All organisms demonstrate a tendency to avoid harm. Even amoeba will avoid aversive stimuli. This is one of the basic premises of behavioral psychology's operant conditioning. Behaviors that yield pleasing results tend to be repeated. Behaviors that yield aversive results tend to not be repeated. Amoeba have no need for morality, only self-preservation.

If we were to stop right there, we would have an argument for hedonism, indicating no need for morality. But, we are not amoeba. Humans are social animals requiring the assistance of other humans in order to survive in the natural environment. For humans, self-preservation is interdependent with preservation of "the tribe."

Other social animals like wolves, lions, and buffalo will predictably behave in ways that promote the health and safety of the group over the health and safety of the individual. These animals engage in what might be considered benevolent behaviors even without the benefit of higher cognitive functioning.

To my knowledge, humans are the only species capable of true empathy. Empathy does not mean sympathy. Many species demonstrate sympathy. Empathy requires the complex ability to cognitively attempt to see through the eyes of another. With huge effort, it is possible to put our collective ego aside and on some level understand the world from another person's perspective.

Research on feral children has shown that empathy is a learned behavior. Empathy is an extremely difficult cognitive skill that few humans try master. If humans developed and regularly employed this skill, conflict with each other and the destruction of other species could be virtually eliminated.

My theory is that empathy is the highest human good, as it is an extension (actually a giant leap) of the natural tendency for social animals to engage in behaviors that benefit the survival of the
group. To employ this litmus in making moral decisions, one must not only, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you,"  but also consider how others would wish to be treated from "their own" perspectives and not just your own.

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Comment by Edward Teach on April 11, 2014 at 9:20am

Check out this one I did on Gut Feelings. I think it relates to this discussion:


Comment by Edward Teach on April 11, 2014 at 9:16am

Many thanks for the feedback, Gregory. I understand your point that ultimately, the outcome is what matters. So, animals who demonstrate altruistic behaviors benefit their social group regardless of what internal mechanisms motivate them to do so. Enjoyed the article very much and I think it does help clarify the evolutionary movement towards empathetic behavior.

I do draw a distinction between sympathy and empathy. Or maybe it would be more clear to modify the terms. I think of sympathy as relating to the Golden Rule. Sympathy, I'll call simple empathy, does not require complex cognitive skills. It is akin to an instinctual behavior.  "I would not like to be treated like that, so I feel sympathy (or simple empathy) for an associate who is receiving said treatment."

Complex empathy, on the other hand, is not a particularly natural behavior. Humans are ego driven creatures and complex empathy requires a conscious effort to set aside ego and truly try to understand a situation from another's perspective. For instance, it is easy and natural to feel sympathy, or simple empathy, for a child who has been sexually abused. Our hearts goes out to this poor child and we feel a visceral reaction to the child's suffering. It would require complex empathy to have any compassion at all for the same child 15 years later, when he is now the perpetrator of sexual abuse.

It is easy to feel sympathy for someone with whom we can easily relate. But, great effort may be required to demonstrate empathy for folks with whom we have difficulty relating. It is natural to feel compassion for your own child's suffering, but it may take some work to generate the same compassion for thousands of suffering children in third world countries.

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on April 11, 2014 at 1:31am

Research has shown the attribute of empathy in other animals (to any useful extent of the term's definition). is a particularly good article on the subject. Concern over other individuals is not a uniquely human ability.

As the situation of an individual can be due to a threat that affects the group, it is reasonable for animals with sufficient awareness to have evolved the ability to be concerned with the situation of individuals in their group. By focusing attention on an individual, and attempting to help that individual, the group benefits by retaining an individual that might otherwise be lost or damaged. This seems functionally similar to empathy.

Consolation in distress is a particularly interesting interaction observed in many social species. This recognition of an individual's adverse state and a conscious effort to comfort that individual is likely where a more evolved sense of empathy comes from. In fact, I would find it hard to differentiate between the definition of empathy and this interaction. 

A particular experiment with apes demonstrates the recognition and care over another individuals situation. In the experiment, if one ape did something, the other ape would get shocked. The first ape eventually figured out that it was causally linked to the other ape's distress and chose not to engage in that activity. I wish I could remember the specifics of this experiment. 

If we understand empathy to be something more than the concern over another individual's situation, then what else is there to the concept? And if empathy is basically equivalent to concern in this context, then it is reasonable to identify many interactions of other animals as examples of empathy. For example, a dog that recognizes his owner is very sick or injured will become very concerned and even attempt to help (though their causal rationale is likely not very productive in their desire to help). 

Empathy does seem to be difficult for many humans. And it is indeed a socially indoctrinated behavior. I do think that empathy is intrinsically logical and easy, however, and that the problem is that selfishness is by far easier for humans. In our modern society, selfishness has become the default instead of empathy. As we have become more self-sufficient, the need to be a social creature becomes an illusion to many people who then resort to selfish behaviors. But logically, any specie that adopts a selfish outlook will not likely succeed as a social specie even if individuals in the group have learned to be more self-sufficient.

The ability to empathize seems to be a predictive ability in humans, a sense of helping other individuals avoid adverse states before they happen out of concern for that individual. But in the end, empathy is just the ability to understand the feelings of another individual. By that definition, many many social animals have this ability. It seems humans are uniquely capable to be selfish instead of being what nature prefers: empathetic.

I do like that you addressed the flawed limit of the golden rule. It falls short because it expects that your perspective happens to be universally agreeable (and the golden rule would indeed be self consistent if that were the case). But we know from experience that how one person expects to be treated is not always acceptable to another. I might find corporal punishment acceptable should I misbehave. That does not mean it is OK for me to use corporal punishment on another person.

Good article. Very thought provoking. It hints at the blurred area between complex morality and basic beneficial behaviors of social animals, including behaviors functionally equivalent to empathy. 

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