I'm a psychology student with a question about ethics: Is empathy ESSENTIAL to morality. Could a person without the capacity for empathy still be a morally good person? (Note that I am not asking whether empathy is morally useful.) Psychopaths are often described as lacking empathy, and this is often offered up as an explanation for their immoral behavior, so one might be tempted to use them as evidence that empathy is necessary for morality. This, however, strikes me as a bit fast and loose because in addition to emotional deficiencies, psychopaths also show a remarkable lack or underdevelopment of practical reason. It may also be worth asking whether empathy can be used in immoral ways. A skilled torturer, for instance, might be a more effective torturer if she or he can accurately channel, measure, and thus manipulate the emotional pain of a victim. Or con artists may use empathy to better read a mark, and so on. One might counter that when we empathize, we further react with some degree of care or...

What a rich question! Could a person without empathy be a morally good person? I suppose the old moralist Kant would say so. Hume, of course, would go in the opposite direction. It is, I guess, conceivable that such an individual might avoid all forms of transgressions, maybe even lead a saintly life. But conceivable is about it. I would think there was something wrong with an individual who could witness say the slaughter of Rwanda and not feel anything. Such an individual would certainly be classified as suffering from a psychological disorder. Putting the "morally" good life aside, we might press, could a person devoid of fellow feeling lead a good life? I don't think so. They would be missing out on what it means to be a human being. As for the dark side of empathy, it is true that empathy might lead us to unjust deeds and judgements, but the misuse of empathy is no argument against empathy itself.

Is it wrong to profit off someone else's misfortune, even if your profit doesn't make them any worse? Suppose a hurricane hits a nearby town. If I travel to that town and sell batteries at a 300% markup, I can make a lot of money off of their misery, but I didn't cause them any misery. Is that still exploitation?

It depends upon what you mean by wrong. It certainly would not be a sign that you were a virtuous individual if a hurricane struck and you were filled with glee because of some of the products that you could sell them. A few decades ago, I was working as a Fuller Brush salesman in Florida. After a hurricane hit us, my supervisor was all pumped up about all the sales we could make. I found that attitude a mite sickening. And expecting people to pay in full for something when their home and life savings may have literally been washed away would seem a little stone hearted. On the other hand, I can imagine circumstances in which you were helping disaster victims and making a buck at the same time and there would not seem to be anything immoral about. Suppose you were re-building roads that had been washed out. As is often the case, it would all depend on the particulars and the individuals atttitude - unless, of course, you have been persuaded by Utilitarianism. Thanks. GM

Following the recent tragic events in Japan there has been a "wave" of jokes and puns on the internet about the earthquake and tsunami. Is it morally acceptable to joke about something so serious and tragic? Should ethical people be outraged at photoshopped pictures showing Godzilla as the true source of the tsunami or at bad puns about waves?

I don't think it is morally acceptable to joke about tragedies. While I know that it is part of the orthodoxy amongst comics to try and be edgy, perhaps even to try and shock, cracking jokes about thousands of people being killed and thousands upon thousands more losing their homes certainly evinces a lack of compassion and humanity. I don't have a syllogism to proof this but I think that finding entertainment in tsunamis, or maybe next, the holocaust, makes us more indifferent to others and is bad for the soul.

Is it ethical to live a lifestyle of luxury when that lifestyle relies on exploitation and unjust inequalities?

I suppose you could go the "it depends on what you mean by ethical route", but I would prefer a simple - of course not . And yet over the course of American history the robber barons and hall of fame exploiters inevitably become major philanthropists. They destroy lives to build their fortunes and then are pinned with medals for endowing universities and founding museums. But the virtuoso of money making who uses others to fill his or her coffers is not a morally virtuous individual, even when they have streets and buildings named in their honor.

Hello: Almost two years ago -in January 2009- I was supposed to marry my fiancé with whom I have had a five-year relationship. Three weeks before our wedding, I just called her and cancelled everything over the telephone. That was a very mean and coward thing to do. I inflicted a serious emotional harm on her (and on myself too). A couple of months after I did such an awful thing (I can’t find a better word for that kind of action) I called her to apologize for what I have done. I explained her that I committed such a grave error because I was terrified of getting married. I wanted her back, but she refused me. Since then I’ve tried to gain her love again, but she just do not care for me anymore. I accept that as a fair outcome for my reckless behavior. I just deserve to be refused by my ex fiancé. What I haven’t been able to do until now is to cope with my regrets and my endless sense of guilt. I just can’t believe that I did what I did. I feel awful and unworthy of anything. I don’t need a priest...

If a friend were to tell you the poignant story that you relate I doubt that you would tell them that there ought to be no end to their guilt, that getting spooked by marriage and backing out is a sin that can never be forgiven. Think of yourself as a friend. You apologized many times. You have suffered.You did not by any means destroy your former fiance. Truly, it would be irrational to keep torturing yourself and if it is irrational no amount of reason is going to assuage the guilt. Perhaps though it isn't all guilt. Emotions are not as easy to individuate as things in the world. Perhaps there is a strong admixture of regret for not being with her, of missing her and feeling alone, maybe that is what you need to deal with the most and that could be very hard and painful. I hope very much that you get your soul back- it sure sounds as though you have a lot of it.

I was taught by my parents, as a young boy, that I should never hit first, but that if anyone hurt me, I should hit back, to show them I wasn't worth messing with. This is basically how I dealt with violence until the fifth or sixth grade; I don't remember ever starting a fight, but I was picked on often because I was bilingual, and when push came to shove, I shoved. I always got into trouble with teachers when I fought back, and came to believe that they supported bullying because they never helped me when I was being bullied; I felt alienated, and didn't trust the teachers at all. Yet I remember what happened when I stopped hitting back, and just turned the other cheek: nobody helped me then, either, and I found myself defenseless against bullies who harassed me because of my bilingualism and my good grades - and because I was a "pussy" who wouldn't hit back. My girlfriend and I recently had a frank discussion about our future plans, and we would like to have children in the next few years, if...

There are different forms of violence- some physical, some verbal. It has been my experience that there are some angry and aggressive people whom you need to stand up to - if only to help them control themselves. I suggest that you get you future child involved in the practice of one or another martial arts from the beginning. People who feel like they can defend themselves, who feel grounded in themselves are less defensive, less easily threatened than others-- and as a result much less inclined to anger and violence. So, if your aim is to raise a non-violent, loving kid, be loving and nurturing, and get him or her boxing from an early age.

I am thirteen years old and I do not understand the world. In terms of world hunger, how can one possibly find happiness in their lives when such tragedies exist? Approximately 24,000 thousand people starved to death today, and three billion people live with under two dollars every day. For one to continue their lives as normal, or even not give any care, would this be the equivalence of starving someone yourself since you have the power to make a difference, yet you are choosing not to? And is the root cause of poverty a lack of equality within the world, or are specific governments not running thing effectively? For people that are not actively practicing compassion, would that make you a horrible person for not wanting to aleviate the extent of pain and suffering that so many have to endure day after day?

A very good question - how can we happy in this world of seemingly boundless suffering? Of course, we could always get into the "it all depends what you mean by happiness" semantics game but lets not go there. Whatever the good life is, it will have to include a connection with other humans and a real feeling for their suffering. Maybe part of the good life would involve letting that suffering into your heart and making you a more compassionate person. Sinking into depression or despair over it would be rather narcisstic. A few random points, I think it is important of recognize that there are psychological as well as physical limitations in life-- on our capacity to care. It might also be important to remember to address the pain of the people sitting right next to you. In every class that I teach I find that about 20 percent of students are going through some very very hard stuff- parents dieing that kind of thing. So don't forget the person next to you in the face of world hunger. Finally, don't...

I believe we do something unethical by leading children to believe in a grossly simplified version of the world where right and wrong actions are clearly marked, and good and bad people similarly so. We tell them nothing of good intentions leading to evil actions through stupidity, the every day small compromises to our integrity and the submission to authority that people make every day at their jobs, etc. Do you agree that there is something unethical in this, and if so, are there any forums out there where this is voiced? Any books to recommend? Any remedy available?

I don't know that I would come down with the same moral judgment that you do but I strongly agree that we do not do enough to prepare people for the ambiguities in life. And you are on the mark with your small compromises. One of the greatest impediments to the moral life is our "ability" to pull the wool over our own eyes- to deceive ourselves - and we do little to address this issue in our ethics education. Thanks for your astute observation - formulated, of course, as a question