The Enchantment of Ethics: Empathy, Character, and the Art of Moral Living
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My dissertation explores the role of narrative in the cultivation of empathy for ethical attitudes and behaviors. I begin by exploring an uncommon view of human nature, concluding that we are not autonomously individualistic rational deciders but ultrasocial moral intuitionists. Our intuitions are developed through our social engagements and the moral imagination. Intersubjective relations run deep in our psychology and provide the basis by which we shape the meaning of our lives as individuals in communities. It is because of this that we need to reconsider and redesign our moral cultivation programs both for the child-rearing years and throughout adult life. I look at empathy, the means of our mutual understanding, care, and help, as a key site for moral cultivation. I explicate the neurophysiological bases of empathy, both conscious and unconscious. Empathy is on the continuum with very primitive, automatic mirroring systems, which through varying levels of mimicry facilitate social cognition and moral insight and action. It is thus the ideal means of cultivating a skillful morality. Empathy enables us to enter the worlds and feelings of others in rich and full-bodied ways and so can reveal others in their full subjectivity. Such experiences can incite empathic regard and compassionate action, but empathy, like all of our psycho-social capacities, requires cultivation to develop its skillfulness in practice. Narrative is an obvious means of cultivating empathy because it is humanity’s primary meaning-making structure, utilizing the empathic imagination to seduce us into the inner worlds of others. Through narrative dramatizations of experience, we learn to see and feel from another’s point of view, sensitizing us to their inner states and outward behavior. Such sensitivity can facilitate improving our moral attitudes and action by dislodging preoccupation with self-concern and instigating higher regard for others. In narratives we can imaginatively practice various moral actions, witnessing possible results. Reflective engagement can then bring the moral insights of these imaginative experiences to life in our practical worlds by attuning us to what is morally salient. Narrative engagement is thus a natural and vital part of shaping empathic moral perception for compassionate action. By reading and feeling with others reflectively, we can expand empathy for the pluralistic communities in which we live, make meaning, and grow.