which is according to Nature; for you came into the world as a part and you have cut yourself off.
According to Marcus, since we are already united by shared reason, the formation of a commonwealth of humanity requires, in part, remembering that original alliance: "Whenever you feel something hard to bear, you have forgotten ... the great kinship of man with all mankind, for the bond of kin is not blood nor the seed of life, but mind (nou koinônia). You have forgotten that every individual's mind is of God and has flowed from that other world...."
Kant and the Kingdom of Ends
As we turn to Kant's Enlightenment version of cosmopolitanism, the Stoic sources become quite clear. The Kingdom of Ends is a commonwealth of rational agents, each an end in itself, deserving of respect, in virtue of his or her rational agency. For both Kant and the Stoics, there is a normative aspect to having reason. For to have reason is somehow to be able to access right reasoning, or common law (ho nomos ho koinos), as the Stoics would put it. Of course, Kant breaks radically with the heteronomous elements of the Stoic conception. Our reason is not, Kant will argue, a mere part of some larger whole. It is independent and autonomous with each of us. And the cosmopolitan, ethical commonwealth we are to live in is not one given to us by a divinity, be it Zeus or the Judeo-Christian god, but one we must ourselves construct, through our own moral and political legislation. We are lawmakers, not inheritors of divine law, though the law each of us constructs as individuals is universal, something that could, in principle, be consented to by others. That is what makes it proper law. Still, the idea of a cosmopolitan community based on the capacity for reason is something Kant shares with the Stoics. And too, there seems to be Stoic antecedents for the idea that respect is the attitude due all individuals, good or bad, merely in virtue of their rationality. In Cicero's words in the De Officiis, "We must exercise a respectfullness (reverentia adversus homines) towards men, both towards the best of them and also towards the rest." The Kantian idea that all persons are deserving of respect, merely in virtue of their humanity, however well or ill-developed it may be, is clearly presaged in this Stoic tract.
We can begin to understand the notion of respect by turning to Kant's rather formalized conception of it. Although there are clear problems with his view, its major contours seem to be part of a more generalized popular notion of universal respect for humanity that we share. Respect, or Achtung, according to Kant, is the emotional attitude we feel in response to autonomous rational agents (ourselves and others) who are capable of moral conscience. On the one hand, it is a feeling of submission or reverence to an individual's capacity for autonomous choicemaking and moral legislation. With this comes a pleasurable sense of awe and majesty in appreciating that an individual is able to exercise mastery and freedom. On the other hand, respect has a painful dimension. In the case of self-respect, most notably, there is the frustration of having to curb self-interest and inclination because of the yoke of moral law. This is the sense of being subject to an imperative, to a categorical imperative, or duty. Thus, the feeling of respect betrays some of the conflict from which moral conscience is often borne. What is distinctive about Kant's view (and less an element of our own popularized view) is that respect is not independent of the rational procedures for constructing morality. Respect is the universal emotional response to the fact of our reason, and in particular to the fact that our reason is the legislative source of our morality. Reason constructs norms of morality. And respect, according to Kant, is our affective awareness and record of that.
Positive and Negative Duties
As I have said, the more popularized view of respect most of us rely upon draws on some aspects of this Kantian conception. We respect the dignity of humanity and rights of persons, in the sense that we respect persons as having moral agency and freedom. In virtue of that moral agency and freedom, persons can meaningfully choose lives and need to be protected in that pursuit both from being terrorized by others intent upon making them slaves or political pawns, and from the ravages of natural disasters that threaten to annihilate their agency. Thus, with Kant, we hold that there are positive and negative ways of promoting respect. Negatively, we withhold from violating rights and liberties. Positively, we bolster rational agency when it comes under threat. Within Kant's Groundwork, maxims of beneficence are positive expressions of respecting the rational agency of others. The underlying point is that human rational agents, unlike gods or angels, are not themselves self-sufficient. They need the aid of others to supply the means for fulfilling the ends that they themselves set but cannot alone promote.
Now the respect tradition capitalizes on the impartiality that is often a part of a cosmopolitan view. Respect, according to the Kantian conception, is meant to be an attitude independent of attachment or propinquity. Unlike friendship or parochial attachment, it is far-flung-- universal, attached to personhood rather than personality, evoked merely in terms of humanity rather than the contingent appeal of humanity dressed this way or that. While it is personal, in the sense that it deals with individuals rather than the maximization of welfare of aggregates, (characteristic of its competitor, utilitarianism), it is also impersonal, in the sense of being impartial in its selection and focus. As such, respect is often thought of as a ubiquitous response to fellow persons. It is cool and hands off, present and available to all.
But while this may be so in theory, it is not so in practice. We are selective in our respect, and it is neither automatic nor ubiquitous. And even if we hold that respect reaches out to the dignity of persons and to the basic needs of human beings for survival and decency, to whom we show that respect is a matter of cultivated habit as well as calculated decision. It may be that respect, unlike love, is due all. But as a practical attitude dispensed by individuals with finite resources, we draw our circles more or less wide, with the specific line-drawing more or less justified.
The positive duty of beneficence, according to Kant, is a wide and imperfect duty: it requires at a minimum that we do some beneficent acts, with disagreements about how rigorisitic or latitudinarian (that is, narrow or wide) that assistance ought to be. Analogous issues are raised concerning the extent and scope of humanitarian assistance. I turn to some of these issues in the final section of this paper. The point here is that wherever we end up drawing the lines, it is through the engagement of empathy that we are able actively to mobilize the respect that underlies positive duties of aid. Without mentally entering the circumstances and contexts of others, without some imaginative identification with others in their lives, it is unlikely that we could take seriously their plight, especially when intervention is not obviously a matter of national interest. If respect for human dignity is a part of the humanitarian posture, then it must be thickened with, and made operational through, empathy.
The actual term empathy is of relatively new coinage, though the general idea was certainly present in Adam Smith's and David Hume's 18th Century notion of sympathy. Smith's view in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is that a motive of practical concern, as well as a capacity for moral evaluation, depends upon understanding others' circumstances. And this requires the epistemic capacity to "trade places in fancy," "to beat time" with their hearts, to bring the case home "to one's own bosom". The imaginative act takes center stage in Smith's account. Hume opts for a less cognitive, more affective notion. As he puts it in A Treatise of Human Nature, to feel the sympathy requisite for a motive of practical concern requires a vicarious arousal, an affective contagion, as if one were attached by a chord to others, and vibrations at one end caused actual perturbations at the other. In this essay, I follow Smith's lead in emphasizing the cognitive and imaginative components of empathy though I do not deny that imaginative role taking in the absence of vicarious arousal is unlikely to be sufficient for a full empathetic response.
It was only in the late 19th Century that the actual term "empathy" came into its own. The experimental psychologist Edward Titchener, drawing on the work of the German psychologist Walter Lipps, coined the term "empathy" (from the Greek, empatheia, meaning "in the same emotion") as a translation of Lipps' notion of Einfühlung, literally, to feel one's way into another. The core idea in Lipps and Titchener is that of "resonating" with one another, which often involves role taking, inner imitation, and a projection of self into the objects of perception. Titchener puts it this way:
We have a natural tendency to feel ourselves into what we perceive or imagine. As we read about the forest, we may, as it were, become the explorer; we feel for ourselves the gloom, the silence, the humidity, the oppression, the sense of lurking danger; everything is strange, but it is to us that strange experience has come.... This tendency to feel oneself into a situation is called EMPATHY;--on the analogy of sympathy, which is feeling together with another; and empathic ideas are psychologically interesting because they are the converse of perceptions; their core is imaginal , and their context is made of sensations, the kinaesthetic and organic sensations that carry the empathic meaning. Like the feeling of strangeness, they are characteristic of imagination. In memory, their place is taken by the imitative experiences which repeat over again certain phases of the original situations.
A precursor of this sort of imaginative transport is motor mimicry. Here, it is not so much the mind's muscle that imitates, but our actual body movements. So Smith observes, in watching a tightrope act, we tend to sway with the body motions of the acrobat, or when we see someone suffer a blow on their leg or arm, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or arm (48). Similarly, psychologists have observed that neonates, barely a few days old, imitate the crying of the same aged neonate, selectively dispreferring the cries of those that are slightly older or younger. What the research suggests, as I outline elsewhere at greater length, is that we are biologically primed toward taking the view of another. We do it spontaneously, and early on, through acts of motor mimicry. But we also do it early on in other ways, through tracking a shared object of attention with another. That is, a young child, as early as 4 months, triangulates, as it were-- moving from her own eyes to the eyes of a parent to the target of her parent's focus, so that the same target object can be visually shared. But also, the child will reverse the pattern, move from a target object to a parent's gaze and facial reaction, then back to the object, in order to know how to assess a new and possibly dangerous entity on the horizon. If the parent has a smile on her face, then the child understands that the object is not a cause for concern. A scowl will alert the child to possible danger ahead and the child will avoid the object. But very young children also covocalize with adults, engaging in games of cooing that pick up on a parent's tone and modulation as well as establish other forms of synchrony and mutual attunement with cared for adults.
Role Playing and Knowing other Minds
Work on empathy by developmental psychologists has spilled over into the philosophy of mind, with some theorists now suggesting that the way a child begins to understand another's mind, and in general the beliefs and desires of others, is by acts of empathetic imagination. So, consider the following celebrated experiment by Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner in which a group of children are shown a puppet show. Maxi the puppet and mommy are in the house. There is candy in a candy box. Maxi goes out to play, and while he is out, Mommy takes the candy out of the box and puts it in the cabinet. Maxi returns. The children in the audience are asked, "where will Maxi look for the candy?"
Now what the experimenters found is that while most three-year- olds say Maxi will look in the cabinet, five-year-olds consistently give the response characteristic of adults, that he will look where he last left the candy--namely, in the candy box. How do we explain the difference in answers? Here are two possibilities offered by philosophers of mind. According to one view of the folk psychology of the child (that is, the conceptual repertoire relied on to explain, predict, and describe the actions of another), three-year-olds do not yet have a mature concept of belief. Without possessing that concept they can't distinguish where Maxi thinks the candy is from where they as observers know it to be. As some have further elaborated, a three-year-old's knowledge is nonrepresentational. What the child believes is what is actually the case. The core idea is that "belief contents directly reflect the world." And it is only when the child is four or five, according to this account, that she comes to acquire a more full-blown concept of belief as having a representational content that can come unstuck from its reference. Once this new theory is an implicit part of her repertoire, the child can understand how belief operates with desire and certain inductively established laws. This accounts for her newly achieved success in explaining Maxi's behavior. The empathy model we have been elaborating gives a different account. What three-year-olds lack and five-year-olds have is simply put, imaginative flexibility. The five-year-olds can put themselves in someone else's shoes. In figuring out others' behavior, they can leave behind the egocentric point of view. The three-year-olds cannot. They have not yet mastered the skill of role playing.
If a mark of a plausible folk psychology heuristic is that it captures the phenomenology, then the empathy model seems to have the upper hand over the competing theory that holds that understanding other minds requires having an incipient theory about the nature of belief and desire. It is unlikely that even five-year-olds have a budding philosopher's sense of these concepts, or an understanding of the laws or generalizations required to explain various outputs of behavior on this model. Even if it is argued that this understanding need only be implicit or procedural, it still seems that what is procedural is a philosopher's theory read back onto cognitive development! What seems more plausible developmentally is simply that three-year-olds, unlike five-year-olds, cannot yet prevent their own view of things from leaking into a view of what someone else sees or thinks. Five-year-olds can experience another viewpoint imaginatively without losing their own perspective on events.
This developmental transition is important because it marks the milestone at which we break out of our egocentric worlds, and begin to see, in a substantive way, through others' eyes. This is a moment of stepping deeper into the social world, but also into the moral and political world. We understand others' lives and what others experience because of our capacities to simulate and "become," as it were, other people. Within a plausible account of our psychologies, simulation of this sort is the very basis of our ability to know other minds. It is basic to third person ascription of beliefs and desires.
The Moral Dimension of Role Playing
Empathy or imaginative simulation is a basic feature of our occupying a social world, however extended that world may be. It is part of the psychological apparatus we rely upon in coming to feel membership in an international moral community. Arguably, effective simulation is more difficult the more remote and alien the culture and circumstances another occupies. How do we become character actors in a world we have never lived in or tasted? For example, how do we (who live relatively affluent and politically stable forms of life) know what it is like to make the trek from Rwanda to Zaire and from Zaire (now the Congo) back to Rwanda with starving children at our sides and a husband and son slain by ethnic rivals who now live across the street from the house we once lived in and will reoccupy? How do we know what it is like to experience devastating starvation, as in Somalia, or more recently North Korea? Yet in some cases, the remoteness of the culture or the improbability of our living through such genocides or famines may not weigh all that heavily against understanding the shared dimensions of human suffering and loss. Scenes of the helpless and so obviously innocent, of starving and orphaned children, may transcend parochial borders; we may understand the dramatic script without much explicit rehearsal. The simulation, or act of empathetic imagination, may be fairly automatic, fairly procedural. We may experience a sense of "there but for fortune," a response that underscores our shared humanity.
In other cases, threats to human dignity may be harder to simulate. And we may have to find mediating steps that bridge between an alien world and our own, so that identificatory mechanisms can be established. So, some have argued, the threat of rape many women live in fear of, or the prospect of female genital mutilation may require a sensitivity to women's vulnerabilities that many men may not easily come by, short of education and consciousness raising. In such cases, empathy may require working through experiences closer to home. Beating time with another's heart may require an analogical inference that brings the experience home to one's own breast first. Even a response to genocide may sometimes work though suffering closer to home, through a reminder of the fate of one's own ancestors, perhaps of the ghettos of Warsaw and Kovno and the slaughterhouses of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. But ultimately we want to move from ourselves and our sphere of experience to what it is like for another, in their shoes, in their circumstances.
In all this, of course, our private imaginations are fed by public images and narratives. Journalism itself was changed by the pioneers of photojournalism --those like Chim (David Seymour), Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Magnum group covering the Spanish Civil War, World Wars I and II, Unicef relief work with children and so on. They captured narratives, faces and movements that allowed viewers to enter into lives and to understand them close-up, in the detail of their pain and joy. This is what CNN has come to know all too well. (So it has been argued, with some plausibility, that differential responses on the part of theUnited States to Somalia and Rwanda may have been the partial result of where the camera happened to go.) This raises large issues, beyond the scope of this paper, about the influences of media on the shaping of foreign policy, and more generally, about a conception of morally responsible journalism. Equally, it raises issues regarding the responsibility of a democratic citizenry to be critical rather than passive consumers of the media and its manipulation.
The discourse of the respect tradition, with its focus on an attitude due everyone merely in virtue of personhood, does not lend itself to a focus on the sort of details and images that it is journalism's business (and empathy's business) to capture. And while, in the case of intervention, it is violations of respect that we respond to, these are far from faceless or general. Even if the rights and personhood of individuals are abstract notions, how individuals are allowed (or not) to be persons, how they are oppressed, tortured, starved, or forced from their homelands, is something that we transport ourselves to through concrete images. We visualize and simulate in a way analogous to what literary readers do, and as Aristotle knew, spectators at dramatic tragedy do-- tracking the concrete events of the narrative, with an internal enactment lively enough to stimulate (in the case of tragedy) the identificatory emotions of cathartic pity and fear.
The general point is that we record the circumstances that undo human dignity through an emotional palette broader than respect. Sympathy, compassion, pity, horror, disgust, fear are all called into play. Emotions such as these allow us to register, and, more painfully, be confronted by, the horrors. Elsewhere, I have discussed the important role emotions such as these play in tracking moral salience. They bring us the morally relevant news that a disengaged intellect or eye simply could not. Often they rivet, force us to remember what a cooler intellect barely notices. But perhaps even more basic than these emotions is the emotional and cognitive capacity to enter another's world sufficiently to identify with that person so that other emotions, such as compassion or pity, have a chance to grab hold. This is what empathy enables us to do. Through an act of imagination and simulation we appreciate, however fleetingly, something of what another experiences, sees, fears, and hopes for. We recenter ourselves on another, seeing from their eyes. I am suggesting that this may be a conceptually, and in some cases, temporally prior moment to feeling other emotions, such as pity and compassion, as well as respect.
Research on Empathetic Arousal and Altruism
The research program of Coke and Batson corroborates an important related point. Their experiments suggest that taking the perspective of another person increases empathic arousal, which in turn increases helping on occasions where there are opportunities to help. More specifically, two groups of students were asked to listen to a broadcast of a college senior who lost her parents in a tragic automobile accident. Prior to listening, one group was asked to "imagine how she felt about her situation", while others were told to attend in an objective way to technical aspects of the broadcast. The results, according to prediction, were that subjects in the "imagine" condition experienced vicarious emotion and that when asked to help, they offered significantly more help than the students who listened as more objective observers. The salient point for our study is simply that empathy predisposes us to sympathy. I have been arguing for the plausibility of a related point--that empathy predisposes us to active forms of respect and to a responsiveness to violations of respect.
Another study with children confirms the importance of empathy as a way of taking seriously others' plight. A group of six-year-olds are told a story in which a main character has to say goodbye to a friend because the family was moving away. The children are given prior instructions to listen to the stories in one of three ways: to feel with the character, to remain detached, to follow their own preferences. Children who were told to identify 54with the character were able to remember more about the sad episodes of the story than the other children. Some of them later explained that they followed the first set of instructions by pretending the stories were really happening to them. There are important heuristics here for moral education. How we preface narratives or present concrete cases may be relevant to the ease with which our listeners can empathize with the subjects of those stories. Again, the point is not just vivid concreteness in presentation, but simulation on the part of the listener--how it feels to be another person in those circumstances.
Still, studies involving role-inducing manipulations raise questions about the status of a simulational heuristic. Do we routinely and implicitly take up others' roles when we are trying to understand others' behavior and have not been given alternative instructions? Is it our default mode? Or are we likely to engage in empathetic imagination only when explicitly prodded in that direction? I favor a strong thesis in which simulation is a standard mode for understanding others. But further understanding of the interplay between implicit and explicit cognitive processes, paralleling, perhaps, the work that is being done in memory research, would be welcome. In addition, much more needs to be understood about the function of different emotions as rapid communicators of information (for example, we now know that we are especially rapid-rate readers of negative faces) and the link between that informational function of emotions in reading facial cues and altruistic motivation in situations of others' danger or need. Here, work on evolutionary aspects of emotion (e.g., the adaptiveness of emotion as an early communication system with our social survival) will be important, as well as neuroscience studies about the interconnection of deliberative and emotional centers in the brain.
Nature and its Cultivation
The overall force of the arguments in this section is that empathy is rooted in hardwired capacities (e.g., motor mimicries and the like) that become cultivated through the development of imagination. As the experiment with Maxi reveals, at age three our imaginative skills take us little beyond our own case and how we, in fact, see things. By age five, we have secured the difference between self and others in such a way that we can see from another's point of view, refocusing on a self that is not our own. The empathy required for assistance to peoples unrelated by affinity or propinquity represents an analogous moving of the circle outward. We come to imagine eviction from our homeland, devastating famine, children languishing because breasts have dried up or a water supply has become poisoned. We see the particulars of others' circumstances with a vividness of being them in their shoes. If enactment is part of the very process of knowing what others are thinking and feeling, if it is part of the very ability to know other minds, then enactment too is part of appreciating a foreign people's plight; it is a becoming of them for a moment.
Empathy must be cultivated in order to reach its full potential. In cases where distance, or ethnic or racial prejudice erect barriers to our grasping the common thread of human suffering, then we are morally required to make corrective adjustments, just as Hume and Smith stipulated in their construction of ideal, moral spectators. Empathy, untutored, cannot do proper moral work.
Objections to extending the model
The psychological research on empathy and altruism focuses on the personal sphere. The findings are that we are more likely to be moved to help, when helping occasions arise, if we have first empathized with the victim. Humanitarian assistance, however, is not personal beneficence, but the work of nations, of peoples with regard to other peoples. If it is beneficence, it is collective beneficence. If it is a response from the perspective of justice to abuses of rights, it is so at the collective level. Yet some have argued, perhaps most vocally Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society, that altruism in the personal sphere does not readily transfer to the conduct of groups, and in particular, to the conduct of one nation state toward another. It is worth briefly considering his remarks.
In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.
Patriotism is a high form of altruism, when compared with lesser and more parochial loyalties; but from an absolute perspective it is simply another form of selfishness. The larger the group the more certainly will it express itself selfishly in the total human community...Try as he will man seems incapable of forming an international community, with power and prestige great enough to bring social restraint upon collective egoism.
The familiar enough claim is that within the international community, states are essentially Hobbesian agents, that is, motivated by collective rational self-interest, however non-Hobbesian they may be when turned inward, or however altruistic individuals within that state may be when focused on compatriots. Morality degenerates, Niebuhr suggests, as the group gets larger. In the case of the global community, the degeneration is most pronounced. We lack the psychological capacity to transcend ourselves, to identify with a larger group, "to comprehend," or as I have put it, to empathize with the suffering of those outside our domestic borders.
The supplementary point can be made from the perspective of international relations theory that the political state, traditionally conceived, has as its primary focus national interest. The extension of moral law beyond the political state to the international community requires a reconception of the traditional rights of a political state to internal autonomy. Equally, it requires a reconception of the traditional right to wage war for a "just" cause, where this might include expansionist aims to convert other states to one's religion, acquire territory, or increase economic strength.
We can respond to the supplementary claim rather quickly. Since World War II, international law has paved the way toward a conception of the political state as more firmly planted within an international community. As formulated by Michael Walzer's legalist doctrine, just causes for war tend to be restricted to self-defense (and defense of allies) against aggression, with the rights of internal sovereignty themselves limited in the case of gross violations of human rights. So a conception of humanitarian assistance that presupposes a notion of an international moral community is in accord with actual shifts in how international law is presently understood.
But what of Niebuhr's more central claim that there are strong psychological counterpulls that limit extending altruism or justice beyond national borders? In the terms we have been pursuing, is empathy necessarily parochial, and especially so when we act collectively, as a collective agent such as a state? This is a large question for the limited scope of this essay. In concluding, I want merely to suggest how we might begin to construct some lines of response.
Empathy as a Moral Mandate
The force of my earlier remarks is that empathy is not bounded in its application to what is near and dear, be it family rather than stranger or co-patriot rather than foreigner. Empathy is, in large measure, a cognitive capacity, whereby we imagine ourselves as others, imagine their circumstances and attitudes, enact, however fleetingly, what it would be like to be them in their world. Familiarity makes for ease of empathy, and indeed studies confirm Hume and Smith's assumption that we empathize more with those whom we perceive as close or similar to us than we do with strangers. Is this a fatal flaw in moral theories that look to empathy for escaping the egocentric perspective? In the end, do we merely trade egocentrism for ethnocentrism, nationalism, or the like? I would strongly argue no. To the extent that we have information that allows us access into others' lives--for example, photographs, art work, journals, oral testimony, etc., --we have at hand the sort of material that empathy requires to do its work. We regularly enter lives remote from own through literature and drama, as well as through journalistic narratives. Moreover, if altruism, collective or personal, is in fact primed by empathy, as the research suggests, then it would seem we have derivative moral duties to cultivate the imaginative skills that underlie a capacity for non-parochial empathy.
The general point is that our natural abilities are always stretched and curbed in various ways, and indeed must be, as a part of the mandate of morality. "Ought implies can." This is consistent with a moral requirement describing people as they might be and could be, but not always as they are. Analogous remarks hold regarding the responsibility of collective agents. What states ought to do with regard to the international community is not divorced from the will and sentiment of the public. But the public can be described not simply as it is, but as it might be and could be.
I have assumed from the start a humanitarian impulse, however weak or strong it may be, and have explored selective features of the moral psychology that underpins it. To what degree are we moved by respect for fellow persons, do what degree are we moved by empathy? How are these concepts connected? In what sense does a humanitarian spirit require that we cultivate both moral attitudes as part of a more general moral sensibility? Many of us live by the conviction that individuals deserve the chance to lead lives in which they experience self-respect and dignity. Humanitarian aid in response to grave need and political injustice is a manifestation of that conviction. My point has been that we would not mobilize that respect for persons if we did not transport ourselves to others and their circumstances through empathy.
Visiting Distinguished Chair of Ethics, U.S. Naval Academy
Professor of Philosophy, Georgetown University