Book Review: The Moral Dimensions of Empathy: Limits and Applications on Ethical Theory and Practice

Book Review: The Moral Dimensions of Empathy: Limits and Applications on Ethical Theory and Practice, by Julinna C. Oxley

Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 224. Hb. £55.00/$85.00.

Reviewed by Patricia Smith

The idea of empathy is not new, but it has gained greater prominence in the scene of education in recent years. The word is commonly heard in a variety of contexts in schools that range from behaviour management programmes, circle time, and philosophy for children, to more general topics on multiculturalism, moral or religious education. Despite its diverse application, its aim is clear: to feel what others feel, to address conflict constructively, and to promote the morally good life. The use of the term is, however, by no means consistent. Therefore, this recent exploration into the idea of empathy and its connections to morality is very much welcomed.

In The Moral Dimensions of Empathy (2011), Julinna C. Oxley sets out to demonstrate the relationship between empathy and moral action. She speaks of empathy’s transformative possibilities and argues that if we educate for empathy, we can produce moral actions that will eliminate potential conflict between ourselves and others. For Oxley, the experience of empathy based on perceived emotions alone is not seen as a criterion of morally good action. What Oxley is concerned with is the ‘epistemic functions’ of empathy, or how a more informed idea of empathy can be used to gain knowledge and understanding of our own and others’ emotions. If we educate for empathy, together with normative moral principles and imaginative perspective-taking techniques, empathy can serve as motivation for producing normative ethical ends. This, Oxley argues, is particularly important when we are dealing with the education of young children’s moral deliberation and action.

Among the vast amount of literature on moral education, Oxley’s focus on the role of empathy brings together a comprehensive and interesting study of a number of traditions. Her work seeks to demonstrate how her approach to empathy can be applied to, and how it differs from, normative and contractual ethical studies, feminist theory, empirical research, and psychological research. Oxley draws not only on work from prominent writers in ethics such as Kant, Hume, and Smith, and more recent works from John Rawls, David Gauthier, Michael Slote, and Diana Meyers, but on current moral and social psychological research from theorists such as Martin Hoffman and Daniel Batson. Oxley’s background in philosophy of law and moral psychology offers a range of thought-provoking examples taken from the legal and medical systems. For the reader, these provide useful practical contexts in which her theories are applied.  

The book itself is made up of eight chapters divided into four parts. These are well constructed and systematically build upon previous argument, making the text a clear and enjoyable read. The chapters address a variety of issues such as the empathy-morality connection, the epistemic functions of empathy, altruism, moral deliberation, contract theory, public justification, and education. In Part One, Oxley begins by giving an explanation of what she sets out to do in the book. She offers a brief and succinct discussion of empathy and ethics, a definition of empathy, and a description of empathy’s connection to morality. The remainder of Part One is dedicated to exploring the question of ‘What is empathy?’. Oxley’s insightful argument points to the many different ways of understanding empathy and how empathy’s relationship to morality depends largely on how it is defined. She introduces a number of key points here, such as how empathy can alert us to emotions in a personal way and how empathy can involve experiencing a congruent emotion in regard to another’s perceived state, not necessarily the other’s exact emotion (p. 15). This definition opens the debate onto a range of theories on imaginative perspective-taking techniques to be considered when educating towards empathy and gaining more accurate insights into the feelings of others. 

In Part Two of the book, Oxley gives a detailed account of the two epistemic functions of empathy: gathering information about the other person, and understanding others. In order for empathy to perform these epistemic functions and go on to motivate towards normative ethical ends, there must first be an intelligibility of the other’s emotion and a prima facie approval of another’s perceived emotion. To demonstrate these ideas Oxley provides the reader with the example of a doctor who encounters a patient that has suddenly experienced a neurological disorder leaving him completely paralysed from the neck down. Oxley describes the doctor’s kind approach to the patient’s understandably difficult circumstances (intelligibility). The more caring and gentle she is in her initial attempt to empathise (prima facie approval), the more she is met by the patient’s frustration and uncooperative manner. But then, in a new approach, the doctor imagines the situation from the patient’s point of view, feeling his emotions and learning his beliefs. Oxley argues that when we adopt imaginative perspective-taking techniques in this way, we can empathise with another’s anger, share and ‘approve’ of another’s emotion, and better understand despondent and uncooperative behaviour. This, Oxley states, will allow us to envision alternative, more productive methods of interaction. Rather than using empathy’s prima facie experience based on perceived emotions alone, perspective-taking empathy, Oxley suggests, will provide a better understanding of another’s feelings.

Perhaps the most interesting questions relevant to philosophy of education can be found in Part Four of the book, which focuses on practical implications. Here, Oxley investigates how empathy is taught and the contexts for empathic teaching. Following brief descriptions of the different ways of teaching perspective-taking empathy, Oxley explores three methods of how to teach empathy. These are through ‘induction’, ‘rational learning’, and ‘modelling’. First, ‘induction’ aims to elicit and utilise guilt and distress in order to call attention to another’s feelings in situations such as bullying. ‘Rational learning’ involves classroom-based learning, using, for example, interactive activities and imaginative writing exercises. And finally, ‘modelling’ involves explicitly sharing and demonstrating empathic behaviour. Oxley emphasises that, if empathy is to have direction and purpose, these three methods of teaching need to be taught against the background of moral virtues. Specifically, she is thinking of contexts of care and concern, of virtues of compassion, circumstances of diversity and multiculturalism, and within structures of socialisation and behaviour modification. The focus on behaviour modification, for example, together with an ‘induction’ approach to teaching empathy is thought to eliminate conflict. Oxley argues that the goal of inductive discipline, while appealing to moral principles and virtuous actions, will remedy a child’s misbehaviour (p. 146). Empathy here is elicited and utilised, using perspective-taking techniques to resolve conflicts and in particular to eliminate potential instances of bullying, injustice, and unfairness. 

Clearly, the effects of empathy in situations of bullying, injustice and unfairness can be significant. And, although the idea of how to teach empathy in the classroom is not the main focus of the book, Oxley’s contribution to empathy in education remains invaluable. The central argument in the book on the relationship between empathy and morality is also very relevant to education for it is crucial to any part of a student’s or teacher’s own questioning of her practice. Further, there is no doubt that empathy’s moral significance has a major bearing on how we treat others, and on how children themselves respond to others. I would like, however, to close with just a few words to suggest an approach to the idea of empathy that is subtly yet significantly different, for it seems to me that when empathy is planned for, educated for, elicited or calculated in any way, there is a danger that we are missing the point – the point of moral education and what is most important in empathy itself.

Whether we plan for it or not, empathy in response to experiences with others does happen, and it is to the kind of experience that breaks through any method or convention of eliciting empathy that I wish to appeal here. If we are present in the moment, an empathic response or encounter with the other is already a calling of our responsibility, of our response towards the other. This relationship with the other in these moments of empathy is one of unknowability: it lies outside of feeling another’s emotion or knowing his belief. As Levinas might put this, it is a relationship that puts me into question through encounters with others. When seen in this way, empathy is no longer about understanding what the other is feeling: it is rather that empathy is telling me something about myself, and not about the other with whom I am empathising. To claim to know another’s feeling or belief would be to reduce the other to the same, to identify their feelings in such a way as to assimilate them to me. Of course, it would be wrong to think that we exist in the world as isolated beings. What Levinas is appealing to in his description of the relationship with the other is the asymmetrical nature of human relationships, where I am subject to relationships with others. This is not a responsibility that can be satisfied or fulfilled, nor can it be ignored or passed on to others. Oxley’s emphasis on induction, rational learning, and modelling suggests an emphasis on intelligibility that is perhaps too cognitive, such that it would block the more fundamental aspect of human relationships that I have tried to describe. If we look at empathy in this new light, our relationship to the other has the ability to educate in a very different sense: it can release morality from the limitations of claiming to know what others are feeling.

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