Empathy for education: a naturalist utilitarian argument

  • Timothy Walters

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


In this work I argue that opportunities exist to develop frameworks for moral or empathy education (hereafter EfE) more consistent with emerging understandings of the way we arrive at moral judgments. I argue that a rapidly evolving construal of moral judgment is more accurate than (still influential) rationalist accounts. The essence of this shifting perspective is a construal of moral judgment as characterised by (1) "primacy of affect" and (2) heightened emphasis on the socially embedded nature of moral judgments. While variously compatible with long established traditions in moral philosophy (particularly the moral sense theories of, inter alia, David Hume or Adam Smith) this distinct view of human moral nature is emerging across a range of empirical disciplines with renewed vigour and enhanced empirical support. Moral psychology and neuroscience play leading, but not exclusive, roles in this emphatically interdisciplinary process. Shifting paradigms in economics, anthropology, and moral psychology are converging on strikingly similar construals of human moral nature. I will argue that the potential of these insights to explain and justify particular approaches to teaching and learning have yet to be fully exploited in contemporary moral education discourse. It will be argued that encouraging the development of dispositional empathy in learners is a choice-worthy and attainable goal of EfE. EfE approaches used to elicit affective/empathic responses and social reflection, such as moral life narrative and other storytelling techniques, comport with emerging views of moral experience and judgment. It is argued that these approaches are, therefore, potentially more effective than rationality-centred systems given a goal of increased dispositional empathy.
Date of Award22 Jan 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorHugh Lauder (Supervisor) & Andrew Stables (Supervisor)


  • empathy
  • utilitarianism
  • naturalism

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