Consciousness and Empathy

Empathy, moral standing, and the uniqueness of consciousness

Posted Oct 05, 2016

Amélie is a European film (directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) about a likeable character and her tumultuous journey of falling in love with someone who seems hopelessly elusive. As you watch the film, you cannot help but feel the aches and joys of love that Amélie is experiencing (moving some of us to tears with every viewing, even after he’s watched this movie a dozen times). Without empathy, we would not be able to put ourselves in Amélie’s place and feel the emotions that she has. Of course, this example relies on a skillful presentation of a compelling story, including the visual and auditory components, which is a master story-teller’s talent (being able to recreate a feeling through his or her medium, whatever it may be). In the end, it is the appeal to empathy that makes a movie like this so delightful.

Empathy is central to the human condition. Without it we would not be able to relate to others. We would not have the moral codes that we have. We would not be able to enjoy theatre or music or art (in fact, the name of a European film chain called Pathé essentially means suffering). People with empathic disorders suffer precisely because they cannot relate to those around them, and such conditions are interesting because they show how natural empathy comes to most of us (although such conditions may bring other advantages with them, e.g., see our blog post on neurodiversity). On the other hand, too much empathy might lead to self neglect and other unhealthy situations (e.g., see this article on the “empathy trap”)—so, like anything, a balance is needed. But without empathy, one could argue that humans would not have been able to advance as much as we have (despite the feeling that sometimes we are taking a few steps back).

These examples are related to what Edith Stein called the “demands of empathy”. Much can be said about Stein’s views on empathy, but fundamentally the main claim is that we do not get to know other people as mental beings merely by representing them through reasons or deductions. Rather, we need to somehow feel their reality powerfully and internalize it. Less hyperbolically, Stein says that the understanding of others has a very urgent and demanding feeling to us, as when one reacts to the pain or joy of someone (Stein, 1917/1964). This kind of empathic guidance offers an interesting proposal for a unique role that phenomenal consciousness might play.

Are we conscious of all empathic feelings? This is a good question since the ability to empathize seems to require a conscious awareness of one’s self and the knowledge that others can feel what you feel and think what you think (i.e., having a theory of mind), at least in humans. Having a theory of mind might be directly reliant on having phenomenal consciousness—the type of consciousness associated with the immediate vividness of subjective experience. This makes sense because phenomenal consciousness, and empathy, can be considered higher-level forms of consciousness. Some argue that there is a basic form of consciousness, access consciousness, which does not necessarily enter awareness but makes information available for higher-level processes. This is essentially the type of attentional processing of which we are not aware and is related to our argument for the dissociation between phenomenal consciousness and the basic forms of attention, or CAD.

Whether or not you can make such distinctions about consciousness, it is important to note its deep relation to intelligence and to moral value (even if these can come apart). Although there are many ways to define intelligence, it is generally understood as the ability to gain knowledge, reason, and modulate behavior based on that information. Importantly, this does not necessitate a phenomenal component to it. We can perform many intelligent tasks without being aware of the cognitive processing and steps involved in completing them. All animals can behave intelligently despite the lack of phenomenal consciousness in most. The field of artificial intelligence has made some truly intelligent machines, but none of these have consciousness (and unlikely to have it, as we argue in this post on AI, and in a recent paper, Haladjian & Montemayor, 2016). Furthermore, no account of rationality necessitates a type of phenomenal experience, even though a token phenomenal experience may serve as evidence in rational inference (in the case of perceptual knowledge, even as the paradigmatic type of evidence). In the end, one can argue that intelligence does not necessitate phenomenal consciousness.

So why is phenomenal consciousness so deeply associated with empathy and moral standing? Moral theory emphasizes value and experienced happiness and the avoidance of pain that only phenomenal consciousness can provide (see Kahane & Savulescu, 2009; Siewert 1998). Views based on rationality may be dissociated from this, according to CAD, but the connection between consciousness and moral value cannot be accidental. Phenomenal consciousness is necessary for moral standing because of its empathic role and intrinsic value. (Interestingly, few authors define consciousness in terms of moral value—but Scott Aaronson does, and he is a computer scientist! See his blog post on computers and consciousness.)

While human intelligence and rationality does not necessarily require a conscious component, things like morality and empathy do. Without phenomenal consciousness it is unlikely that we would be able to entertain someone else’s perspective. Empathy plays a large role in our lives, from being able to have meaningful intimate relationships, to maintaining a social order, to the enjoyment of the arts. It can even help us treat anything in the living world with more kindness, not just other humans. This empathy requires self-awareness and an understanding that others can experience joy and pain as you do. (Admittedly, empathy can also have a dark side; but this could be related to more tribal instincts that are alien to the powerful emotion we call “empathy towards others”.)

Empathy is a special form of intelligence that goes beyond simple rationality or reasoning. It’s not all that conscious experience entails, but it could be considered as one of its most important adaptive purposes.

- Carlos Montemayor & Harry Haladjian


Haladjian, H. H., & Montemayor, C. (2016). Artificial consciousness and the consciousness-attention dissociation. Consciousness and Cognition, 45, 210-225.

Kahane, G., & Savulescu, J. (2009). Brain damage and the moral significance of consciousness. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 34(1), 6-26. 

Montemayor, C., & Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Siewert, C. P. (1998). The Significance of Consciousness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stein, E. (1917/1964). On the Problem of Empathy (W. Stein, Transl.). The Hague: M. Nijhoff.