Many moral philosophers place empathy—or some close emotion, such as sympathy, compassion, loving kindness, benevolence, pity, or mercy—at the center of the moral life. Such emotions serve as the underpinning of morality, supplying the motivation to act morally. Feelings and reason are linked, but since feelings exist prior to thought, feelings are both logically and psychologically prior to reason.
There are those who are leery of the role of feelings in ethics as emotions are notoriously unstable, fickle, and overwhelming. You fall in and out of love or feel like doing something one day and the next day dislike the same thing. The ancient Greek and later Christian theologians believed that the passions threaten morality and need to be reined in, otherwise you are pulled as if by wild horses, careening toward disaster.
David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, presented the argument for feelings in the moral life by maintaining that while reason is useful in determining the facts of a situation, those facts must touch the moral sentiments in order to motivate a person to action. Knowing what is good and not doing good doesn’t make someone a moral person. This is a person who lacks the courage of his convictions. One needs to move from knowing to doing. Hume found himself at odds with rationalists since he valued emotions as those feelings that get people beyond thought and into action. Rationalists contend that morality must be objective and not muddied by feelings.
Hume maintains that moral sentiments are intrinsic because humans experience pleasure and pain, live interdependently in families and social groups, and are disposed to seek approval from others. Without such feelings, you would be indifferent to the fate of others. Your intellect may tell you that others are suffering, but your feelings may be so attenuated that you never bring yourself to do anything about that misery. You haven’t been touched and therefore haven’t been moved.
Humans are social creatures. Primatologists provide convincing evidence that as such empathy is part of our make-up. Hume, without this knowledge, surmises as much. He writes “…there is some benevolence, however small,…some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with elements of the wolf and serpent." This is empathy, which leads you to care about others. The child in danger moves you to rescue. Empathy, the impulse to act on behalf of others, struggles with selfish impulses that lead you to want things your own way.
Empathy is relatively easy to come by in close circles. Small groups get our love and compassion, Hume said. You see the endangered child, know the infirmed woman, encounter the frail elderly. As a social and parochial creature, Hume continues, you naturally prefer your own group and act selfishly toward strangers. Cooperation isn’t possible in large groups, Hume said, based on his observations of history and politics.
Ernst Fehr, Director of the Priority Research Program on the “Foundation of Human Social Behavior” at the University of Zurich, supports Hume’s conclusion but not completely. Fehr’s research found that cooperation was common in groups of ten but not likely in larger groups. But when cheaters—and those who don’t punish cheaters—are punished, the rate of cooperation increased dramatically. "In this case," Fehr says, "even groups of several hundred individuals can establish cooperation rates of between 70 and 80 per cent."
Empathy is dissipated as groups grow larger, so it needs the element of punishment to keep backsliders in line. This doesn’t undermine the fact that humans are highly cooperative creatures. Professor of environmental science and policy Peter Richerson gives this illustration: "I've pointed out to my students how impressive it is that you can take a group of young men and women of prime reproductive age, have them come into a classroom, sit down and be perfectly comfortable and civil to each other. If you put 50 male and 50 female chimpanzees that don't know each other into a lecture hall, it would be a social explosion."