Ethics of Empathy

Morality, in truth, is bound to the subjective nature of mankind. Morality in itself, however, is not subjective; rather, it is objective in the sense that there is the absolute best thing to do (and the best outcome) in every moral situation. Only that this kind of absolute objectivity cannot be possessed by anyone, rendering the ability to act in accordance with it terribly difficult—the occasion of such an event more often than not (if not always) an accident. For this reason, morality easily becomes confused as being subjective, as mankind in their different ideas and different factions find dissenting reasoning in an attempt to arrive at this objectivity. And through this process, different individuals find varying paths and ends that stray from absolute objectivity. These accidents of arriving at objectivity though, become less of an accident with use of greater reason. Reason that, because it is bound only to mankind and mankind’s limitations, inevitably becomes just as limited. Especially when emotions are involved—which is preferable, actually. Objectivity certainly should be aimed for, but no one should want to possess it. No longer would we be qualified to be a human being, as reaching absolute objectivity would in fact strip us of our human qualities. From all this, I arrive at a principle of morality that possesses intrinsic value both in theory and in practice:

Do as to promote greater, more permanent, emotional well-being amongst all morally relevant individuals, placing ample significance to that of oneself’s.

Self, and Self-Empathy

Unlike the dominant ethical theories rested in logic and rationality, which completely separate themselves from the Self and its emotions, such a theory places great significance to the Self. The Self is what is required to be understood by the agent to better understand everything outside of the Self, such as other morally relevant persons, as well as everything in relation to it. For how can the agent even make an estimable attempt to understand anything external when it does not even possess an ample understanding of the fundamental workings of a most basic unit that exists and comprises of all that is within himself? How can one make an attempt to understand the physical world without knowledge of the fundamental properties and workings of an atom? Define human relationships only in terms of morality, and what results is a matrix consisted of subjects and emotions possessed by these subjects. This taken in its entirety becomes too much of random and overwhelming nonsense, until the agent gains an ample understanding of the Self. And in doing so, the agent is better able to give consistency to what originally appeared to be nonsense. The nonsense that is the various components of the matrix, of subjects and their emotions, which are better linked with each other. Only from an initial, empathetic, understanding of the Self can the agent more clearly perceive these links. From a more clear perception of the entire web of morality, then, we gain a better sense for it, for the idea, and for its properties, consequently approaching objectivity.

As the Self, or the moral agent, I must first understand the limitations of my own abilities and potential to make a favorable difference in any dilemma; and alternatively, the potentiality of my abilities to make a regressive or detrimental difference. I must realize the extent of my abilities, from which I can then understand that I have no moral obligations to act beyond the extent of my abilities. That is, I have no moral obligations to act when it is futile to do so. On the other hand, when presented with a moral dilemma in which it is fully within my capabilities as well as my understanding to make reasonable decisions and take rational action—all of my particular talents and abilities considered—I then ought, morally, to take action. Specifically, to take the best course of action arrived at through careful reasoning, from best available information.

Emotional Well-Being

To better understand the principle—do as to promote greater, more permanent, emotional well-being amongst all morally relevant individuals, placing ample significance to that of oneself’s—we also look into what exactly “permanent emotional well-being” means. Given: as the self acting on any moral dilemma, one must act as to bring about an outcome where everyone involved is the most emotionally well-off. But not just more emotionally well-off for only a short amount of time. We do not create a temporary remedy, but a more permanent healing, or at least a more permanent avoidance of injury to the self. This state of being directly correlates to virtues, where any virtue refers to “a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor . . . concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities” (link). To be virtuous is an accumulation of several virtues, “to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset.” The more virtuous, the more emotionally well off; the less virtuous, the less emotionally well off. Thus, the agent must bring about an outcome that guides all morally relevant persons towards this state of being, and, if unable, that directs them away from an unvirtuous state of being. For instance, by lying to that man from the party, unreasonably enraged at your friendwho is hiding in your housefor dancing with his girlfriend, asking you for your friend’s whereabouts. Had he been allowed to injure anyone, he would have been led to an unvirtuous state of being.

Impossibility of Objectivity

But how do we arrive at figuring out the best course of action? If the best course of action is the action that would bring about “greater, more permanent, emotional well-being amongst all morally relevant individuals,” then we must seek to be so open-minded as to emotionally understand all morally relevant individuals as deeply as we can. By understanding the causal effects that emotions have on each individual (focusing more on the long-term emotional effects), and the intricate matrix constituted of the collective emotions of every relevant individual creates in any moral situation, we then establish an inherent logic embedded into the ethics of empathy. Admittedly, it is a logic founded on an impossible concept, as it requires the moral agent to have a deep and total understanding of all emotional makeups of all morally relevant individuals. The moral agent does not even have a full understanding of the Self, let alone anyone else’s. Indeed, being able to have full understanding is impossible, rendering the ethics of empathy fundamentally flawed. But it is an inherent flaw that we must come to fully accept; we are only mortal after all. We do our best to understand more; particularly, the emotions of others and ourselves.

It then follows, from this flaw, that we are more often unable to arrive at the best possible course of action because the reliability of our emotions is imperfect. To arrive at the best outcome is to have full and utter knowledge of all contributing emotions, which is impossible. Most if not all of the decisions we make inevitably lack a complete understanding. There are always parts of any problem that we simply cannot know. We will never fully understand what brought someone to cheat on their spouse, for we have not lived through their experiences and emotions. We do not know the entire chain of emotionally relevant events that prompted the person to cheat. But we must endeavor to know the most that we can so that we ourselves can arrive at the best possible course of action. So then, a consequence of the ethics of empathy is that it does not truly ask what the right thing to do is; rather, what the best thing to do is, given what we know, and given that we possess enough knowledge to act.

I do not mean to say that the ethics of empathy is limited to a short-reaching scope that involves only those individuals that are immediately available to us, although it does give much weight to the more immediate relationships that we have. Only that we have no real moral obligation to act outside of what we know; that is, outside of our emotional comprehension. For if we enter into a realm where everything does not have meaning to us, we may attempt to do what is right, but mere attempts aren’t enough as they don’t direct to the definitive right. We are thus not obligated to act when we can only barely comprehend our actions and their effects in situations we do not understand. We are not obligated in the sense that we cannot be blamed for whatever course of action we take. We may, however, be blamed for our ignorance; but we cannot be blamed for committing wrong, as the wrong that was committed was not even fully comprehended by the one who committed the wrong. Wrong is only wrong when it is intentionally wrong.

This is not to say that we have no moral obligation to understand those beyond our immediate community. Rather, seeking to understand more about others and humanity at large is the very basis and motive of the ethics of empathy. Thus, to the empathetic ethicist, the more championed individual is the one who has a deeper understanding of humanity and the emotions that dictate humanity—whether they be the emotions of a close individual, or the emotions of a distant individual.

However, there comes a point where knowledge becomes too much, and too overwhelming for the agent. That is, eventually, too much knowledge might strip the agent of subjectivity and subjective emotion. He may lose his affinity towards those that are closer to him, in light of immense knowledge of every other emotionally capable subject, as well as their emotions. By arriving at this level of objectivity, he would not be wrong, for instance, if chooses an outcome that does not favor closer individuals. But it is his own choice whether or not he continues to follow that path—a path that, when arrived at its end, make strangers no longer strangers, and close ones just as significant as these strangers.

The Greater Prestige of the Emotionally Realized Person Over the Virtuous Person

I must outline the difference between the more emotionally realized person, and the more virtuous person. The one that is more virtuous acts within limited comprehension of emotions. The virtuous, in other words, may do what they think is best, although their reasoning for arriving at such conclusions may have been through more faulty emotional reasoning. But they have done what is best nonetheless, and so they have acted virtuously. It is virtuous because it is intentionally virtuous, though it involves only a lacking degree of understanding of all the morally relevant persons. The more emotionally realized person, on the other hand, is one who possesses a deeper understanding of a broader scope of individuals. It is thus better to be a virtuous emotionally realized person than a virtuous emotionally ignorant person. It follows, further, that it is better to continually and actively seek to understand the emotions of everyone around me. For the more I understand, the more able I am to comprehend humanity as a whole, and thus the more able I am to reason out the best courses of actions to take. The more I understand, too, the larger the number of people I am able to help.

Vice of Willing Ignorance

So what then does it mean to be bad, or to do wrong? It is wrong to refuse to understand the consequences of one’s own actions, and go on about acting ignorantly. It is wrong to look back at past decisions, and refuse to analyze the goodness (or badness) of its results so that we can apply it to future circumstances. A bad decision is one that recognizes—or has an inherent insight of—the existence of good and bad, but refuses to understand it, and instead acts from selfish and narrow-minded ignorance. It is a willing refusal to do and be better. More often, people do wrong because they are simply misled. Although it is not just ignorance that is vice—mere ignorance itself is inevitable—but a willing, or intentional, ignorance that is vice. The man who has cheated on his wife without any self-reflection, without attempting to understand the consequences of his actions, is a man who has done wrong. The man who, before committing the adultery, reflects on the reasons for cheating on his wife, reflects on the nature of their relationship, reflects on the consequences of his actions, and from these reflections commits adultery for an intended outcome beneficial to all morally relevant persons, is a man who has acted virtuously.


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