Empathy Based Ethics: A Theory of Mind Conundrum


I am very excited about this post. This is the first post in my new digs in which I’m going to be discussing philosophy and ethics, and BOY HOWDY are those topics that I love.

I tend towards a fairly utilitarian ethic, but one of the trends in recent philosophy of ethics has been to suggest that morality should be grounded in empathy. Specifically care ethics tends to be focused on the motivation of an action rather than the consequences. If someone undertakes an action out of empathy, or because they care about another person, that action is moral.

Sounds like a good way to judge things, huh?

Well as per usual I need to bring disability into the picture, and the reasons for this are twofold. The first is the use of developmentally disabled people as a counter example, specifically because “people with autism can’t feel empathy”. Second, as an example of the myriad of ways that paternalistic attitudes about doing something for another person’s own good, or out of a place of caring but without an understanding of an individual’s wants, needs, and freedoms, can actually be quite harmful.

So let’s just address this first concern because it’s something that I hear a lot (and recently had to vomit about in relation to the book To Siri, With Love). Yes, human beings have varying levels of empathy. But the idea that there is something deficient about autistics and other neurodivergent folks is frankly offensive, and is often tossed around in philosophy circles without a second thought. What some people with autism do struggle with is theory of mind, which is the ability to recognize that other people’s experiences, preferences, needs, etc. are different from one’s own. Oddly enough, autistics do fine with theory of mind about other autistics, and allistics struggle with theory of mind when it comes to autistic minds. Huh. Weird.

But no matter what, theory of mind is not the same as empathy. You may struggle to understand others, but that is not the same as a lack of care and compassion. It’s possible that adequate theory of mind is necessary to act correctly on a desire to care for someone else. That actually gets at the deeper issue that I want to address: you can care deeply about someone without having an understanding of them or the way they work. And that’s a problem.

In a recent episode of Philosophy Bites, they discussed what it means to know a person, and how that knowing can be the basis for empathy. They suggested it required a level of mindreading, being able to understand what it’s like to be that person through firsthand experience. It’s an emotional/social knowledge rather than a factual knowledge. Of course they brought up autistics as being unable to know other people, and suggested that this means autistics don’t or can’t have empathy. What I’d argue is that different life experiences and neurotypes mean that every human will encounter other humans that they radically cannot know.

Whether you are autistic or not, there are experiences that you lack the theory of mind to understand. When you have a radical disconnect from someone else’s experience, no amount of empathy or putting yourself in their shoes will allow you to act in a kind way that does not hurt them. This is one of the ongoing challenges that people have identified in social justice. Instead of simple empathy, many people have pushed for informed compassion that relies on trusting someone else’s explanation of their experience, needs, and wants.

In fact, disabled people are a great example of this.

Throughout history able bodied and neurotypical people were convinced that our quality of life was shit. They believed we couldn’t or shouldn’t have children, that we should be changed to be more like them, that we wouldn’t be happy unless we were “normal”. ABA is a particularly good example. The Lovaas Institute (Lovaas is the creator of ABA) touts as a benefit of its services “They [clients] also appear indistinguishable from their peers in measures of social and emotional functioning.” Indistinguishability from peers is something that is often important to providers and families, but when you ask actually autistic people if it’s something they want, they say no.

In this case, people who are empathetic (neurotypicals) put themselves in the shoes of someone else (autistics) and think “If I were weird or struggled with social skills, I’d want to be normal.” This ignores what autistics actually want, which is for society to accept the skills they have and make accommodations.

We see this when men don’t believe women who say they want to stop being cat called and harassed online. We see this when white feminists prioritize their own needs without listening to women of color’s unique concerns.We see it in something as simple as an extrovert trying to improve the mood of an introvert by taking them to a party.

All of these actions come from someone who is empathetic. The problem is that they do not take into account consequences, harm, and personal preference.

Many people like to distinguish empathy from sympathy, saying that sympathy is feeling bad for someone while empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Unfortunately we don’t have a word for taking yourself out of the equation entirely and trying to understand the other person’s experience of their own shoes. When you put yourself into another person’s shoes, you bring your own preferences, desires, and needs with you. Education, understanding, and trust of different experiences HAVE to inform empathy or empathy is empty.

So IF we want empathy to ground our ethics, there has to be some imperative that people will educate themselves about the experiences of others. I am also deeply concerned about removing any element of consequentialism and harm as a measure of morality. It’s easy to have the best intentions and do things that are hugely harmful. Why would we ignore that fact? There has to be some accounting for mistakes; these can’t just be entirely hand waved away by good intentions, especially if they’re repeated

Obviously utilitarianism has some problems for the disability community as well, specifically as evidenced by Peter Singer’s argument that you can weight our lives as less important because our quality of life isn’t as good. When we’re talking about disability ethics, having a conception of “rights’ seems to be an important element to protect our lives and freedoms. It’s becoming more and more clear to me that any singular ethics will miss the needs of a group, whether that’s animals, disabled humans, oppressed minorities, or someone else I can’t even conceive of. But empathy definitely misses the boat when it comes to vastly different experiences and I can’t get behind it as the underpinnings for a full ethical system.

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