the seeds of my ethical theory—the ethics of empathy

Consider the following moral dilemma:
You are at your best friend’s wedding just an hour before the ceremony is to start. Earlier that day, you came across definitive proof that your best friend’s spouse-to-be is having an affair with the best man/maid of honor, and you catch them sneaking out of a room together looking disheveled. If you tell your friend about the affair, their day will be ruined, but you don’t want them to marry a cheater. What do you do? (x)

In this situation, it is important to be fully understanding of each individual relevant in the matter. What you say to or do with each participating individual must be fully reasoned and thought out. Although I have personal obligations to my best friend—and am perhaps obligated to better consider my friend’s emotions and values—I must also take into full consideration the emotions and values of the cheater. For how would I be solving anything if I were biased to the extent that all I seek to do is maintain our friendship? Precisely because I care for my friend, I ought to take other factors into consideration.

For instance, I must ask, why does the cheater cheat? Perhaps, when I find the root of the conflict, I realize that it was not the cheater at fault; rather, it was my friend who had prompted the action. And when I realize that the fault rested more on the collective emotions and beliefs of my friend (rather than those of the cheater), I must then take this into significant consideration when deciding on what to do in the matter.

Fault, further, must be attributed to a certain aspect of my friend’s character. If I find that the fault belonging to my friend, and which has caused the cheater to cheat, may be detrimental to my friend in the long run, I must take action to remedy it. Even if it requires acquitting myself to some cruelties. Even if it requires telling her of the atrocity done to my friend by the cheater, given that doing so is the best course of action to take. But in seeking to remedy it, I must again be considerate and caring in my manner of doing so. For if my friend sees that I am lecturing her, and she has been offended from me doing so, my attempts to remedy anything become fruitless. This is where empathy plays a critical role. What sort of countenance must I adapt in order to persuade my friend towards bettering her character, and directing her more towards the good?

Additionally, I must take into consideration the limitations of my own powers and ability to control the situation myself. How much control, if any, do I have in directing any participating and relevant individuals towards the ideal outcome? Because I have such limitations, I ought to realize the extent of my abilities. The extent of my abilities therefore determine the extent to which I have the obligation to take action. If a situation in which all action I take are ultimately fruitless (though unlikely, as often most actions we take have some morally significant effect on at least one individual relevant to any moral dilemma), I ought, morally, to care, but I ought not to feel obligated to take any action.

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