Jean Decety, Professor, University of Chicago

Monday, January 23, 2023 - 3:30pm to 4:45pm

Levin Auditorium

425 S. University Avenue

Title: The role of empathy in morality: A force that can bind or blind us    

 Abstract: Empathy can be a strong motivation for moral behavior, but its influence can also have the opposite effect. People who are concerned for the well-being of others are more likely to help, care for them, and respect them. Empathy provides information for moral decision-making, which can supplement information based on reasoning, rational belief, and inference. However, empathy is limited and fragile, thus not always a reliable source of information in moral decision-making. We are more likely to empathize with those from similar social, racial and political circles. We respond more readily and with greater intensity to the suffering of individuals rather than groups. I will integrate knowledge from evolutionary theory, neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics to demonstrate that various social and situational factors unconsciously and rapidly modulate empathy. Decision-making guided by empathy alone is not optimal when dealing with large groups, people from our tribe, or anonymous persons. However, when combined with reasoning and deliberation, empathy can promote valuing the welfare of others.

Key-words: Empathy – Emotion – Evolution – Caring – Cognitive biases – Decision-making – Morality – Social psychology – Social neuroscience

Faculty Host: Becky Waller and Anna Jenkins

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