Mark B. Baer, Esq.

Empathy and Relationships

The Connection Between Empathy Toward Others and Ethics

Empathy toward others is a precondition to an ethical life.

Posted Jan 07, 2017

On January 2, 2017, I read an article by Christopher McLaverty and Annie McKee titled What You Can Do to Improve Ethics at Your Company that was published in the Harvard Business Review on December 29, 2016.

The article is based in large part on a study by McLaverty "of C-suite executives from India, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the U.K., many of us face an endless stream of ethical dilemmas at work."

The article states in pertinent part as follows:

"According to the study, the most useful resource that leaders have when faced with an ethical dilemma is their own personal network. This provides an informal sounding board and can highlight options and choices that the leader may not have considered. When making ethical decisions, it’s important to recognize that your way isn’t the only way, and that even mandated choices will have consequences that you must deal with.

The challenge is that most leaders have networks full of people who think and act like them and many fail to seek out diverse opinions, especially in highly charged situations. Instead, they hunker down with people who have similar beliefs and values. This can lead to particularly dire consequences in cross-cultural environments.

To overcome this, you need another core emotional intelligence competency, empathy, which allows you to learn how to read others and truly understand what matters to them and what they care about. This will, in turn, help you connect with people and gather their thoughts, opinions, and help when you need them."

Empathy toward "others" is strongly associated with ethics.

In fact, consider the following excerpt from an article titled Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics that was published in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"The intentional analysis of empathy is directly relevant to the constitution of the social community in a broad, normative relationship with the 'Other....' 

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut defines empathy as the primary method of data gathering about other human beings in the discipline of psychoanalysis.  Thus, Kohut writes: 'Empathy does indeed in essence define the field of our observations' (1977: 306)….. Tactically, empathy is a method of data gathering about what is going on with the other person, and without empathy one’s appreciation of the other is incomplete…. Empathy is the oxygen breathing life into the relationship between individual and other, a metaphor introduced by Heinz Kohut (1977) without, however, Kohut extending it to the ethical dimension. In the contemporary Continental tradition, such an extension of empathy is left to Larry Hatab and John Riker, who note that empathy is a primal existential condition that makes ethical life possible (Hatab 2000; Riker 2010)….

Empathy is a form of receptivity to the other; it is also a form of understanding. In the latter case, one puts oneself in the place of the other conceptually. In the former, one is open experientially to the affects, sensations, emotions that the other experiences. Undertaking an ethical inquiry without empathy – sensitivity to what is happening to and with the other – would be like engaging in an epistemological inquiry without drawing on the resources of perception. Thus, empathy is a method of access as well as a foundational structure as such....

Empathy does indeed supply the otherness of the other – simply stated, the other. It is a separate step to care for the other, say, altruistically, or not care for the other. The empathy provides me access to the suffering of the other….

As long as the affects (and so on) disclosed through empathy are such as to support the demand of the other and of one’s obligation to the other, then we are on firm ground. However, when the demand fails or is manipulated by advertising, social pressure, or propaganda to disqualify the other and reduce the other into an subhuman entity prior to extra-judicial execution, then the lack of an ethical (moral) criterion independent of affects is sorely missed....

It is important to note [that The Holocaust] was accompanied by and included the extrajudicial killing of other 'life unworthy of life' such as the mentally ill and retarded, gypsies, gays, communists, uncooperative members of other religious and political parties. However, the racial laws and anti-Semitic ideology that specifically preceded the event, targeting Jewish people, make it their Holocaust in a special and unhappy way….

It is the killing, not the lack of empathy that represents the moral problem. 

What made it easier for the soldiers to do their 'duty' – commit murder (genocide) – was the manipulation by the leaders to deflect the individual soldier’s natural empathy for the prisoner and to increase the soldier’s empathy for himself, deflecting the natural trajectory towards the other….

Humans with integrity and character will undertake the positive development of full, adult empathy so that the misuse does not occur or is made less likely."

According to social science researcher Brene' Brown empathy toward "others" is a skill set and that the core of empathy is perspective taking.  She also says that perspective taking is normally taught or modeled by parents. The more your perspective is in line with the dominant culture, the less you were probably taught about perspective taking. In the United States, the majority culture is white, Judeo-Christian, middle class, educated, and straight.

This is entirely consistent with the loss of perspective by powerful negotiators, as was explained in an article titled Power in Negotiation: The Impact on Negotiators and the Negotiation Process that was recently published by Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation.  

Furthermore, fear leads to a reduction in empathy.

As William Booth stated in his article titled America's Racial and Ethnic Divides: One Nation, Indivisible: Is It History?"Fear of strangers, of course, is nothing new in American history. The last great immigration wave produced a bitter backlash, epitomized by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the return, in the 1920s, of the Ku Klux Klan, which not only targeted blacks, but Catholics, Jews and immigrants as well.”

That quote and a great many others pertaining to the harm caused to freedom and democracy as a result of fear were included in my article Shameful U.S. History Repeating Itself. Among those quoted were Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Edward R. Murrow. 

It bears mentioning that "people with low oxytocin levels suffer reduced empathy... People suffering medical conditions causing low levels of oxytocin perform worse on empathy tasks, according to new research presented at the Society for Endocrinology annual conference in Brighton.

Oxytocin is often referred to as the 'love hormone' due to its role in human behaviours including sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety and mother-infant bonding."

Meanwhile, as was set forth by Paul J. Zak in his article titled The Neuroscience of Trust that was published in the January-February 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, "high stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor. (Most people intuitively know this: When they are stressed out, they do not interact with others effectively.) We also discovered that oxytocin increases a person’s empathy, a useful trait for social creatures trying to work together."

Interestingly enough, "stress is generally caused by two factors: physical exertion and fear."  This is true, regardless of whether the fear is real, exaggerated, or completely imagined.

Unfortunately, "fear is a major cause of prejudice. In the case of the other, we have 'a fear of the unknown, a fear of the unfamiliar. If fear is the father of prejudice, ignorance is its grandfather' (Stephan and Stephan, p. 38). This is not only common sense, it is supported by research." 

The connection between fear and the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States is not going away because it's been well-documented, even though people without such fears voted for Trump for different reasons.

"[In fact,] a new paper by political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta puts the blame back on the same factors people pointed to before the election: racism and sexism. And the research has a very telling chart to prove it, showing that voters’ measures of sexism and racism correlated much more closely with support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction after controlling for factors like partisanship and political ideology:…

Within this data, the researchers looked at respondents’ answers to various questions about the economy, racism, and sexism. The questions typically measured how much a respondent agreed with statements like, 'I am angry that racism exists,' and, 'Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for ‘equality.’ The researchers then matched responses to the scores shown in the chart above.

Multiple analyses have found that support for Trump tightly correlates with racist and sexist beliefs….

The concern, then, is that this is the beginning of a modern trend in which politicians like Trump directly and explicitly play into people’s prejudices to win elections — and it works….

Studies like this put a bigger imperative on getting to the root of the problem and figuring out ways to reduce people’s racial or gendered biases….

To this end, the research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist or sexist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their bigotries. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue…. Given that, the best approach to really combating racism and sexism may be empathy.

One study, for example, found that canvassing people’s homes and having a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation about transgender rights — in which people’s lived experiences were relayed so they could understand how prejudice feels personally — managed to reduce voters’ anti-transgender attitudes for at least three months." 

The power of such empathy conversations have been a common theme throughout my Psychology Today blogs. In fact, that exact study was referenced in my last blog, which was titled Protests and Force Don't Change People's Hearts and Minds.

The only way to deal with fear is to face it. Avoiding it prevents us from moving forward—it makes us anxious." This is exactly what empathy conversations can and do accomplish.   

Unfortunately, not doing so impedes empathy needed to make ethical life possible.

The ending of my article Things Are Seldom What They Seem is as fitting here as it was there and that ending was as follows:

As the Bible says, "Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.... A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart.... The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding."

More Posts