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The Moral Dilemma of Using Empathy: When Does It Become Detrimental?

Two of my neighbors had a heated argument (Mark and Kevin).

They were screaming so loud people began coming out of their homes to observe the interaction. Later that night, Mark (allegedly) went across the street and tossed a brick through the windshield of Kevin’s 1972 Ford Mustang Classic. A car that was passed down to Kevin after his father died.

The conflict escalated until charges were made, resulting in Mark eventually moving.

At the height of the incident, another neighbor approached me and said, “Can you believe what Mark is doing? He is really in the wrong. What do you think?”

My answer was a jumble of morality, ethics, personal feelings, empathy, values, and perspective-taking … and ultimately, it got us nowhere.

Mostly because my neighbor was a simple, “Yes, I think Mark is wrong” or “I can see why Mark is upset” type of guy.  

And there lies the dilemma of balancing morality vs. empathy. 

Emotional empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It fosters connections, promotes compassion, and facilitates collaborative relationships.

Cognitive empathy is similar but focuses on perspective-taking and putting yourself in someone’s shoes without taking on the emotional burdens of the other person.

Both styles are often regarded as powerful human traits that can change minds, inspire collaboration, and help conflicting ideas find common ground.

In contrast, someone’s morals or morality is their idea of right or wrong, especially regarding their specific behavior in each situation. A person’s morals or values have been shaped by their environment, family, faith, and personal experiences since birth. Our morality heavily influences most, if not all, of our decisions.

Recently, I was scrolling through my phone and ended up watching a debate between a far-right influencer and a far-left commentator. Both were tasked with having a “discussion” about a polarizing issue taking place in the world.

The conversation went like this:

Far right: I can understand why (polarizing issue) is happening and believe both sides are responsible.

Far left: Yes, but which side is wrong?

Far right: It depends on which perspective I take.

Far left: Yes, but don’t you agree one side is evil?

Far right: I suppose it depends on how you define evil.

Far left: So, you are justifying what happened?

Far-right: No, but I can see why it did happen.

I see these interactions daily, which are very similar to the debate many of my neighbors had when discussing the conflict between Mark and Kevin.

Unfortunately, these conversations do little to bring people together and promote change.

Before proceeding, I am writing this blog as someone who believes empathy is the most powerful trait a person can possess. 

Countless examples show how suspending one’s ego to perspective-take can inspire new ideas and create real change. I suggest watching the Ted Talk by Daryl Davis as one such example.

I must also clarify that I am a person whose biggest pet peeve and emotional trigger is when someone claims a particular morality or code of ethics but suspends them to justify behaviors that, based on their moral code, would be “wrong.”

For example, suppose I think throwing a brick through my neighbor's window is morally wrong. In that case, I shouldn’t justify Mark’s behavior, no matter how much I understand what may have motivated the decision.

This brings me to what I believe is happening today: the weaponization of empathy and the selective use of morality.

I hope this one doesn’t get me in trouble.

The Dark Side of Empathy

Empathy is fundamental in building strong bonds, but what happens when it becomes an overwhelming force with unintended negative consequences

It can lead to emotional exhaustion, burnout, and decreased prosocial behavior. 

When we constantly absorb the pain and suffering of others, it can be emotionally draining, affecting our mental well-being. Perspective-taking can also drag us into cognitive dissonance so strong that we begin behaving in ways that do not represent who we are at our core.

This internal conflict leads to mental gymnastics that help us justify behavior that conflicts with our moral code.

Let’s look at compassion fatigue first.

Compassion Fatigue and Emotional Overload

Compassion fatigue, or empathic distress, occurs when individuals experience extreme emotional exhaustion due to their empathy overload. When constantly inundated with the suffering of others, individuals may struggle to separate their emotions from those they are empathizing with. This ongoing emotional overload can result in depleted resources, rendering them unable to provide adequate support or care.

Think of nurses in hospice centers, ER technicians, paramedics, police officers, child protection workers, etc. These positions are especially susceptible to emotional overload and fatigue, resulting in the desensitization and rationalization of behaviors that, based on their moral code, are unjustifiable.

This numbing effect can then lead to the use of selective empathy.

The Cognitive Bias and Selective Empathy

Despite its intention to cultivate compassion, empathy can sometimes be selective. People are more likely to empathize with others with similar backgrounds, beliefs, or values. This empathy can prevent us from truly understanding individuals with differing opinions or experiences, leading to tribalism and societal divisions.

Our dilemma with Mark and Kevin highlighted selected empathy and outrage quite well. People who were emotionally invested in what caused Mark to respond how he did gave him empathy.

People who thought Mark was morally wrong and had no emotional investment in Mark being “right” quickly supported Kevin through the lens of their ethical code.

In either case, everyone decided to assign their morality or demonstrate empathy based on their desired outcome.

Spoiler alert: The media loves this type of empathy. Their ratings and ad revenue thrive on it.

Internet commentator: So, aren’t you telling us to do what you tell us not to do? What exactly are you asking us to do here??? (insert an emoji of your liking here)

The above comment made me laugh and cry a bit because it truly highlights the title of this blog.

In a world where we are bound by our moral code that has been shaped since we were children but challenged to practice empathy to ensure we are inclusive and avoid bias, what do we do if both strategies lead us down a destructive path?

I don’t have a clear answer.

Empathy, in its essence, is a crucial aspect of human interaction and emotional connection.

However, it is essential to recognize its complex nature and potential negative implications when taken to extremes. 

Morality allows us to live and collaborate in groups, working towards the greater good. 

However, morals also change based on time, experiences, and location and can be used to dehumanize and disregard others with conflicting beliefs.

Both can be selective.

Acknowledging the importance of empathy and compassion while being mindful of potential pitfalls is crucial for maintaining a healthy emotional state.

Striking a balance between empathy and ethics allows genuine support without compromising personal well-being.

Ultimately, emphasizing the need for emotional boundaries and understanding the psychology behind empathy can create a more empathetic society that supports others and protects its emotional health.

Let us responsibly harness empathy's power, cultivating a kind and sustainable world without enabling behaviors that harm or disenfranchise others.

Let us have a clear moral boundary and value system while being open-minded to new information or ideas that could change our minds.

In other words, I empathize with Mark’s anger and the plight of living next to someone you believe wants to do you harm. I empathize with the emotional weight of a constant conflict and the lack of support from outside sources to mediate the conflict. I appreciate that Mark has some childhood trauma from being bullied and felt Kevin had mocked him for months. I also empathize with the stress of Mark’s mother going through cancer treatment and how they were struggling to keep their home.

I also acknowledge that based on my morality, sneaking out in the middle of the night to damage someone’s vehicle and then denying it was you is cowardly. I cannot say if Mark is a coward, but based on my values, I would have felt like one if I had taken a similar action.

Therefore, I suppose we are back where we started, and it is up to you to determine if Mark is the problem, if Kevin was wrong, or if my view on the situation is “selective.”

Should Mark be held accountable for how he treated Kevin, or should Kevin be responsible for his alleged actions that occurred in response?

Take the poll below and tell me in the comments where you landed.

Who was right?

  • Mark

  • Kevin

  • Neither

  • Both


I would regret not shouting out everyone reading this who emotionally pours into others. Whether at work, in your community, or at home, the most powerful gesture you can give is unconditional kindness. No matter your moral code or commitment to practicing empathy, showing someone compassion, grace, and kindness is the purest form of goodness. Please do not ever change that part of you. Thank you.


*Statements on this blog reflect the author's personal opinions and do not represent any other person, company, or organization. The purpose of this blog is general knowledge and to bring awareness to tools, techniques, people, and organizations that bring about positive change. The reader is strongly encouraged to perform independent research about the topics discussed.

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