First 'Expanding Empathy' lecture coming March 5 with ethicist Jesse Graham

David Price
March 02, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With ourselves at the middle of our own moral circles, we are surrounded by circle upon concentric circle of potential targets of our moral concern: family, friends, community, state, nation, humanity, all living things, and inanimate objects. The possibilities are, quite literally, as endless as the universe itself.

In the opening presentation of the 2020 Rock Ethics Institute “Expanding Empathy” lecture series, Jesse Graham — George S. Eccles Professor of Business Ethics and associate professor of management at the University of Utah — will examine the tensions brought about by how we manage our moral regard for others.

To whom do we owe our empathy, our concerns and our moral efforts?

“Graham's work in moral diversity is really important and provocative,” says C. Daryl Cameron, assistant professor of psychology in Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts and convener of the “Expanding Empathy” series.

“It's useful in trying to understand intergroup conflict,” Cameron adds, “as well as how we understand who expands empathy and who contracts it. Who reserves empathy for only those with whom they have a close, personal interaction, and who extends empathy beyond those closely-held circles?”

At 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, in Foster Auditorium in Paterno Library, Graham will be presenting on the idea of two opposing sets of forces in people’s moral circles.

The first has centripetal forces pulling inward and urging greater concern for those people and things closest to us (e.g., our family and friends) over concern for those more distant from us. The second has centrifugal forces pushing outward, resisting “drawing the line,” as that could be a form of prejudice, and urging equal concern for all, regardless of the social distance from oneself.

“When we talk about when we extend our empathy, not everyone thinks that that is something we should do. People disagree widely on whether we should expand empathy for everyone, or keep it close,” explained Cameron, who also is a research associate in Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute.

We see that disconnect evidenced in our democracy, as part of the democratic process is attempting to achieve cooperation and reduce conflict even when people have very different values and beliefs, he added.

Graham, along with Jonathan Haidt and others, developed Moral Foundations Theory as a way to consider these different ways that people can moralize the world. While at University Park, Graham also will appear on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy podcast, “Democracy Works,” to discuss this relationship between moral diversity and the democratic and political process.

Admission to Graham’s lecture is free, and it is open to the entire campus community and the general public.

Now in its second year, the objective of the “Expanding Empathy” lecture series is to provide a broad look into understanding when, why and how people decide to have empathy and concern and to help other people.

The next two lectures in the series also will be held in Foster Auditorium beginning at 3:30 p.m.

The final lecture in the 2020 series will be held in Freeman Auditorium in the HUB-Robeson Center, also beginning at 3:30 p.m.

All of the lectures will be digitally archived and available online after the presentations.

The series is supported by Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts and College of Health and Human Development, as well as the Department of Psychology, the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, and the Penn State University Libraries.

As part of his broader research and outreach on empathy and generosity, series organizer Daryl Cameron is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Established in 2001 through the support of Doug and Julie Rock, the Rock Ethics Institute promotes engaged ethics research and ethical leadership from its home in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Photograph of Jesse Graham

    Jesse Graham

    IMAGE: University of Utah

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 06, 2020