Morality and empathy in multi-species societies.
In his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume describes morality as driven by a sentiment of natural philanthropy that would eventually maximize the utility of the society. In this essay, we first summarize this important moral principle as developed by Hume, and then show that this sentiment that connects us to social utility is related to the notion of empathy and thus shares its limits. In particular, empathy would fail to drive moral decisions when interactions with non-human life forms are considered.
Starting his inquiry by pondering if morality is more discernible by reason or by sentiment, Hume decides to proceed in a very reasonable and scientific fashion, using induction from clear unequivocal particular examples to uncover general principles of morality. If reason and sentiment concur in “almost all moral determinations and conclusions”1, sentiment is considered here the main discriminant between vice and virtue and Hume’s argument is based on the assumption that our intuitive, natural perception of morality is correct. An assumption that bears similarities with the realist approach of the Aristotelian tradition. If examined thoroughly, our sentiment with respect to a specific moral decision would then guide us towards the moral decision. Importantly, Humes infers that this coincides with the maximization of social utility. Utility pleases and concurs with our intuitive notion of morality. Virtues are then viewed as actions or decisions where the interests of the society prevail.2
The positive take on human nature that our sentiment would be correct about morality and would maximize utility of the society rather than personal interests hinges upon a natural3 feature of human beings that can be related to the concept of empathy. If not stated in this term in the original text, Humes describes it as the capacity of human beings to understand or mentally imagine what other members of the society might feel. This would lead us to experience a more positive sentiment when the utility of the society increases even when it goes against our personal interests, as verified experimentally by Hume.4 Despite being natural, this capacity of empathy is not innate. It needs training and practice and in particular, it requires engaging with mankind.5 Lack of such interaction would result in a very limited scope for empathy and by extension to morality. Without interaction with fellow members of the society, one cannot train his empathy and learn how to understand other people’s standpoints or feelings. Different means are available to mentally access other people’s subjectivity. Language is a primary vehicle for understanding strangers and getting to know other’s feelings but is not exempt from flaws. Hence other forms of engagement with the community are required such as arts. This capacity of empathy is trained but not taught, it is built from experience and therefore addresses the objection that our sentiment might be influenced by education. Ethics is thus eminently social and requires deeply engaging with the other members of the community within which we wish to derive moral principles.
This fundamentally social character of ethics requires us to distinguish two types of social groups in our considerations about morality. Let us call them the interacting and the emphatic community. On one hand, the interacting community is the one with which we should engage in a moral behavior, the set of entities we interact with, however remotely or indirectly.6 On the other hand, the emphatic community is the one for which we feel some sentiment that coincides with the utility of this community. Crucially, those two communities might not coincide. And in general, the emphatic community will be much smaller compared to the interacting group. Hume appears to seize this difficulty as he exhorts us to train our capacity for empathy, which is not naturally capable of embracing the whole interacting community. However, identifying those communities might not be possible, as the very limits of human empathy set the boundaries of the possible interacting community.
Empathy has limits. It has been shown to decrease over the last decades in western countries7. In some cases, it has even been observed that our capacity to feel with others is even so impaired that we might feel pleasure for others pain when it comes to (potentially competitive) different social groups8. In our increasingly globalized world, this would suggest a shrinkage of the emphatic community and a rapidly growing interaction bubble. And yet, significantly more challenging issues appear when the interaction community is composed of different species or life forms. Significant progress has been made in neuroscience since Hume’s positions on the philosophy of mind but neurological mechanisms responsible for empathy in humans are still poorly understood9 and the presence for such a mechanism compatible across species that evolved different brain structures is highly speculative. The current mechanism at play in humans towards most animal species would then more result in a human projection to the animal which does not guarantee the correctness of the resulting sentiment. Ultimately, when it comes to artificial intelligence or alien civilizations, the perspective of effective empathy becomes illusional.
Our natural capacity for empathy is thus very limited and anthropocentric, as it might be expected from a human-centered inference, such as the one followed by David Hume. However, similar introspection also tells us that the spectrum of entities towards which we want to behave morally might be much broader than the community for which we are able to feel empathy. This contradiction needs to be solved and calls for more universal and objective principles of morality.
Carr, Laurie, et al. “Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: a relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas.” Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences 100.9 (2003): 5497-5502.
Cikara, Mina, et al. “Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses.” Journal of experimental social psychology 55 (2014): 110-125.
Hume, David, Enquiries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)
Konrath, Sara H., Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing. “Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15.2 (2011): 180-198.
David Hume, Enquiries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 170-5, 212-32, 250-78 ↩︎
“It follows that everything, which contributes to the happiness of society recommends itself directly to our approbation and good-will” D. Hume, Enquiries. ↩︎
“The social virtues must therefore be allowed to have a natural beauty and amiableness” D.Hume, Enquiries ↩︎
“We have found instances, in which private interest was separate from public; in which it was even contrary: And yet we observed the moral sentiment to continue, notwithstanding this disjunction of interests.” D.Hume, Enquiries ↩︎
“The more we converse with mankind and the greater social intercourse we maintain, the more shall we be familiarized with these general preferences and distinctions.” D.Hume, Enquiries, (p.76) ↩︎
Very indirect interactions don’t preclude moral duty. This claim is derived from the assumption that responsibility is engaged when there is an interaction or a causal chain. That responsibility entails moral considerations. A simple example to illustrate our point : ethical brands are usually about enforcing some ethical practices in the production chain where people involved can be living on the other side of the world in a very different culture. Yet, people buy those brands because they feel morally liable about the production of their items. This simple example also shows that this assumption is embodied in a sentiment, as Hume would state it. People would generally feel they have some moral duty towards people that have been influenced or impacted by their actions. ↩︎
Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing. “Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15.2 (2011): 180-198. ↩︎
Mina Cikara, et al. “Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses.” Journal of experimental social psychology 55 (2014): 110-125. ↩︎
Laurie Carr, et al. “Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: a relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas.” Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences 100.9 (2003): 5497-5502. ↩︎