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.
28 thoughts on “Empathy Is Such a Stupid Basis For Morality”
Of course, there’s the aspect of taking actions based on “empathy” with extremely poor understanding of the other person’s problems.
The actions taking likely will make the other person’s problems worse while loading down the other person with more problems.
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People with Cluster B type personality disorders exploit empathy all the time. And disabled people without social graces get none.
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The fact that a generally good thing like empathy can sometimes have harmful consequences isn’t an argument against empathy, although it is evidence against us being created of a perfect God.
Empathy isn’t a complete basis for morality, but it’s a far better basis than appealing to the alleged opinions of an alleged God, the existence of which can’t even be demonstrated. It’s not as if Christians (and other theists) can agree about what what their God thinks is moral anyway. Starting with the Bible’s slavery, genocidal wars, and execution of people for picking up sticks on a ‘holy’ day, It’s not surprising.
Nah. Partiality is the opposite of moral, and empathy is always erupting into partiality.
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Partiality literally isn’t the opposite of moral, but if you’re concerned about it, you’re not going to fix it with theism, on which there is and always has been a complete lack of agreement. You can’t start with ‘God’s chosen people’ and get to ‘impartial’.
Funny then that they do better than the empathy people.
How do you work that out? Christians have always held back moral progress. As an example, slavery wasn’t abolished until over 1,800 years after Jesus’s time, and even then it was mostly secularists and quakers who achieved it, while mainstream Churches opposed abolition and quoted from the Bible in defence of slavery. Women’s rights and gay rights were also opposed by the Church.
It still exists, exactly where the Christians have not been able to stop it. And it lasted for four millennia before then. And secularists had nothing to do with it.
It isn’t an achievement of *Christianity* if a few highly atypical individual Christians in concert with freethinkers do something which mainstream Christian churches oppose. When Christianity had the most influence over society, especially during the Dark Ages, it did nothing to stop slavery. Popes owned slave ships. Bishops owned slaves. Slave owners read to slaves from the Bible to justify their captivity.
And you said nothing about women’s rights and gay rights, which Christianity clearly opposes, even if many individual Christians do not. Similar thoughts apply to trans rights.
Your freethinkers did a lot less and the Christians a lot more than you claim.
Furthermore, people who held to the ethic that you assert was superior were, in fact, a drag. Abolitionists were continually dragging up slaves who looked white even though their opponents could justly point out how rare they were because your superior people did not care otherwise.
As for the other two, you are too vague.
(Reply to Mary)
You can’t support slavery for 1,800 years then claim responsibility for abolishing it. Mainstream Christian churches have been (or still are) against women’s rights, abortion, divorce, bodily autonomy, sex before marriage, gay marriage, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, secular government and democracy, contraception, gay rights, trans rights, science which contradicts church teachings, freedom of religion, freedom of education, equality under the law, sunday trading, and abolition of the death penalty. They’ve even stopped people reading the Bible!
Neither can YOU. Your double standard is perfectly typical of the depravity of empathy based morality.
“Neither can YOU.”
Sure I can. The Bible supports slavery, so it must have been other factors – such as empathy – that resulted in the abolition of slavery. And if you think “empathy based morality” is “depraved”, then I feel sorry for you.
Don’t talk nonsense. I have already shown that empathy was a positive hindrance. And you have not shown a shred of evidence for it.
Given that you have literally complained that my side does not value the feelings of rapists over the rights of their intended victims, your feelings sorry for me is silly.
And if you think you do not value the feelings of rapists over the rights of their intended victims, your ignorance is demonstrating the evils of empathy in itself.
You shouldn’t use the word ‘literally’ then accuse me of saying something which I literally didn’t say. That is a form of lying, which is a sin under Christianity.
Empathy does not lead us to value the feelings of rapists over those of their victims, so that is nonsense. Empathy almost always leads us to side with victims over aggressors. Ironically, under the free will defence of the problem of evil, God apparently values the free will of rapists (and slave-owners) over that of their victims.
There are people who lack empathy: psychopaths. I would rather not base morality on the opinions of psychopaths, or the authors of a book which advocates for genocide, rape, and slavery.
Incidentally, how do you know that slavery is wrong?
We have all watched people scream about lack of empathy for refusing to allow rapists access to women’s restrooms and other private places. It’s too late to deny it.
You are arguing for a position that puts the feelings of rapists over the rights of their victims. Your denial of the fact shows a further lack of empathy. This sort of lack is INEVITABLE in your ethic, because empathy is never general.
You are putting words in my mouth again, which is a form of lying. I never argued for any such position. It is obviously invalid to pit empathy for one person against the rights of another. Empathy would side with the rapist’s victim, and so would rights, so your claim here is nonsensical anyway.
By the way, human rights are another concept for which we can thank secular morality, not Christianity.
As for rapists being allowed in women’s restrooms, that is irrelevant whataboutery on your part, and I think you’ll find that public women’s restrooms aren’t locked, so rapists can already go in them.
I’m still wondering how you decided that slavery is wrong when your God never says so?
And now you are literally arguing MY position. I am the one who said that empathy was evil for EXACTLY THAT REASON, and you argued against it.
This displays your own lack of empathy.
I haven’t argued that empathy is evil. You have never explained why you think Christianity is a better basis for morality than empathy. And you still haven’t explained how you decided slavery is wrong when your God never says so.
Yes you did. You said that you must not put empathy above rights, which shows you know it is evil to do so.
You have also said empathy is superior because it protects transrights, which are the literal argument for the case you now claim empathy should lose.
“Yes you did. You said that you must not put empathy above rights, which shows you know it is evil to do so.”
No. I said it was invalid to compare the rights of one person against empathy for the other. It would be valid to use the same moral framework to judge both people. And as I said, both empthy and human rights would side with the rapist’s victim, not the rapist.
“You have also said empathy is superior because it protects transrights, which are the literal argument for the case you now claim empathy should lose.
Being in favour of transrights does not mean being in favour of rape. Why do you insist on arguing in such a disengenuous way?
You assert a lie. There are certainly people whose empathy sides with the rapists; I have seen them with my own eyes. Only by bringing a different framework can you work out whose empathy is right.
The person being disingenuous here is YOU. Rapists have literally gotten access to women to rape by calling on transrights. Proclaiming they do not support them when in every concrete case, those who argue for them do is nonsense.
Being in favour of the right of transwomen to use women’s restrooms is not being in favour of rape, any more than being in favour of marriage is being in favour of rape because some rapes happen within marriages. To accuse me and others of being in favour of rape on such grounds is a false accusation on your part and you should be ashamed of yourself. You’re a terrible advertisment for your religion’s ethical standards.
On the general question of how to solve disagreements about morality, you’re not going to solve that problem by appealing to God’s morality, as there isn’t any agreement amongst Christians as to what it is. Christians disagree about abortion, capital punishment, LGBT rights, and almost everything else.
You exemplify the very problem I cite.
But the Bible doesn’t clearly endorse slavery. If anything, it ultimately rejects it, or at least provides the basis for doing so.
Exodus 21:7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.”
1 Peter 2:18 “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.”