Empathy and Morality

The morality of humans has grown through the centuries, apparently for the better (or so it seems to me, and i don't have any way of proving it, since ethics lacks a strictly logical foundation). What led to this change from a society in which slavery was acceptible to a modern day society in which people are fighting for animal rights? The explanation that comes to my mind is: an increase in empathy. The growth of morality is a result of the increased sense of empathy among people, an empathy which springs from knowledge and awareness, which stimulates a sense of association. Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is going through, what he is feeling and thinking. It is as Heinz Kohut defined it: "the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.

When slavery was acceptable, the aristocrats didn't think of the slaves as they thought of themselves; they never mentally placed themselves in the position of slaves, and when they started to do so, they realized that slaves were human too, like them; they began to empathize, and when a sufficient number of people gained this awareness and began to empathize, slavery became unacceptable and inhuman. Similarly, racism. White people thought of black people as someone different, and it was only when they learned to empathize, to realize that they were people like them, that racism began to decline. This also explains the rise of feminism: men had been treating women as 'the other', and when they became to empathize, they realized that women should have rights equal to men. And now, these days, people are becoming empathetic to animals, mentally projecting themselves in their place, and hence fighting for their rights. In today's world of so-called 'Clash of Civilizations', empathy is of crucial value; we need it to understand that we are all humans, we need it to avoid another holocaust from happening.

Empathy, that is the key to morality, to being good. Inculcating a sense of duty in people is not enough to make them good. A sense of duty as such is like an empty shell; that shell should be filled up by empathy... the world would be a much better place if we can learn to do that.


Qasim Aziz said…
Great post Awais,but what lies at the foundation of empathy,fear or compassion?
Kunwal said…
I do not agree with you saying that apparently morality grows for the better. This is subject to everyone s opinion.
Yes matters such as slavery are condemned today.
But in the same way lying is a completely accepted and sometimes even encouraged/demanded means reaching your goal.
It does not come from nowhere that more and more voices about the west (and i m not only speaking about eastern views, but also from within the west) speak about a moral decadence today.
Lying is just one example in the list of many.
Qasim Aziz said…
We need 'noble savage'.
Awais said…
@ kunwal

You have a point, but i think you are refering towards the moral actions of people, while i am referring towards the moral zietgeist, the moral standards which a society generally believes in, though the people may or may not act upon them.
Awais said…
@ Qasim

I think the roots of empathy are more in compassion than fear

And the idea of 'noble savage' is pretty much a fiction for me.
Vasudha said…
"A sense of duty as such is like an empty shell; that shell should be filled up by empathy... the world would be a much better place if we can learn to do that."

Well said! An excellent post. :)
Qasim Aziz said…
Awais ,i would like to share Russell's view on this.
Accordig to Russell,Change must not be confused with progress,there is some sort of egoism involved in evolutionary progress.The idea that the society has progressed(and so does morals and ethics)have been proposed by the modern day man and not the savage.Who is in a position to decide that the moral ideas of today are better than the primitive society?
All we know is that they have changed over time.But to call all these changes progress rather than degenration is in the hands of modern man and not the savage.

I think there is some truth in Russell's view,although i dont wholly agree with him.
Kunwal said…
I was actually referring to standards, not actions. the action was just an example to describe it.
behavior comes from underlying belief and values.
i agree with the quote mentioned by qasim aziz.