Toward an Ethics of Empathy

So we don’t want to be a utilitarian or a deontologist. We don’t even want to be a virtue ethicist. How can we move towards a kind of ethics that’s valuable? How, in other words, should we handle the responsibility of deciding how to live? Let’s try and outline what our ideal ethical theory would look like.

Firstly it would be atheoretical. It wouldn’t look like a big structure of ethical rules or a complicated flowchart of what-to-do-ifs. It wouldn’t try to be a ‘scientific approach’ to ethics, although of course we might want to pay attention to science in our ethical life (for instance, you probably want to take your sick kid to the hospital instead of trying your hand at faith healing). If we start our new ethics by forming a system or talking about categories of acts, we’ve gone off the rails already.

Secondly, it would avoid risky generalisation. Talking about ‘virtues’, for instance, is useful to an extent but can obscure the cases where words like ‘pity’ and ‘courage’ are not accurate descriptors of our ethical motivations. Happiness, well-being and duty are words that we have to be careful of – we might be forced to use them, but we should always do it critically.

Thirdly, it’s got to be authentic. Our ethics isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t accurately reflect the way we act, moment-to-moment. If we try to explain our ethics to a non-philosopher and the non-philosopher doesn’t see the relevance to themselves, we’re in trouble.

What kind of ethics could fulfil these criteria? Only an ethics that takes as its starting point an attempt to understand the distinct and unique character of each ‘situation’, without trying to generalize (or, indeed, chop experience up into a series of discrete situations). We want an ethics of attentive empathy, an ethics that is hyper-aware of context and history. In short, we’ve got to try to understand the stories of the people around us as a primary and constant ethical requirement.


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