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09/30/2011

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Josh May

Interesting piece. I'm actually sympathetic to Brooks's main thesis that when it comes to moral motivation empathy isn't the whole story (though I'm not sure anyone really defends that) and that acting on principles also plays a role. But the empirical evidence he cites in support of his pessimism about empathy seems pretty weak.

First, last I checked, the phone booth study has difficulty being replicated (a paper by Christian Miller has a nice discussion of this: "Social Psychology, Mood, and Helping"). There are of course other similar situationist experiments that demonstrate the same basic effect, but not necessarily with such dramatic results. In which case, empathy compares pretty well (as in Batson's work).

Second, he uses Prinz as an ally, but Prinz says in his final footnote: "Batson, whose influence is detectable throughout, convinced me that his notion of empathetic concern may be immune to many of the worries raised here."

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