Ethics of Empathy

Aaron Mayer
3 min readOct 18, 2017

When I hear its sign-off for NPR sponsorships, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says that it is “dedicated to the idea that all lives have equal value.” On an abstract level, I agree with that entirely. In the classic trolley problem, for instance, when the runaway trolley is speeding down the track heading for 5 people and you could pull a switch to have it only kill 1 person, morality demands that you pull the switch.

This is agreed upon by even the staunchest of Kantians, and while there are still some who argue that it’s better to have clean hands, the argument fails when you consider that failure to act is tantamount to a negative action. In essence, if one has the knowledge and means to bring about a better outcome, there is hardly an excuse for not doing so. If 1 vs. 5 doesn’t do it for you, make it 1 vs. a million, or a billion, or the entire world (it’s a big trolley); at some point, decisions will have to be made that reflect these values.

Obviously the trolley problem is a hypothetical, but there are bound to be times in our own lives when we will find ourselves in sticky moral quandaries, and I hope that we will all have the courage to pull the lever when the time comes.

Here’s where I disagree with Bill and Melinda: all lives may have equal value, but that doesn’t mean that I value them equally. It’s perfectly natural to value some lives over others.

I’m sure evolutionary biologists would be quick to point out that this behavior was necessary for our survival. Psychologists would be quick to point out that our simian brains still hold vestiges of primal in-group bias in our modern era. And economists would be quick to point out that in a dog-eat-dog world of finite resources, the law of the land is simply to kill or be killed.

It should come as no surprise that, while I accept the evidence that these disciplines provide and I have tremendous faith in their expertise, I repudiate the normative claim that the way the world works is the way it should work.

Yes, people value some lives over others, but just because they do is hardly a philosophical justification of why they ought to. We can think of countless examples of the naturalistic fallacy at play: people owned slaves, but that doesn’t make slavery acceptable; people stoned adulterers (and some unfortunately still do), but that doesn’t make adultery intrinsically wrong; and billions of people across the globe still think it is permissible to raise sentient beings, capable of great suffering and mental faculties, with the sole intention of killing them for consumption (at great cost to the environment) despite the fact that it is just as easy not to do so, but that doesn’t mean they are right.

A lot of people will argue that a belief in universal equality is cold and stony. They might argue that it lacks empathy for local communities, or that it demonstrates a lack of compassion for personal attachments and intimate relationships.

I’m inclined to argue the opposite: I think that it’s an excess of empathy that allows for such a belief, not a deficit. Indeed, if I value lives that I’ve never even seen before, doesn’t that indicate an abundance of care?

I remember learning a system of ethics in middle school that intuitively made sense at the time, but now I reject almost fully (what a shock): I was taught that you should help people from in to out. They illustrated this with concentric circles, with myself in the middle, my family right around me, my community around it, Americans around that, and everyone else at the very edge. I think I admire the Unitarians and Humanists so much because they flip this model on it’s head — or rather, they reject the notion that there are separate circles in the first place.

When we start to see ourselves through a universal lens — situated as members of a global community, as stewards of this earth and the creatures upon it — then I reckon we’ll start to see some real change.