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The role of empathy in our moral life

UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life Lecture Series


In February 2020 the UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life hosted a series of public lectures at MoLI, each looking at ethical questions that impact personal, public and professional spheres. The lectures featured prominent researchers in ethics from University College Dublin, and were held in MoLI’s Old Physics Theatre.

Empathy is the capacity to see how things are for someone else from their perspective. It is treated in management self-help books as a useful skill that enables you to get your way with people and make better deals. It is treated in psychology as a feature of Emotional Intelligence (EQ).  

Doctors are encouraged to develop their empathy, which in this context is the same as ‘bedside manner’ in order to be more effective.  Relationship counselors work with couples to help them empathise with one another, so that they can stay together. And moral philosophers have often argued that empathy is the basis of the capacity to be a moral agent; it is what enables us to be altruistic in the first place. 

Recently, though, there has been a backlash against empathy, with an influential book by Paul Bloom arguing that empathy hinders good moral action rather than helping it. This is because empathy leads to partiality.  People guided by empathy might be inclined to help only those people they can be empathic towards – thus excluding from their moral concern those who are too different or too far away to be engaged with emotionally. In this talk, delivered on 25 February 2020, Professor Rowland Stout explores whether empathy really is an essential aspect of moral agency.

Professor Rowland Stout is a member of the Royal Irish Academy, Director of the UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life and a Professor in the UCD School of Philosophy. He has written books about the philosophy of mind and numerous papers on ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mind. His current project is a book on the philosophy of emotions.

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