Ethics and Empathy

Ethics are the moral principles that govern people’s behaviour and the way they conduct life’s activities. Although ethics are generally assumed to be based on what is accepted as morally good and bad within a given society or group, in digital environments accepted behaviour often deviates from what is ethical and, indeed, unethical behaviour is sometimes seemingly even condoned. One typical example is bullying, when children (and adults!) strive to outdo each other with hurtful comments to get the praise of their peers. Moreover, as the borderless world of digital technology enables us to move effortlessly from one social framework or community to another, what is accepted as morally good or bad in one may clash with expectations in another.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e. the capacity to understand their perspective and reality and to place oneself “in their shoes”. Because it leads us to understand the interests, needs and perspectives of others, empathy is an important determinant of moral behaviour, and a necessary building block in creating moral communities. It is the driver and the essence of perspective taking, constitutes the lens through which we look at a person or a group of people and has a major impact on how we perceive, understand and respond to others and to life events. In this way, empathy “colours” the ethical framework transmitted through family and society, enabling each person to progressively create their own nuanced filter through which input can be analysed and “good” or meaningful actions taken, or decisions made.

Empathy and ethics are at the core of the Council of Europe’s competence model, since they are based on an understanding of the values of human dignity and human rights, and shaped by an attitude of respect for, and a sense of responsibility towards, others, as well as through a solid knowledge and critical understanding of oneself. Combined with the skills of listening, observation and co-operation, these competences enable a person to perceive a multi-perspective reality and engage with the diversity of others. Daniel Goleman, author of several publications on emotional intelligence, identifies this perception-engagement process as “tuning into emotional cues”.1 He underlines the importance of paying attention to non-verbal communication as a means of sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns. It is obviously more challenging to tune into non-verbal communication in an online environment. Furthermore, neuro-plasticity research suggests that the constant over-stimulation of our brain caused by the multitude of sounds and rapid images we are bombarded with via the internet is having an impact on our capacity to process subtler non-verbal and other cues, and slowing down development of our prefrontal cortex which helps us analyse potential consequences of our actions.2

Developing ethics and empathy throuh childhood

Ethics and empathy are normally initially taught or modelled by parents. The more parents’ ways of thinking are in line with the dominant culture, the less their children will have cause to think about them. However, when children enter child care, kindergarten and school, the interaction with other children from wide-ranging backgrounds rapidly confronts them with other realities. This is an important part of the socialisation function of educational establishments, where diversity and inclusion become enriching and empowering forces as children set off on their path towards active digital citizenship.

Ethics and empathy are not linear and become dynamic as people seek to comprehend one another and, through interaction, influence each other’s thinking and understanding. As children progressively extend their social circle and information sources to include on- and offline friends and social media tools and platforms, they are confronted with an even greater range of perspectives that will continue to shape their ethics and capacity for empathy. Friendly, non-obtrusive guidance of parents and teachers will play a fundamental role in this process, optimally until early adolescence.

Research over recent years has given us a better understanding of the neural processes that affect the ability of the human mind to understand and process emotion.

Empathy is seemingly explained through the activation of mirror neurons that also define our human “mind-reading” and emotion sharing abilities.3 From earliest childhood, children learn to read the emotional state of others in their interactions within the family circle and come to spontaneously mirror or mimic the emotional response that they would expect to see from others in a given condition or context.

Although we are still not very far advanced in finding reliable measures for empathy,4 research shows that people considered to be very empathetic have especially busy mirror neuron systems in their brains. Research in this area is also providing valuable insights into autism.

Why are ethics and empathy important in digital citizenship?

Empathy can be used to trigger or reinforce anti-ethical behaviour. Fear and high stress, for example, act as inhibitors of a certain hormone (called oxytocin) that reduces our capacity for empathy. This modifies what we would normally consider ethical behaviour and explains why high stress or fear generally interfere with a person’s capacity to interact with others effectively. It is from this that we derive the old saying: “fear is the father of prejudice”. Some recent national elections have shown how empathy can be misused to induce unethical behaviour in another way, too, with candidates acting in an empathetic way to people who are racist or sexist, for example, indirectly condoning such bigotries to gain support. Empathy can be a powerful stirrer of calls to arms, that can lead to or even quell violence. Whereas photos like that of the napalmed Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc in 1972, and in 2017 the Syrian refugee toddler washed up on the beach, have helped shorten a war or raise public outrage at an inhuman situation, the example of James Foley being beheaded by ISIS (2014) triggered an escalation of military violence.

Research suggests that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through open, empathetic dialogue. Empathy plays a critical role in peace building and mediation because it expands understanding and contributes to shaping relationships between the sparring factions. When empathy is integrated in pedagogical

strategies with children and adults alike, it helps learners tackle challenges with greater confidence and accept failure as a means rather than an obstacle to learning, fostering self-awareness in the process. Being empathetic also helps people fit in more easily in a new group or context, because it gives them the tools to assess the situation and act in a way that will get them accepted, while remaining true to their values. Empathetic people are more able to live by their own ethical standards, without having to do things they know are not acceptable just to fit in.

In our technology-rich society, children are confronted with a multitude of opportunities, obstacles and influences unbeknown to citizens just a generation ago. Empathy and ethics together will serve them as an indispensable moral compass to navigate successfully through this new reality, providing a means of ethically tackling the biases and challenges they will inevitably encounter along the way.

1. Goleman D (2011), The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, More Than Sound, USA.

2. Carr N. (2010), The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W. W. Norton & Co., New York.

3. Krznaric R. (2015), Empathy: Why it matters, and how to get it, Random House, UK.

4. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) is the only published measurement tool accounting for a multidimensional assessment of empathy, consisting of a self-report questionnaire of 28 items, divided into four seven-item scales covering the subdivisions of affective and cognitive empathy. Davis M. (1983), “Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 44 (1), pp. 113-126. DOI:10.1037/0022-3514.44.1.113.

How does it work?

Ethics is about relationships, about caring for the well-being of ourselves and those around us, and about developing an understanding of what is or is not acceptable in the social frameworks we are part of. It is about having a well-informed conscience and being true to who we are and what we stand for. Ethics is a dynamic concept, based on the whole set of competences in the Council of Europe competence framework, and evolving throughout life as we live more experiences, explore difficult questions and integrate a broader range of perspectives.

The development of both ethics and empathy are impacted, from earliest childhood onwards, by a variety of environmental factors, not least parenting styles and practices. Paternal warmth and use or non-use of corporal punishment are thought to be of particular importance,5 but above all children need to be encouraged and guided to reflect on their own feelings and observe and imagine the perspectives of others as they explore the world. Roman Krznaric, a renowned researcher working with the Greater Good team at Berkeley University in the USA, suggests that empathetic people have six habits in common,6 and we can draw on these to help children of all ages develop empathy and better understand ethics.

Empathetic people:

  • 1. are effective listeners and observers;
  • 2. are curious about strangers;
  • 3. look for things they have in common with others and challenge their prejudices about others;
  • 4. like to play games and conduct activities that enable them to “try on” the life of other people;
  • 5. want to bring about social change and help create group actions to get everyone involved;
  • 6. use every opportunity to develop their imagination and their creativity.

Educational and citizenship value

Figure 11: Ethics and empathy – Core digital citizenship competencesEthics and empathy act as a moral compass that steers young people in their actions and in discussions on personal and societal issues. Because they provide essential reference points in all facets of a person’s life, they are important tools in developing self-efficacy and in valuing cultural diversity and openness to cultural otherness and other world views, beliefs and practices. When learners are made aware of the role that ethics play in guiding their actions and are sufficiently empathetic to be able to look at issues from different perspectives, they are more able to tolerate ambiguity and less easily influenced by peers, media and trends. They are able to accept that multiple viewpoints existing side by side can be an enriching, empowering element without needing to convince or convert others. In this way, ethics and empathy become a springboard for the imagination and are valuable assets in problem solving and autonomous learning.

Stanford University (USA) has recently conducted research that underlines the educational value for teachers, too. In three different experiments with a total of almost 2 000 children at different school levels, it was proven that by training teachers to have an empathetic rather than a punitive mindset, the rate of student absenteeism can be reduced by half.7

Figure 11: Ethics and empathy – Core digital citizenship competences

5. Tisot C. (2014), “Environmental Contributions to Empathy Development in Young Children”, Hong Kong.

6. Krznaric R. (2012), “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People”, Greater Good Magazine. 

7. Parker B. (2016), “Teacher empathy reduces student suspensions”, Stanford News.