Empathy – an ethical attitude at the time of Covid-19


(from the Alphonsian Academy Blog)

(Part I)

By Mario Boies, C.S.R., M.Ps. [1]

Through this reflection, my objective is to present some psycho-ethical and spiritual aspects of empathy, in order to react in a serene, responsible, supportive and resilient way in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the first part of this Blog, the psycho-ethical aspects of empathy will be discussed, while the second part will be devoted to the spiritual dimension.

  1. A return to essential ethical values

From discussions with those around me, I have come to realize how much this devastating contamination situation is still very trying for everyone: sudden deaths of loved ones, a multitude of contaminated people, exhaustion of medical staff, quarantine at home, distance from family and friends, loss of employment, deprivation of certain services, anxiety, worry, insecurity, etc.

At the same time, however, many people have told me that this crisis is an opportunity to make us aware of the essential ethical values that we must live anew: self-responsibility, civil and social co-responsibility, respect for human life, the dignity of the person, the meaning of death, the protection of one’s own health and that of others, the family, solidarity, dedication, mutual aid, resilience, courage, benevolence, concern, compassion, etc.

In order to give concrete expression to the living of these values at the time of Covid-19, I believe that empathy is a fundamental ethical attitude to be internalized and developed at the personal, interpersonal, social and global levels.

  1. The psycho-ethical foundations of empathy according to Hoffman

As such, Martin Hoffman’s research on empathy as a fundamental attitude in the development of moral judgment is enlightening. Indeed, in light of his research in social psychology, Hoffman first demonstrated that empathy in human beings is an innate attitude that develops from the first months of life, through the child’s relationship with his parents [2].

The originality of this American psychologist was to develop a multidimensional approach to empathy that integrates four fundamental dimensions of the human being: cognitive, affective, motivational and prosocial [3].

– The cognitive dimension of empathy refers to the rational capacity to recognize and understand adequately what the other person is experiencing and feeling. In short, to make a correct interpretation of the other person’s experience and feelings.

– The affective dimension of empathy refers to the emotional impact that a situation experienced by another person has on an individual. In other words, affective empathy is generated by the visceral experience of an emotion that is congruent with that experienced by another person.

– The motivational dimension of empathy corresponds to an altruistic and compassionate attitude that pushes a person to help another person in his or her suffering.

– Finally, the pro-social dimension of empathy is a concrete altruistic action that the person undertakes to really help a suffering person[4].

Based on these four components of empathy, one of Hoffman’s notable contributions has been to demonstrate how this attitude can actively contribute to the development of ethical conduct and moral judgment [5]. Indeed, according to him, the psychological foundations of ethical behaviour are found:

– on the one hand, in the empathic response to a suffering person..;

– and on the other hand, in a compassionate attitude that urges one to help a person in need [6].


  1. Four empathetic attitudes towards Covid-19

I believe that these psychological insights into empathy can help us to make moral judgements based on co-responsibility, caring, compassion and mutual aid, and then adopt appropriate ethical conduct in the fight and prevention of Covid-19.

To do this, let us see how this pandemic gives us the opportunity to internalize and develop ethical attitudes from these four empathic dimensions of Hoffman.

Cognitive empathy: The abundant information in the media about the suffering of so many people in the world, creates an empathic attitude that allows us to “put ourselves in the place” of these sick people. In this way, it is possible to better understand their suffering rationally.

Affective Empathy: This cognitive understanding of the suffering of others then allows one to empathically feel, deep down, the emotions associated with this terrible Covid-19 disease. In this way, it is possible to internalize and personally experience the suffering experienced by these sick people.

Motivational Empathy: The empathic feeling of suffering of Covid-19 patients will create an altruistic and interpersonal empathic motivation and a sense of compassion to help these people in their suffering.

Pro-social empathy: Finally, this compassion stimulates us to be proactive, by carrying out pro-social ethical actions, in order to concretely alleviate the suffering of these sick people or to prevent the contagion of Covid-19, for example:

– the doctors and nurses who generously sacrifice their lives at the risk of their own to care for the patients of Covid-19;

– all citizens and families who, for their personal good, for the protection of others and for the common good of our societies, faithfully accept to “stay at home”, in order to live serenely and patiently in quarantine (at the request of our leaders), in order to avoid the spread of the Covid-19 contagion, etc.

This application to the Covid-19 pandemic, allows us to appreciate more fully how these four dimensions of empathy can foster the development of moral judgment and ethical conduct at the personal, interpersonal, social and global levels. The next Blog, will be devoted to the spiritual dimension of empathy.

(The second part of the article is scheduled to appear next week)


[1] Visiting Professor of empirical anthropology at the Alphonsian Academy of Rome. of Rome © All rights and contents of this article, in whole or in part, are reserved to the author.

[2] Cf. M. L. Hoffman, Empatia e sviluppo morale (Saggi), vol. 701, Il Mulino, Bologna 2008, 61-88, 89-106 ; D. Bacchini, «L’empatia come fondamento dello sviluppo morale», in L. Barone – D. Bacchini (ed.), Le emozioni nello sviluppo relazionale e morale, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milano 2013, 5a ristampa, 127-138.

[3] Cf. M. Boies, Psychologie et morale: réception de la psychologie cognitive-développemen-tale au sein de la théologie morale postconciliaire, Universidad Comillas, Madrid 2006, 162.

[4] Cf. M. L. Hoffman, Empatia e sviluppo morale, 53-54 ; M. Boies, «L’empatia come chiave di rilettura del perdono e della riconciliazione», in A. V. Amarante – F. Sacco (ed.), Riconciliazione sacramentale: morale e prassi pastorale, Edizioni Messaggero, Padova 2019, 121-122 ; D. Bacchini, «Lo sviluppo morale», in L. Barone (ed.), Manuale di psicologia dello sviluppo, Carocci Editore, Roma 2016, 10a ristampa, 343 ; M. Boies, Psychologie et morale, 162-163.

[5] Cf. M. L. Hoffman, «La aportación de la empatía a la justicia y al juicio moral», in N. Eisenberg – J. Strayer (ed.), La empatía y su desarrollo, Desclée De Brouwer, Bilbao 1992, 59-93.

[6] Cf. ID., Empatia e sviluppo morale, 89, 123 ; D. Bacchini, «Lo sviluppo morale», 346 ; M. Boies, Psychologie et morale, 163.

Source: text&photo – http://www.alfonsiana.org; the original text is in French.