The moral contours of empathy

Ethical Theory Moral Pract. 2005 Apr;8(1-2):169-95. doi: 10.1007/s10677-005-3291-7.


Morally contoured empathy is a form of "reasonable partiality" essential to the healthy care of dependents. It is critical as an epistemic aid in determining proper moral responsiveness; it is also, within certain richly normative roles and relationships, itself a crucial constitutive mode of moral connection. Yet the achievement of empathy is no easy feat. Patterns of incuriosity imperil connection, impeding empathic engagement; inappropriate "empathic" engagement, on the other hand, can result in self-effacement. Impartial moral principles and constraints offer at best meager protection against these perils, and hence serve poorly in securing morally contoured empathy. More nuanced and practical guidance should be sought in normatively substantive conceptions of our roles and relationships and their defining moral stakes. These, joined with more abstract moral tools, can facilitate rich, narratively textured interpretations of morality's demands. While the content of our normative conceptions must be continually debated, engaging in this debate is vital to the achievement of proper empathy, and thus to effective, respectful, morally healthy care of dependents.

MeSH terms

  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Moral Development
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Philosophy*
  • Professional-Patient Relations / ethics*
  • Virtues