A Morality Conundrum?

One can shrug off some items posted on-line for any number of reasons.  However, a post reading, “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion,” simply begs for a response.  Someone OneOldCop knows and respects posted it. Seeing such simplistic nonsense posted by a person one knows to be intelligent and educated is painful.

The desire to believe a statement of this nature is understandable.  Religion, rightly or wrongly, has been blamed for many of man’s problems over the years.  If someone learned about religion in the public schools or most institutions of higher education, anything negative said about religion sounds intellectual.  The fact it is understandable does not make it true.  It simply makes it sensible sounding hogwash.

This piece of so-called philosophy is problematic in more than one way. For clarity and brevity, this essay will focus on the quotation’s most glaring problem, in this writer’s opinion.  The assumption that empathy is the source of one’s ability to tell right from wrong is so wrong it is a sin.  Empathy has nothing to do with knowing right from wrong.

For the record, empathy has more than one definition.  The one being referenced above seems to be, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.” (Merriam-Webster.com)  In simpler terms, empathy is the ability to feel or sense the emotions of another without a detailed description from the person in question.

The idea quoted above assumes empathy will make someone act in a moral manner.  Empathy is probably a desirable sense or ability for most people.  However, the idea that it will control one’s behavior is stretching its value significantly.  Understanding how anyone could think it is the arbiter of moral behavior is even more of a stretch. For example, consider a bully.

Can a bully have empathy?  If one believes the little ditty that inspired this essay, the answer would be a resounding no!  According to that attempt at developing a mantra, empathy gives one the ability to tell right from wrong.  If the unknown author’s position is correct, a bully cannot have empathy.

The truth is many bullies apparently empathize with the person they are tormenting.  Some experts in the area of bullying, think a bully can often feel exactly what his or victim is feeling.  That may be why the bully is a bully.  The bully is passing on the pain and fear the bully experienced at some point.  The bully can sense the pain and fear of another and revels in how it makes the bully feel.

The claim a bully can feel the pain of the victim will not seem logical to some.  In fact, it has caused some issues for people who study bullying. Their response has been to decide there are two kinds of empathy.  Some experts concluded that bullies have cognitive empathy, but they lack affective empathy.  Basically, this means a bully can feel the pain of another, but the empathy does not change the bully’s behavior. One might argue the experts in question redefined empathy so they could relate it to the behavior.

A highly empathetic person may find it more difficult to harm another.  That does not mean it is not possible. It simply means the person in question will feel, to some degree, the resulting feelings of the injured party.

Another problem for the empathy-leads-to-moral-behavior club is the fact the feelings of another have little if anything to do with many immoral or wrong acts.  The most empathetic person in the world may be able to commit a wrong such as burglary and never have a second thought about the feelings of the victim.

Empathy does not work well in the absence of someone with whom one can be empathetic.  For instance, understanding that a burglary will emotionally harm the victim is possible.  At best, that understanding is abstract knowledge that a burglar can easily overlook or suppress.

What about a moral wrong that is not a crime.  Adultery is still considered morally wrong by most people. Studies over the last thirty years found that the vast majority of people think adultery is wrong.  Other studies discovered that millions of people in committed relationships engaged in some form of adultery during the relationship.

What does this mean when it comes the idea that a lack of empathy keeps people from knowing right from wrong?   Are all of the people who cheated empathically challenged?  Are millions of people in committed relationships so emotionally blind that they do not know this sort of behavior could do emotional harm to their partner?  Are they all so shallowly connected to their partner that they do not have a feeling for the partner’s emotional state?

Another point about empathy needs to be made. If one believes the mantra that triggered OneOldCops thoughts, what about the behavior of one challenged in the empathy department.  Will all people with low levels of empathy act immorally?  Do all people who cannot sense another’s feelings have a problem knowing right from wrong?  Would anyone, including the author of the drivel quoted earlier, claim that every empathically challenged individual is a psychopath?

The quotation that triggered this piece is correct in one way.  One does not need religion to act morally.  People who never set foot in a church or other place of worship can act morally.  People who never prayed, read a religious text or believed in a higher power of any kind can behave morally and know right from wrong. If that part of the saying is true, two other questions arise.  Where do people learn right from wrong, and what role if any does religion play in that process?  Those dear readers are questions for another time.

About S. E. Jackson

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