Saucers of mud: Why sympathy and altruism require empathy

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2 Scopus citations


Empathy and helping motives are more closely connected than philosophers and psychologists have realized. Empathy doesn't just cause sympathetic concern for others, but is conceptually tied to it. When we empathize with someone's distress at their pain, we ourselves are distressed by that pain and that in itself necessarily constitutes a motive to rid them of that pain. But helping motives like compassion or concern for others can be shown to be conceptually impossible in the absence of empathy. Compassion as a feeling and compassion as a motive are thus inseparable from one another, and this then lets the Chinese complementarity of yin and yang enter the picture. Yin can be viewed as a kind of receptivity, and compassion as a feeling instantiates such receptivity; but compassion as a motive instantiates yang conceived along somewhat traditional lines as a form of strong purposiveness. If moral sentimentalism is on the right track, then the motives and feelings it views as foundational to normative morality turn out to instantiate yin and yang conceived in traditional terms as an indissoluble complementarity. Moral sentimentalism properly pursued allows East to meet West in the field of ethics and possibly in other areas of philosophy as well.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12-26
Number of pages15
JournalEtica e Politica
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2015


  • Compassion
  • Complementarity
  • Empathy
  • Moral sentimentalism
  • Receptivity
  • Strength
  • Sympathy
  • Yin and Yang

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science


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