Thoughts in moral philosophy, the focus is more on feeling what other people feel (sometimes called “affective empathy”). To attempt to find a way through the thicket, other distinctions are standardly drawn – although, to add to the confusion, not always drawn in the same place. There is “high level empathy” and “low level empathy” (sometimes called “basic empathy”). High level empathy describes the process if it is answerable to the will, or accessible to consciousness. Low level empathy is an automatic process, perhaps employing the mechanisms of mirroring expressions or behaviour.
The ground appears to be shifting in empathy studies
From this we could perhaps derive some common core. Empathy at least involves this: imagining oneself (whether consciously or unconsciously) into another’s circumstances and replicating their mental states. For the epistemologists the relevant mental states are cognitive attitudes, and the result is grasping what other people are thinking. For the philosophers of emotion, the moral philosophers, and quite possibly the folk, the relevant mental states are feelings and the result is that one feels what the other person is feeling. We might want to add various accretions – for example, the folk usually take empathy to be a good thing and thus postulate a link between empathy and morality, or at least a desire to help. The more philosophically pure maintain it is morally neutral – knowing what is going on in someone’s head may inspire us to help them but we may also find it useful if we want to harm them.
In sum, empathy is a hodge-podge of ideas, not all of which seem to fit happily together. Thus, although I have claimed to have identified a “common core”, there is no guarantee that those are the ideas that will remain central. Indeed, since the current resurgence of interest in empathy it has become apparent that both elements of the common core are problematic. Consider the first: “imagining oneself into another’s circumstances”. Why should my imagining me in your circumstances enlighten me about what you believe or what you feel? That would only tell me what I would believe or feel in those circumstances – as you have different background beliefs, desires, and dispositions what you feel might be completely different. I could try to imagine being you in your circumstances, but it is not clear that that is even coherent. What is it to imagine of oneself that one is someone else? The problems with the second element include specifying the object involved in attempts to replicate someone else’s emotion. Consider someone (Albert) attempting to empathise with someone else (Bella) who is mourning a dead pet. Albert replicates Bella’s emotion. Does that mean the object of Albert’s emotion is the dead pet? No, as that leaves Bella out of the picture – after all, he is supposed to be empathising with Bella. So is the object of the emotion Bella? No, as that would not be a replication of Bella’s mental state and thus not a candidate for empathy at all.
Recently Anik Waldow and I have edited a collection on empathy. The papers have not exhibited any decisive turn in the