If you’ve spent more than a few minutes arguing with atheists on the internet, the subject of how they justify morality will have come up and they will have tried to justify it by saying that “they have empathy”. Usually, though not always, in very self-satisfied tones. It is curious that they are oblivious to how stupid this is. And not just in one way.
The first problem, of course, is that empathy doesn’t inevitably lead to treating people well. It’s very easy to lie to people because one doesn’t want them to suffer, to give too much candy to a child because you can’t bear to hear them cry, to give alcohol to an alcoholic because he feels miserable without it, etc. Empathy also provides no check against suffering that cannot be seen. It’s hard to shoot a man standing in front of you, and not so hard to shoot him when he’s 200 yards away, and not nearly as hard when he’s inside of a building that you’re bombing. It can be downright easy when it’s giving orders to people who don’t feel empathy to execute people in a camp hundreds of miles away.
For that matter, empathy can even lead to being cruel; if two people’s needs conflict and one feels more empathy for one person than another, that empathy can lead one to harm the other for the sake of the one more empathized with. Parents are notorious for being willing to go to great lengths for the sake of their children, even to the point of doing all sorts of immoral things to spare their children far less suffering than the harm they cause to spare it. I can testify to the temptation. If I were to consult only my feelings and not my principles, there’s no limit to the number of people I would kill for the sake of my children.
Which brings us to another problem: empathy is merely a feeling. To claim that the basis of morality is empathy is to claim that the basis of morality is a feeling. In other words, “morality is based on empathy” means “do what you feel like.” That’s not morality, that’s the absence of morality. Moreover, human beings demonstrably feel like doing bad things to each other quite often.
(Unless, of course, the atheist is trying to claim that one should privilege the feeling of empathy over feelings experienced more strongly at the time, in which case there would need to be some rational argument given, not based in empathy, for why it should be thus privileged. But if one were to try this, one would run into a sort of Euthyphro dilemma—if empathy is good because it conforms to the good, then it is not the source of goodness, and it is a distraction to talk about it; if good is good because it conforms to empathy, then to call empathy good is merely to say that it is empathy, and there is no rational basis for preferring it to other feelings.)
The fact that people feel like doing bad things to each other really gets to the heart of the problem for the atheist. It’s all very well for the atheist to say “I prefer to harm no one.” He can have no real answer to someone else replying, “but I do.” Indeed, he has no answer. If you ever suggest such a thing, the atheist merely shrieks and yells and tries to shout down the existence of such a thing. His ultimate recourse is to law, of course, which means to violence, for law is the codified application of violence by people specially charged with carrying that violence out.
(It’s hardly possible to arrest someone, try, convict, and imprison them all without at least the threat of force from the police; if you don’t think so try the following experiment: construct a medium sized steel box (with windows), walk up to some random person while manifestly carrying no weapons, and say “In my own name I arrest you and sentence you twenty years inside of my steel box. Now come along and get in. I will not force you, but I warn you that if you do not comply I shall tell you to get in again.” Do this twenty or thirty times and count how many of them the person comes along and gets in.)
Of course, when the atheist appeals to the laws which enforce his preferred morality, we may ask where his empathy for the transgressor is. Where is his empathy for all of the people in prison? It must be a terrible feeling to be arrested by the police; where is the atheist’s empathy for them?
If you go looking for it, you will find that the atheist’s empathy is often in short supply, though he credits himself in full.