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What is Empathy, and why is it important?

Peter Wicks
By Peter Wicks
Ethical Technology

Posted: Mar 26, 2012

“Empathy” is a word that props up quite frequently in IEET articles and comment threads, but it is also one of those words that people use quite a lot without necessarily having a very clear idea of what it means. I therefore thought it might be helpful to share some reflections about what empathy actually is, and why it might be important for the future of humanity.

Starting, as I usually do these days, with wictionary, “empathy” is defined as “the intellectual identification of the thoughts, feelings, or state of another person”, and alternatively as “[the ] capacity to understand another person’s point of view or the result of such understanding”. Wictionary also gives a third definition, namely “paranormal ability to psychically read another person’s emotions”, but this is not how I shall be using the word “empathy” in this article.

Moving now on to Wikipedia, it appears that “observing another person’s emotional state activates parts of the neuronal network involved in processing that same state in oneself, whether it is disgust, touch, or pain”. In plain English: the correct perception of someone else’s feelings tends to involve experiencing those same feelings oneself.

Our capacity for empathy is limited, of course. As David Pearce has put it (see comment thread on Giulio Prisco’s recent article on The Promises and Perils of Mind Uploading), “Evolution hasn’t endowed us all with the hyper-empathising condition of mirror-touch synaesthesia. This is because it’s genetically adaptive for us to be quasi-psychopaths.” And of course some people really are psychopaths, in the sense that they have an abnormally low capacity for empathy, and/or have (for one reason or another) a reduced willingness to exercise that capacity.

One of the most vivid illustrations of our limited capacity for empathy is the now-famous Stanford prison experiment, in which twenty-four male students were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. As noted in the relevant Wikipedia entry, the participants adapted to their roles well beyond expectations of the psychology professor conducting the experiment, Philip Zimbardo, to the extent that the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. The entry also notes that many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. Even Zimbardo, adapting to his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue for several days until his future wife drew his attention to what was happening, and was sufficiently traumatized by the experience that it took him more than 30 years to write his book (The Lucifer Effect) on the subject. Zimbardo states in that book that one if his motivations for writing it was the relevance of the experiment in explaining what took place at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo had set up the experiment in order to study the effect of a person’s environment on their personality and behaviour, the experiment provided a spectacular confirmation of the effect that such contextual factors have.

The ethical question to be addressed, here, however, is why any of this matters, and as I have repeatedly argued here, such ethical questions are always, in the end, matters of choice rather than of truth. The question is what kind of choice we want to make, and what this means for our understanding and practice of empathy.
In his recent article “After Happiness, Cyborg Virtue”, James Hughes points out that, having espoused a version of utilitarianism that seems to closely mirror my own, the gathering pace of research in hedonic psychology and emerging neurotechnologies make utilitarianism an “unattractive moral logic”, while a version of the “capabilities approach” of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum better supports the technoprogressive endeavor. While I personally do not see the technoprogressive endeavour as being an end in itself, I have remarked in response to this article that it provides one of the strongest arguments so far that there is an ethical system that I might actually find more attractive than utilitarianism. In the capabilities approach, the goal is not happiness but rather accomplishment, an idea that seems to be closely related to the concept of “flourishing” that is now popular in positive psychology. What these two approaches have in common, in any case, is that they are both determinedly consequentialist in their outlook: that is to say, they both take the position that our ethical choices in the here and now should be determined on the basis of their likely consequences in the future. This is also the position on which the following analysis is based.

Nature has selected us to have a capacity, albeit limited, for empathy because such a limited capacity helps us to steer our way through our social environment in the way that best serves our interests (or more precisely that of our genes to the extent our environment still bears some similarity to the one in which our stone age ancestors evolved). Jonathan Haidt has called this ability “Machiavellian reciprocity” to illustrate the fact that, on the one hand, we need to be willing to serve the needs of others in order to achieve social status and get resources, while on the other hand that willingness needs to be selective and based on a positively biased perception of our self-worth. To serve the needs of others requires us to understand what they are, and empathy clearly plays a role in this. By extension, a capacity to be selective in our empathy allows us to be selective in our willingness to do so, and also to conveniently ignore evidence that might suggest that we are not quite such wonderful human beings as we like to think we are.

What is good for the individual (and his or her genes), however, is not necessarily the same as what is good for society at large, and it is fairly obvious that increased levels of empathy are likely to be helpful as a means of adapting individual behaviour in a way that improves the prospects for society as a whole (whether we are talking about happiness, capabilities, flourishing, or something similar).

Empathy still needs to be selective, however. For example, excessive empathy with someone suffering an extreme form of sexual jealousy could lead us to perpetrate or assist an act (such as murder) that would certainly be considered unethical. More generally, an extreme form of “mirror-touch synaesthesia” would effectively drive us insane, particularly in this modern world where we are constantly inundated with empathy-inducing messages encouraging us to buy this product, join this cause, spare some change, work overtime to assuage a panicking boss, come home early to spend time with the kids, etc, etc.

In summary: empathy is the ability to correctly perceive and to some extent mirror the feelings of others. Nature has selected a limited and selective capacity for empathy in individuals, and this limited and selective capacity is essential to allow us to steer ourselves effectively through life. At the societal level an overall increase in empathy seems likely to be beneficial, but still it is important to understand that too much or misplaced empathy can be a bad thing. Finally, given the extent (as shown in the Stanford prison experiment) to which our personality and behaviour are context-depend it is essential for mindfulness techniques to be taught at the earliest possible age as a means to promote consistent, values-based behaviour. Ultimately, this is probably more important than empathy per se.

Peter Wicks was employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy, and now works as a consultant.
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Great article Peter. While I don’t think you said it explicitly, the last line hints strongly that you understand empathy to be a skill that can be practiced and developed. The more one practices this skill the more capable one gets at managing the necessary boundaries.

No matter what enhancement may be we will still need to learn how to use them effectively and ethically.

But you have not mentioned compassion at all?

And without conflating this article to religion..

“What would Jesus do?”

I think you are teaching us to suck eggs here?

Interesting about the Prison experiment however? 30 years you say? I bet he wished he could turn back the clock?

Cygnus, I would suggest that empathy is the ability to match emotions, compassion is the skill of using empathy to relate to others.

In a sense the difference between empathy and compassion is one of etymology: empathy is Greek, compassion is Latin. But empathy is a more recent word, and has different connotations. As Alex implies, compassion requires empathy, but perhaps empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to compassion.

@CugnusX1 regarding egg-sucking, indeed I don’t claim this to be rocket science, but I think it’s important to be relatively precise about these things, and also to recognise how empathy can lead us astray. We tend to think of empathy as always good, and while
I argue that on the whole we could do with more of it, I also argue that it can be excessive or misplaced. There are times when we need to be dispassionate rather than compassionate. The trick is to know when…

Re “empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to compassion”

Right. A professional interrogator and torturer must have a high degree of empathy to be efficient.

Let me clarify my point..

“Finally, given the extent (as shown in the Stanford prison experiment) to which our personality and behaviour are context-depend it is essential for mindfulness techniques to be taught at the earliest possible age as a means to promote consistent, values-based behaviour.”

But you have not mentioned compassion at all?

No.. Compassion is not the same as empathy is it
Having empathy is good yes? Now it is up to YOU how you use it, it is up to all of us how we use it?


A psychopath can use empathy to his own means, this does not mean that he is compassionate towards inflicting pain on others?

And I think you have also mentioned this in the past Giulio?

All the great seers, rishis, buddha’s, priests, prophets, etc etc teach us to be compassionate - empathy is the tool.

and BTW I dispute the following somewhat

“Nature has selected us to have a capacity, albeit limited, for empathy because such a limited capacity helps us to steer our way through our social environment in the way that best serves our interests”

Yes and no - our intellect and evolving social ethics permits us to use empathy to greater advantage for both good and bad, which indicates that if we practice our skills, and use our “intellect” (and compassion), we may overcome these social limitations - even without drugs, (as Alex often highlights).

Thanks for the article, Peter. It is important to meditate a lot on such fundamental issues. If I may, I’d like to add a few (probably too long) reflections.

1) Universal compassion can be seen as a dysfunctional emotional pattern, from an evolutionary perspective. This is why, even for our extremely social species, compassion has not evolved yet into a fundamental behavioral pillar. Only a rather limited set of organisms trigger our compassion - and only when certain social, environmental conditions arise. Excessively compassionate individuals can survive - but anyway not thrive, merely survive - in very prosperous, non-Malthusian societies. This is the ideal habitat for compassionate people. When external conditions worsen - universal compassion soon leads to self-destruction. Which might be exactly what someone want.

2) We cannot use our natural compassion/empathy as a meta-ethical attractor. It would not work. Possibly with pharmaceutical enhancements, we might be able to rise the average level of compassion in a given population. However, on the long run, this would lead to a number of problematic issues - for example, dispassionate individuals (there are always some) would gain an immense advantage in such an empathic/compassionate society. The worst kind human beings would get a chance to express their most dangerous tendencies - and get away with it.

3) Peter often connects ethical codes with the concept of choice, and recommends to leave truth out of the picture. While I certainly agree with that, I want to stress anyway that inconsistent ethical beliefs account for falsehood. Often we hear people advocating an ethical code made to protect a certain category of people from abuses. They typically employ rhetoric strategies based on compassion, pity - while, at the same time, their most sophisticated arguments come from an arbitrary aesthetic preference for egalitarian fairness. These preferences cannot be justified, and do not need to be. Same goes for empathy and compassion. However, when we hear the very same people defending their right to perpetrate abuses at the expense of another human category - we have to all the right to point out how their ethical views have no value whatsoever, and represent only ideological justifications for their (rather natural) lust for power. The very same lust for power that their abusers have. If they all just admitted that, in the end, they are not different from the next thug in the street, I would have nothing to object. Yet, they say they want to promote justice. Well, this is frankly false. This is when truth pays a visit to ethics.
And This is why I think it is always extremely important to draw attention to ethical inconsistencies (this somehow in relation with past posts). Conflicts of interests are everywhere. Socio-economic classes, political castes, professions, genders, generations, species. Universal compassion does not work. Strict utilitarianism leads to dystopic results. So, when we decide to defend one category from abuses, we must at least keep in mind that cannot defend the typical abuses perpetrated by that very category. One cannot defend, for example, the right for African immigrants to express their traditional habits regarding infibulation. One cannot defend women’s right to abort at will. One cannot defend the right of wine producers to sell their products in China, while asking protectionist measures for local producers. Otherwise, talking about ethics would really become merely a sophisticated display of hypocrisy.

@Andre Many thanks for these reflections. (To say they are too long would be like telling Mozart he used too many notes. smile )

I think I agree with most of what you write there. As you might guess, the statement “strict utilitarianism leads to dystopic results” got up and hit me, and to be honest I’m not sure how what follows is supposed to justify that statement, but mainly I take this as a spirited and very welcome (from my perspective) polemic against hypocrisy. (For a discussion on utilitarianism see James Hughes’ article “After Happiness, Cyborg Virtue” and the ensuing comment thread.)


Indeed I did not explicitly mention compassion in my article, because it was an article about empathy. As you say, compassion and empathy are not the same thing, and I think we at least agree on what the difference is.

At the same time, some of the points I make about empathy in my article apply also to compassion. As André has said, excessively compassionate individuals can survive, and in any case generally they do not thrive, only in prosperous, “non-Malthusian” societies. And at societal level a general increase in compassion, and especially an excessive _emphasis_ on compassion, can (as André also notes) lead to a free-rider problem and eventual take-over by the least compassionate. Thinking everyone should be compassionate all the time is like thinking you can do without an immune system because you don’t like allergies.

You write that “All the great seers, rishis, buddha’s, priests, prophets, etc etc teach us to be compassionate - empathy is the tool.” Well, you should know me well enough by now to know that I don’t believe stuff just because “all the great seers” say it smile  Read Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis for an excellent and easy-to-read critical analysis of classical wisdom literature; this has formed the basis for much of my thinking on these issues.

Finally, re “our intellect and evolving social ethics permits us to use empathy to greater advantage for both good and bad, which indicates that if we practice our skills, and use our “intellect” (and compassion), we may overcome these social limitations - even without drugs, (as Alex often highlights)”.....

I’m not sure which “social limitations” you’re referring to exactly. My point was that a limited and selective capacity for empathy helps us to steer our way through our social environment in a way that best serves our interests (whatever we might decide they are). Now I certainly agree that empathy can be learned, and we can also alter our habits with regard to when and how we deploy it. This can indeed help us to overcome all manner of social limitations.

Whether this is a good thing from an ethical point of view, however, depends on your ethical system. If you believe that compassion is a virtue in and of itself (i.e. as an end in itself, not as a means to some kind of utilitarian or other consequentialist end) then it will depend on whether we are indeed deploying empathy in order to be compassionate or merely to get on (or even torture people). From my own (basically utilitarian) perspective there can be great merit in deploying empathy for purposes other than being compassionate, and the free rider problem mentioned by André is relevant in this context.

@ André.. You make a good argument as always, however..

“Universal compassion can be seen as a dysfunctional emotional pattern, from an evolutionary perspective. This is why, even for our extremely social species, compassion has not evolved yet into a fundamental behavioral pillar.”

From a Darwinian point of argument yes, but that’s why we are pursuing trans-humanism leading to post-humanism, so the goal of Jesus, although centuries ahead of its time, may still be attainable - one person at a time, is the current methodology towards enlightenment. Yet we all know and realise that a more compassionate driven world society would be of benefit for all?

Please note: This does not negate my views towards a more neo-Buddhist, rational and dispassionate post-human future however. Even with dispassion we may rationalise the importance and logic for compassion, without getting emotional and passionate about promoting it? The Buddha in his own dispassion promoted compassion also.

“Excessively compassionate individuals can survive - but anyway not thrive, merely survive - in very prosperous, non-Malthusian societies. This is the ideal habitat for compassionate people. “

Why not thrive? Are you intimating that competition is essential for survival? Competition may still yet be useful in a prosperous, post-scarcity society, but I would imagine rather as a means for personal development and for Self-challenging motives, (athleticism and intellect - Plato’s academy styled competitive ethic?), rather than driven for social success and status?

And yes, I guess this would be the ideal habitat - where compassion both drives and thrives in a post-scarcity society that aims to be free from suffering and accessible/attainable for all?

“When external conditions worsen - universal compassion soon leads to self-destruction. Which might be exactly what someone want.”

The Matrix argument - yes, humans presently place value on their existence and measure their vitality through expressions of suffering - yet it does not necessarily need to always be this way does it? And even once a future compassionate egalitarian society is achieved, I guess there will always be parties that see this Universal ethic and morality as yet constricting and oppressive, and do their best to rebel against it - The hedonist, the Romanticist etc?

David Pearce’s abolitionist goal resides not merely on empathy, (with other species), but more importantly upon compassion, and whilst we have all argued that his kind of vision and meta-ethics is difficult to achieve, it is still a step in the correct direction, and a future that is highly achievable for future trans-humanism?

@ Peter..

Most of the questions you ask are also answered in my above reply to André

According to my understanding of David Pearce’s reasoning he bases his abolitionist goal on a moral realism according to which we have a moral imperative to abolish suffering, together with the empirical belief that it is technically feasible to do so. It is not based on compassion directly.

Re “The Buddha in his own dispassion promoted compassion also”, yes you can dispassionately promote compassion, but you can’t dispassionately _be_ compassionate. Obviously.

Of course you can be dispassionate some of the time and compassionate at other times, just not both at once. Not completely. What you can perhaps do is to experience (and perhaps display) compassion, and at the same time experience a dispassionate awareness of what’s going on. Is this what you mean?

Thanks for the initial compliment. And also, more importantly, thanks for making me think again about this issue. So, yes, I agree - our moral goals are not really supposed to mirror the harshness of wild ecosystems. We have the capacity to imagine better places to live, so we must try to transcend our current limitations. However, I insist, a mere net increase of compassion might lead to very dangerous consequences in any human community where economic scarcity still makes sense. Peter correctly pointed out free-rider problems, but there are more sinister possibilities. Compassionate individuals are very easy to manipulate - a great number of cons rely on compassionate emotional responses from civilized “fools”. Consider that immigrants moving in a wealthier country often portrait local hosts as “naive”, or worse - since indeed locals lack the typical skills that economically challenged humans develop.

We can maybe agree that a compassionate society is a better place to live if and only if people have all the intellectual and emotional tools to contrast possible abuses. In that case, yes, we would see a really better world - but we cannot obtain it without individual consent, one person at a time, and without a serious, individual commitment to enlightenment (maybe in the form of a pill, or of a decade of hard mental discipline).

I do not think that competition must be a necessary element in human lives, not that it represents a prerequisite for survival. However, as long as valuable resources are going to be limited in time and space, competition will not disappear from our societies. I agree with you that a life devoid of conflicts can be a very desirable ideal. Yet, a more compassionate society is not going to remove conflicts - unless technology first steps in. Try to see it this way - the benefits of all the most progressive and generous heath-care policies in this world cannot even compare with the health improvements determined by the invention of the fridge. In the same fashion, all the compassion in the world cannot multiply bread and fishes.

I have mixed feelings about this myself. I think that compassion is the most meaningful ethical compass we have. And somehow, I do think that it allows us to put a bit of truth and realism in our ethical judgments. One part of me agrees with Peter, and considers truth as an alien element in our ethical discussion - but, after all, I cannot fully accept that. Compassion is about understanding, is about interpreting the emotional world outside ourselves. If we embrace a theory of truth based on correspondence (which is the classic one), then we can really see compassionate men as more insightful and intelligent. Compassion might shed a particular form of moral light. But I still have to make my mind about this.

Thanks for the (way undeserved) comparison with Mozart, I wish I had your patience, precision, and equilibrium in discussions. About my criticism to strict utilitarian morals - I’d like to stress the adjective “strict”... I do not detail my opinions on the matter now, or I will really abuse everyone’s patience here.

Re utilitarianism, if you replace the word “strict” by “naive” I will agree with you. Again, see James Hughes’ article and subsequent comments for a fuller discussion about this, including the possible drawbacks of (even non-naive) utilitarianism and what could conceivably replace it. I’m sensitive on this issue because so many people attack utilitarianism as a whole when what they are really objecting to is indeed a very naive version of it.

Regarding compassion as a source of insight and understanding, I would say that applies more correctly to empathy. Empathy, as I define it in my article (after wictionary!) is precisely that insight into what others are feeling, including to some extent mirror feelings. That is enough for insight, and as CygnusX1 and Giulio have pointed out e worst psychopaths and sadists have it. The truly compassionate will often lack insight because they are blinder by the emotion they are feeling. It comes back to the Buddha’s dispassionate compassion: we only have so much brainpower at our disposal, and the more of it we spend on emoting the less of it we have for insight. Empathy gives us enough for insight; more is excessive, from the point of view of gaining insight.

Re “One part of me agrees with Peter, and considers truth as an alien element in our ethical discussion - but, after all, I cannot fully accept that”........well, after all, maybe neither can I. What I can say is that, having had a religious upbringing in which morality was conflated with all sorts of superstitious beliefs about God and whatnot, I have find it immensely helpful in my personal life to take the view that morality is simply a choice to make, and not to try to look for “evidence” to justify this or that moral position. Even the logical coherence (i.e. integrity) you pleaded for in your earlier comment is a choice; we can also choose to be hopelessly incoherent and hypocritical. We can also choose to hold false empirical beliefs as well, of course, or (more realistically) not worry too much about their accuracy. In fact, I think that not worrying too much about the accuracy of our beliefs is, like selective empathy, an essential survival skill.

The downside of regarding morality as entirely a matter of choice, from my perspective, is that it leaves behind a certain emptiness or anomie. It certainly doesn’t turn us into psychopaths, as some might fear. It might comfort psychopaths by reassuring them that they are not breaking some kind of absolute moral code and that may be a bad thing (e.g. from a utilitarian perspective), but on the whole I think guilt is ineffective in mitigating psychopathic behaviour and may even exacerbate it. And on the whole I prefer to put up with the anomie of regarding morality as a choice than neurotically search for evidence that doesn’t exist for its truth.

“Even the logical coherence (i.e. integrity) you pleaded for in your earlier comment is a choice; we can also choose to be hopelessly incoherent and hypocritical.” Yes, we can. But then we cannot defend anymore our moral choices. You cannot make a discussion with some inconsistent linguistic agent, it just does not make sense. Moral hypocrisy accounts for logical contradiction - which represents the gravestone of any theoretical effort. Unless, of course, it is just a matter of who is shouting louder. But in this case, there is not point in starting an argument in the first place.

About strict utilitarianism and dystopic results, I try to clarify my position. Now, correct me if I am mistaken - but utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness (or pleasure, self-realization, flourishing, etc.) for the maximum number of individuals in a given community. So, a strict utilitarian would call an action “moral” or “good” if and only if this action is going to bring more pleasure to (at least) some people. The more people we expect to please - the more moral is the action, from a utilitarian perspective.
Let us say we are able to pick a marginal human category - a category that includes people with a rather scarce appreciation for their own existence. Depressed, homeless men, for example. We can quietly assume that - killing these marginal, unhappy people, and giving their organs for transplant to dozens of ill kids is going to increase the happiness/pleasure level of the community. A strict utilitarian philosopher cannot say why such actions are immoral (or maybe he would really consider them moral). If we do not “correct” utilitarianism with compassion, there are going to be many, many dystopic scenarios available.

In our world of scarcity, it is structurally impossible to make a Pareto-efficient transfer of interesting, useful resources from the minority to the majority. Maximizing happiness for the most - means necessarily reducing happiness for some. It is very easy then to find some rhetorical tool to dehumanize the victims, and absolve our actions, which might indeed be very useful for most people. With compassion we have an additional moral compass - and a fundamental one too.

Of course, I believe that increasing happiness/pleasure/joy is a good thing.But I also believe that such increases must come from highly reproducible technological transformations, not from active, intentional, centralized policies. Utilitarian legislators can redistribute happiness at best, in a sort of zero-sum game - at worse, they can create some dystopic scenario similar to what I imagined. New, reproducible technological possibilities, on the contrary, enrich everybody,
produce new form of satisfaction, new pleasures. And as long as we keep a compassionate mindset, we might have a few problems to deal with.

Indeed, I agree with you about logical coherence and hypocrisy. Just as (on the whole) we like our empirical worldview to be logically consistent, for the simple reason that this makes it seem credible, so a moral position can only ultimately be credible if it is also consistent. As you say, once the rhetoric has died down (and those who shout the loudest have done their shouting), it does, eventually, become noticeable who had the most consistent arguments. In a sense one might say that all progress hangs on this fortunate fact.

Concerning utilitarianism, first the easy part, namely that increased overall welfare via technological transformation simply yields better results than mere zero-sum regulation, so is to be preferred from a utilitarian perspective. And as you say, fostering a compassionate mindset helps to avoid easy slippage towards persecution of minorities and dehumanisation, which on the whole I believe to be better for the group as a whole, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer eventually realised.

The remaining hard problem for utilitarianism is indeed what happens in the (in my view unrealistic) scenario that singling out minorities really is better for the collective, even in the long term and taking into account the corrupting effect of such dehumanisation. It indeed seems disturbingly cold to suggest that the minority should be sacrificed. On the other hand we can also make a similar reductio ad absurdum in the other direction. In a circumstance where an individual needs to be sacrificed to save the whole group (say because of an infectious disease) and there is simply no time to bring about the technological transformations required to develop better options, what is one to do? Let the entire group die so as to avoid dehumanising the one individual?

The above is not supposed to be a cast-iron defence of utilitarianism - once again, it really is a matter of choice - but it does seem to me that for most if not all practical purposes objections against heartless and brutal applications of utilitarianism can be made on utilitarianism’s own terms. To make utilitarianism work we need rules and virtues - it can’t be about making a cost-benefit analysis for every decision you ever make - and it seems pretty clear to me that nurturing a compassionate mindset is a fairly essential rule to be applied in this context.

We normally assume that a comparative lack of empathy is a mere personality variable, not a cognitive deficit. And it’s true that materialist science has no understanding of how first-person facts (e.g. I am in pain) are possible in the natural world. In consequence, scientists tend to award first-person facts a second-rate ontological status. Yet other first-person perspectives (e.g. what-it’s-like to be a bat, or a factory-farmed pig, or Julius Caesar) are as much a feature of the natural world as the second law of thermodynamics or the atomic number of silver. Insofar as you adequately represent the first-person experience of other subjects - human or non-human - then you will recognize that you should not act wantonly to hurt them. Thus if blessed with the representational capacities of a mirror-touch synaesthete, then you could no more hurt another subject of experience out of callousness than you could wantonly hurt yourself.
In future, perhaps full-spectrum superintelligence will entail a God-like capacity to understand and weigh all possible first-person perspectives - and act accordingly.

Many thanks for the comment! Of course it IS possible to wantonly hurt oneself, and this is related to the point that CygnusX1 and others have made above, namely that empathy doesn’t imply compassion. One could have the representational capacities of a mirror-touch synaesthete and still use them to do harm. That being said I think I agree that lack of empathy is a cognitive deficit.

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