An Aetiology of Recognition: Empathy, Attachment and Moral Competence

In Edward Harcourt (ed.), Attachment and Character. Oxford University Press. pp. 195-223 (2021)
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This chapter explores the suggestion that early attachment underpins the human capacity for empathy, and that empathy, in turn, is a condition of moral competence. We are disposed by nature to seek intimacy with our human conspecifics: the securely attached child learns that, whatever perils the world may hold, his well-being is shielded within the private sphere of personal intimacy. But why should secure attachment also favour—as it does—recognition of moral obligations towards those with whom we have no special standing and share no personal destiny—recognition that the claims of persons as such merit our attention and regard? One answer to this question looks beyond the fact of secure attachment to a further psychological capacity, our capacity for empathy: secure attachment promotes susceptibility to empathy, and an appropriate susceptibility to empathy is a condition of basic moral competence. The chapter proposes that the deeper and more persisting significance of empathy to morality can be understood from a developmental perspective. Looking to mentalization-based attachment theory allows us to understand how empathic mirroring enters into our earliest intimate, interactions with other persons, securing our default commitment to recognizing their reality as bound up with our own. In this way, empathy constitutes one of the natural foundations on which the more complex architecture of moral experience is constructed. Attachment theory helps us to understand the indispensable role empathy plays at the beginning of the circuitous road to virtue.



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Alison Denham
University of Oxford

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Empathy & Literature.A. E. Denham - 2024 - Emotion Review 16 (2):84-95.

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References found in this work

On the aesthetic education of man: in a series of letters.Friedrich Schiller - 1954 - New York: Oxford University Press. Edited by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson & L. A. Willoughby.

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