Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


The Nature and Morality of Empathy

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Michael Weber (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Christian Coons (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Sara Worley (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Madeline Duntley (Committee Member


This dissertation explores the nature of empathy and its role in moral thinking and in medical practice. First, I focus on articulating an adequate philosophical account of affective empathy. One standard account of affective empathy involves imaginatively taking the perspective of a target, experiencing an affective match with the target’s affective state, and maintaining a distinction between the self and the target. I argue that empathy requires perspective-taking and an affective match between the subject and the target, but that this match should be broadly construed. Such an account better captures several plausible cases of empathy, and it also better explains why we care about empathy.

Second, I explore the purported role of empathy in ordinary moral thinking and motivation. Empathy is often associated with morally desirable characteristics or action. However, skeptics argue that empathy is overly provincial and often distorts our moral thinking. For this reason, they argue that we are better off ignoring or eliminating empathy from our moral thinking. I argue that moral thinking and motivation informed by a particular account of empathy (involving both cognitive understanding and affective responsiveness) produces better moral results than available alternatives, and I develop an account that explains why this occurs.

Finally, I address the growing discussion of empathy in clinical settings, specifically the role of empathy in the physician-patient interaction. First, I develop a defense of cognitive empathy in clinical settings against critics who argue that it is either conceptually incoherent or overly liable to produce error. Second, I argue that recent proposals to employ affective accounts of empathy in physician-patient interactions are not justified epistemically, nor are they clearly supported by the relevant empirical literature. I argue that the ideal account of empathy in medicine remains cognitive, though there is a central role for expressing empathic concern towards patients.