What Is a Practical Moral Problem?


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These forms of "empathic bias" are well documented and include such things as familiarity bias i. An appreciation of the psychological processes which underlie compassionate empathy is illuminating for at least two reasons. First, a theory of these processes accounts for empathic bias, as just mentioned, as well as the fact that compassionate empathizing is on the whole a highly reliable and predictable response. Second, and no less importantly, the fact that compassionate empathizing seems to be mediated by a range of psychological processes calls into serious question the persistent moral-psychological folk-belief that compassionate empathizing is cognitively demanding and, in particular, that it involves an imaginative process of perspective taking.

Briefly, there seems to be a broad consensus in social psychology that compassionate empathy is mediated by both cognitively simple "reactive" modes of arousal as well as cognitively more complex "introspective" modes cf. Hoffman, ; Eisenberg and Miller, a; Davis, This multidimensionality of empathic distress makes the avoidance of compassionate empathy difficult because observers are susceptible to whatever "distress cues" happen to be available in a set of circumstances.


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The reactive modes e. The reactive modes also enable human beings with vastly different cognitive abilities to respond empathically.


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Does the apparent intractability of empathic bias not simply exonerate the neo-Stoic approach to practical ethics which advocates minimizing emotional involvement and promoting detachment rather than attachment? As critics of narrow varieties of ethical rationalism keep repeating cf. Might, then, there be good reasons to think that active compassionate engagement is a precondition of the exercise of the faculty of moral judgement? The phenomenon of pscyhopathy, a personality disorder characterized by full cognitive integrity co-existing with complete or almost complete emotional stagnancy cf.

Hare, ; Cleckley, , seems to provide some insight.

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Indeed, a small body of empirical research on moral development and psychopathy supports this hypothesis cf. However, even though the psychopath is able to comprehend and assess moral problems with no more or less difficulty than a person in the normal range of emotional development it seems semantically odd to say that a psychopath is capable of moral judgement. Why is this the case? There are surely several reasons for this but the most salient one for present purposes is this.

Cleckley, In other words, the role of compassionate empathy in moral judgement is not as a precondition of the ability to competently exercise moral reasoning processes. A concern for others, rather, is connected with motivation to exercise the faculty of moral judgement in real-life situations. These considerations alone, it seems, suggests that if one is committed to the seemingly uncontroversial idea that practical ethics education rightly understood promotes the development of practical wisdom or moral judgement conceived of as being a kind of virtue, rather than as a "competency" or "soft skill", then ensuring the development of affective capacities of response is intrinsic to these educational aims.

But what might "promoting empathic development in practical ethics education" end up looking like in practice? Whatever it is, it is going to have to avoid what seem to me to be two gross misinterpretations of the basic problem of educating for compassionate empathy in this context.

First, the problem should not be one of merely providing opportunities to experience compassionate empathy. While such experiences in and of themselves are certainly not bad thing, moral problems typically call for the judicious negotiation of competing demands generated by the conditions of human weal and woe.

This situation would seem to call for the development towards a dimension of moral maturity or moral character that Nussbaum has discussed under the heading of "rational" or "appropriate compassion": justifiable emotional responses to a clear-sighted appraisal of genuinely compassion-evoking situation. Second, it is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that a basic capacity for compassionate empathy is psychologically normal. If education for rational compassion is needed it is emphatically not needed as a bulwark against a generalized state of apathy, anomie or a pandemic of exaggerated self-concern, as it is sometimes suggested.

The problem is more realistically conceptualised as that of negotiating how human beings come to broaden out their natural propensity for compassion towards their kith and kin to reach the strangers with whom they also share the broader social world cf. Warnock, , and Nussbaum, on "extending concern". Integrating support for compassionate empathic development into practical ethics education. There is a risk of misunderstanding my intentions in this section so let me briefly say this. There are all the ways one might reasonably educate for compassionate empathy and then there are the ways that support for compassionate empathic development might be realistically integrated into the already crowed agenda of practical ethics education regimes.

Here, I am exclusively interested in the latter and in this connection I make four suggestions. Introduce "consideration for others" as a dimension of moral judgement. It is traditional in practical ethics courses to begin with a unit which overviews the canonical types of criteria that can be used as the basis for moral justification. I suggest the introduction of a similar unit that provides a theoretical discussion of the relevance of compassionate empathy in moral judgement.

Such a discussion would cover at least the following three points:.

Consider "decalage" in selecting case studies and dilemma problems. One promising counterweight to decalage is the provision of otherwise unavailable opportunities for empathic engagement. In practical ethics education this can be easily achieved via the judicious choice of case studies and dilemma problems. A striking example of a failure in this regard has been pointed out by the medical educator Barnbaum who observed that the dilemma problems and case studies used with medical students are consistently structured in a way that encourages compassionate empathic engagement with the medical practitioner rather than with patients.

As we have already seen, much of what we called the basic problem of educating for compassionate empathy in higher education concerns stimulating the extension of concern and in this regard overcoming familiarity bias in particular. There is another sense, however, in which the various forms of empathic bias can be used as an educational resource in the promotion of appropriate compassion. As we saw above, the primary importance of the multidimensionality of empathic arousal is that it makes observers susceptible to a wide variety of cues, enabling them to respond empathically to whatever "distress cues" happen to be available in a set of circumstances and the primitive reactive modes enable human beings with vastly different cognitive abilities to respond empathically.

The limitations of restricting educational attempts to elicit feelings of solidarity and identification through language-mediated means is that it fails to draw on the full range of psychological mechanisms connected with empathic arousal. In particular, it neglects the potential contribution the reactive mechanisms have to make in compassion-eliciting experiences.

If one is genuinely interested in providing structured opportunities appropriate empathic engagement then one is well advised not to neglect the potential of face-to-face or virtual encounters: films, speakers, possibly even service learning and the like. There is an unfortunate tendency in practical ethics generally to view moral issues as one sort of technical problem and many seem to think that approaching a problem with sublime indifference is a sign of philosophical sophistication.

I suggest just the opposite. Particularly in the case of problems where suffering is a salient issue I think one should display an appropriate degree of sensitivity to the stakeholders in the problem, in whatever subtleties of expression that this might involve. This is not just out of respect for any students who might be reasonably offended by the flippant treatment of an issue that they might regard as deeply personal and important. From the perspective of supporting compassionate empathic development, it sends altogether the wrong message to students about what is at stake in a moral problem and, more specifically, about the appropriate responds to conflicting demands of fundamental human well-being.

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For general discussions of these distinctions see esp. For discussions of the evolutionary-adaptive account of empathic bias see Gibbard, and Hoffman, Barnbaum, D. Teaching empathy in medical ethics. Teaching philosophy , 24 1 : Batson, C. The altruism question: toward a social-psychological answer. NJ: Erlbaum.


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Immorality from empathy-induced altruism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 68 , Beauchamp, T. Principles of biomedical ethics 4 th ed. New York: Oxford University Press. Bevis, O. Toward a caring curriculum. New York: National League for Nursing. Callan, E. Common schools for common education, Canadian journal of education , 20, Colby, A. The measurement of moral judgement, 2 Vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Combs, J. Educational ethics: are we on the right track? Education theory , 48 4 , Davis, M. Empathy: A social psychological approach.

Eisenberg, N.

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Empathy, sympathy and altruism: Empirical and conceptual links. Strayer Eds. Cambridge, Eng.

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What Is a Practical Moral Problem? What Is a Practical Moral Problem?
What Is a Practical Moral Problem? What Is a Practical Moral Problem?
What Is a Practical Moral Problem? What Is a Practical Moral Problem?
What Is a Practical Moral Problem? What Is a Practical Moral Problem?

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