The Ethical Principle: “Act with Empathy”.
Act as if you are Infinite.
What is a Moral Agent?
The issue of how to live one’s life appropriately and what sort of behaviour should be regarded as ethical has perplexed humanity for thousands of years. And despite all of the thought and all of the effort devoted to the search for what is “right”, we are still no closer to any definitive answers.
At the outset I would suggest that ethical behaviour and the concept of some actions being “good” cannot be divorced from the actions of intelligent and sentient beings. The concepts of right and wrong, or good and evil make sense only within the context of our interactions with other persons and actions irrespective of their consequences can only be held to have an ethical flavour, if they are instigated by such a being.
For example, a Tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people, while being a tragedy is not held to be “evil” in and of itself. However, if a person who through his deliberate (or potentially even negligent) actions caused the avoidable deaths of a similar number of people, they would be condemned as evil by all. We view the actions of people differently, because they are active agents who can decide whether to inflict suffering on other and as such hold direct responsibility and culpability for their actions. The tsunami is merely an accident of nature, without any intention, direction, or agenda. The person is not.
But simply having intelligence, intention, direction, or an agenda is not sufficient to be considered a moral agent. Consider a tiger who has all of these attributes. If it were to maul a child and scar it for life, one would hardly describe its actions as morally wrong. But if a person were to do the same, we would be very quick to judge their behaviours as being wrong. Like the tsunami, the tiger, even though conscious, intelligent and having intentions, is not regarded as being a moral agent, as it lacks any understanding of its actions within this context.
Even if we look at the actions of people, we will often find that the same behaviours can be regarded as moral, depending on the state of consciousness of the individual. People who are under the influence of mind altering substances are often perceived as not being as morally culpable for their actions. Similarly, people who have suffered abuse, hardship, or other tragedy can be also held to be less responsible.
An interesting situation arises when one thinks of people, who like the tiger, seem to lack any understanding of their actions within a moral context. Persons like these will know, on an intellectual level that their actions are “wrong”, but they will know this in the same way and with the same level of emotion as they know that cows are mammals. Persons such as this are often called sociopaths, and one of the key ingredients that they lack is a capacity to feel the emotions of others. Persons such as this will often tend to be highly manipulative of others and can be quite charming and engaging. But they are like this, not because they use empathy to engage with others, but because
through a process of experimentation they have discovered which behaviours will elicit the responses that they seek to elicit in those around them. They are also potentially able to achieve a great deal of personal success, simply because they are prepared to take actions that advantage themselves, without concerning themselves with the feelings, or welfare of others.
These people make up around about 2% of the population. While they have a great deal of potential to cause great harm, most do not. Instead, they bumble along as best they can in a world that they often don’t understand. Many will not even realise that they are different from those around them, and may endeavour to uphold codes of morality that they have been taught. But they will attempt to uphold these codes because they believe on an intellectual level that they should, not because they are engaged with any real understanding of what it means for something to be ethical. Their implementation of these codes is likely to be rigid and unbending holding the application of the codes above their impacts on the people concerned.
But, sociopaths also have great potential to cause evil. Without any connection to the feelings of others, some will feel no compunction about inflicting pain, torment, or death on others. They are significantly more likely to commit a range of violent and anti-social crimes, including serial killing, rape, murder and assault. In times of war, unlike their colleagues who feel empathy for their victims, they will feel no compunction about killing and may even take a kind of barbaric joy in it.
But the interesting question regarding the sociopath is whether they can be considered to be a moral agent. Many would suggest that their inherent lack of any understanding of the moral landscape and of empathy for others would mean that they are not moral agents, even if they do endeavour to act in an ethical manner due to the constraints of society, indoctrination into a particular moral belief system, or because it will allow them to advance personally.
If a sociopath is a person who is potentially not a moral agent, what would a person who definitely is definitely a moral agent, who would be inspired to act in an ethical manner at all times, look like? Arguably, they would be the person who is most able to experience a connection to those around them and to act in a manner that reliably creates good in both the community and individuals. This person would find that they are simply unable to engage in behaviours that we identify as being evil, such as rape, assault, murder and torture. Their inability to escape feeling the pain that they inflict on others would simply prevent them from acting in such a way.
From this we can see that a moral agent is a sentient, who is able to conceptualise its behaviour within a moral framework. Furthermore a moral agent is a person who understands that a moral framework actually represents the impacts of one’s actions upon other sentients, because these sentients have feelings, emotions, thoughts and experiences that are worthy of respect.
Further evidence of this can be found if we seek to understand to whom we owe our ethical obligations. Upon reflection it becomes apparent that ethical behaviour involves actions that adversely impact upon other sentients, even if that action is only indirect. For example, if I kill a person, I have committed murder. If I kill a tree, it is highly unlikely that I have done anything ethically wrong. However, if the tree was sacred to a community, or the prize possession of a person, or the last habitat of an almost extinct species, then one could easily argue that I have done wrong. But the wrong to be found in my actions would not be because I have killed a tree, but rather
because my actions have adversely impacted upon other sentients in a variety of negative ways. Even then, it would require some very unique circumstances for the wrong of my killing a tree to be considered on par with my wrong of killing a person.
In other words, a tree, with no sentience of its own is not considered as being ethically important, unless it is thought of in context of sentient beings. While it is impossible to conceptualise torturing something a tree, it is quite possible to consider torturing an animal and most would regard this to be an evil act, because the animal has feelings, and enough sentience to experience the excruciating pain being inflicted upon it.
This distinction provides us with yet further evidence that what is important in moral decision making is the impact that our behaviours have upon sentients. But not all sentients are considered equal.
For example, whereas the killing of a human is almost universally considered wrong, the quick and painless killing of an animal is, for the most part not. While this can, quite legitimately, be argued as being attributable to a form of “specisim” where humans simply discriminate against animals that aren’t human, it can also be held to be because we recognise that animals are different from humans in that they are not as cognitively complex and live in the immediate present, with little conceptualisation, or awareness of the future. As such, while killing a human impacts upon the ability of a comparatively intelligent a person to realise their hopes and aspirations, the killing of
an animal does not.
As such, we can be confident in asserting that the key element of a behaviour being moral, or not it its impact upon other sentients.
In light of this realisation, it makes very little sense to talk about things that don’t adversely impact upon other sentients as being morally right, or wrong. For example, whether or not I go to church, masturbate, or dance can be thought of as having no impact whatsoever on another being and as such cannot be held as being morally wrong. However, if I go to church to make fun of the congregation, masturbate in a public space, or dance in the middle of a solemn funeral, then my actions do impact upon others and might therefore be considered wrong. But if I made fun of the church congregation, because they had sought to deny me my rights for the freedom of religious practice, while insisting on the sanctity of their own, masturbated during an orgy, or danced during a funeral, because that was the wish of the deceased and attendees, then it is hard to say that the actions could be considered immoral, or wrong.
Ethics and Laws: The Common Confusion.
Indeed, the only way that these actions could be considered “wrong” would be if a person already had an arbitrary position that held that 1) Not attending church is wrong, 2) Masturbation (and perhaps participating in an orgy) is wrong 3) Dancing (at funerals) is wrong. But in each case, the person making the judgement is ignoring the context and the wishes of the people involved and instead holding to a position that could only be justified through an appeal to external sources, such as a rigid code of laws, or beliefs that predefines “right” actions.
Clearly then, arbitrary distinctions of right verses wrong and good versus evil can only ever be guidelines. The real determination of moral correctness in an action is how it affects the people involved and the motives and desires of each. While many hold that God has handed down a particular set of immutable “Divine Laws” by which we are to abide, the Divine Principle, in demonstrating that no being, including god can ever know if they are actually “God”, effectively refutes these. Simply put, if god has no right to issue commands as if he were God, then any Divine Commands that he hands down to use can only be as arbitrary as those which we decide for ourselves. We are forced to search for other guidelines for Ethical Behaviour.
Laws are, at best only a useful guide and not the final justification for what is right and wrong. Indeed, it is often the case that laws are the vehicle for injustice and evil (especially when these are considered to be Divine Laws). This is because laws are often simply an imposition of certain behaviours by those in positions of authority. These laws most often reflect the views of those in power and are designed to abet their need to remain in power, rather than a desire to achieve a morally appropriate outcome.
Of course some laws reflect the “will of the people” and “community attitudes. But there is no guarantee that laws in these cases will be any more ethical than other ones, as in many cases, these laws still adhere to the prejudices of those in power, who seek to control the flow of information and ensure that the thoughts of the powerless conform to the views of the powerful.
A classic example of this is the current ban on the use of Transcendent Compounds, despite the fact that these have been demonstrated to be immensely safer than the only other legal mind altering substances, alcohol and tobbacco. This is an obvious example of the law not reflecting either the scientifically established comparative risks, or the will of those persons most directly involved, namely those who seek to use these as part of their religious practice.
Fail to abide by these often arbitrary behavioural dictates and you will almost certainly be visited by authoritarian people carrying weapons, who will deny you your freedoms, hurt you, or even kill you, simply because you broke the law, not because you actually did anything wrong!
Laws are certainly necessary. They are often the only thing that can protect us from the sharks who will always be within our midst. But laws must be crafted with great care to ensure that the public interest is met, while also ensuring that the rights of individuals are protected. Unfortunately, laws are all too often a negation of ethics, especially when they endevour to regulate private, personal behaviour, are the result of poorly informed decision making, or seek to uphold the privileges of one group over those of another.
The Ethical Principle.
While it may appear that my earlier discussion regarding the nature of ethical behaviour would inevitably result in a Utilitarian approach, where ethical behaviour is regarded as that which maximises the good, I am going to offer a more nuanced and infinitely complex suggestion regarding what I call the “Ethical Principle”.
Because each individual is different, we need to ensure that we are acting in a way that addresses the concerns of each person. Just as no two individuals are exactly alike, so too can we not be certain that the same actions towards each will be equally ethical. Individual behaviour can truly be said to be an exploration of infinite possibilities, rather than the imprisonment within arbitrary dichotomies. Because of this, ethical behaviour towards any individual needs to understand and account for their individual
differences, rather than simply involve the arbitrary impositions of one person’s desires, or beliefs.
What is morally right is not necessarily what the majority decree. In fact, it is quite often the opposite, as the majority often have a view that is based on what they value and which therefore ignores the wishes, desires and feelings of the minority.
But in order to ensure that we are addressing the concerns of each person, we need to be in a position where we understand what each person might seek, or want in order to best meet those needs. This can only be done by putting ourselves into their shoes and seeing the world from their perspective. In other words, this requires Empathy.
The good news is that this means that there is but a single Ethical Principle: “Act with Empathy”.
The bad news is that the whole project of acting ethically just got a whole lot harder. Not only are correct moral actions not black and white, they aren’t even grey. Instead, they are contained within a spectrum of Infinite Colour!
Because of this infinite variety of colour, the person who seeks to act ethically must also seek to engage with the hopes, desires, aspirations and fears of those with whom they interact. Without doing this, they can only rely on either stereotypes, or laws both of which negate the individual in favour of the sorts of broad assumptions, or impositions that are the antithesis of true ethical behaviour.
Most importantly, I am not offering another variation on the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Instead, I am suggesting that we should, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto you.
The Golden Rule, while useful in its time, fails to recognise the difference between people and only requires that a person understand themselves, rather than understanding others. If a person only understands themselves, they are likely to act unethically, as they seek to impose their views, understandings and beliefs upon those around them.
Think of this as The Golden Rule V 2.0.
Reason, Feeling and the Ethical Principle.
The most obvious problem with the Ethical Principle is that it could be argued that this Principle makes it hard for people who lack empathy to act ethically. However, as I shall soon discuss, “Act with Empathy” is not simply a commandment to act according to your feelings (ie empathy) towards others. Instead it requires that you engage with others on a rational, as well as emotional level, in order to understand the variety of individual difference and to judge your actions appropriately.
Every individual needs to apply the wisdom of reason to when seeking to make an honest determination as to the appropriate ethical behaviour. Indeed, there are very real risks for those who rely too much on their feelings and empathetic understandings of others. Firstly, it is quite likely that you will be wrong a number of occasions and that rather than feeling empathy for others, you are simply imposing your own emotions, or expectations onto their situation and assuming that others must be feeling what you feel, or what you expect that they should feel. In doing this, you are likely to assume that the person has acted immorally, when in fact they have merely done what is right for them. This arguably results in some of the most common abuses of the whole concept of ethics: the imposition of one’s own behaviour, actions and attitudes upon others.
When acting with Empathy, you will quickly realise that one of the worst reasons for compelling another to behave in a particular way is because that is the way that you would act. In doing this, not only have you have totally failed to take into account anything other than your own desires and wants, but you have almost certainly guaranteed a bad outcome, if for no other reason than the simple fact that all of us are different and no two people will ever act in exactly the same way, or desire the same thing, all the time.
The person who relies too much on their feelings may also be tempted to take the easy path of mitigating current pain, or hardship at the expense of further, greater pain later on. However, the reality is that there are numerous situations where temporary pain, or hardship is the key to a better outcome for all involved.
Reason is our shield against the likelihood of making these mistakes. In applying reason to our ethical dilemmas, we can hold our initial feelings in check, before mindlessly imposing them upon others. Reason also allows us to engage with real world evidence, research and science which can often allow us to determine whether our assumptions are in fact backed up by the objective evidence.
This allows us to combat one of the more insidious mechanisms for by which the ethically blind impose unethical behaviours upon people, namely the unfounded claim that a particular behaviour is immoral, because it is somehow “bad” for society, a nation, or individuals. While I am not going to tackle the question of what a “society” actually is, the one thing that can be said with 100% certainty is that society doesn’t have any feelings, desires, wants, or needs. It is not sentient and as such any actions that “harm” it can only be held as being unethical based on their impacts on individual members of that society. Societies are always in transition and their collapse is often
predicted, but rarely experienced. While individuals can certainly be harmed, assessment of harm needs to be based on objective criteria, rather than baseless supposition. The only way to ascertain potential for harm is to engage in independent, controlled, empirical research that allows the investigation of the behaviours and their purported effects. To act otherwise, is to beg the question.
An example of flagrantly unethical moralising based on the mere potential for harm can be seen by the decision of the United States Government to ban the use of the compound MDMA (also known by its street name of ecstasy). The American Medical Association testified at the government hearings that the compound had been anecdotally demonstrated as having significant medical potential, but that more research was required. But in an amazingly brazen demonstration of chutzpah, the US government decided to make the drug
illegal, precisely because there wasn’t enough research! In other words, they disregarded all reason, and prohibited what has turned out to be a fairly harmless substance. Indeed, not only is it fairly harmless, but the American researcher, Rick Doblin has recently demonstrated it to be highly effective when used in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
So, for those who lack the natural ability to empathetically understand the feelings of others, reason can certainly act as a guide This process of reason should be directed by asking the question of what you would want were you in the position of the other person, but recognising that you aren’t the other person and that you need to have some awareness of their views, hopes, fears and aspirations.
Just as the person with a natural and potentially overwhelming sense of empathy for others needs to learn to incorporate reason into their ethical narrative, so too does the person who has no empathy need to endeavour to incorporate it into their ethical narrative.
Without being able to incorporate empathy, reason alone can lead to some horrible and evil outcomes. As I have already mentioned, people without empathy are much more likely to engage in a range of evil behaviours, but so too can those who deliberately ignore and restrain their empathy for others. As evidence for this assertion and at the risk of violating Godwin’s Law, I will mention Heinrich Himmler, who commanded the Nazi SS and was the person who oversaw the entire Nazi State apparatus for the extermination of the Jews, gypsies and other “undesirables” within the Third Reich. Himmler noted that many of those under his command were experiencing negative emotions and feelings associated with the wholesale slaughter of innocents. He wrote a letter to be read to the troops (and here I am relying on memory, as I can’t find the exact quote and details, so will have to fill those in later), exhorting them to ignore these feelings, and claiming that the logic and rationales of Nazism were the real ethical imperative and that feelings must be put to the side and suppressed in pursuit of the greater good of an Aryan world free of subversive influence. The result of this wholesale dereliction of a nation’s
empathetic faculties was the slaughter of over six million people and a scar that still pains the German nation decades later, even after most of those involved have long since died.
While this is an extreme example, less extreme examples are not uneasy to discover. Indeed, whenever a person relies solely on reason and has little consideration for the feelings, hopes, desires and aspirations of the persons involved, an unethical outcome is almost certain. As previously mentioned, laws and legal systems can be sterling examples of where a one size fits all brand of “reason” dominates and in which a heartless bureaucratic system and has no desire, or compulsion to treat its victims with empathy.
But how can we learn to treat people with Empathy? The first step in relation to this, is actually one that is based on reason and that is to recognise that no one person is either more, or less important than any other. While it might seem that you and your tribe, nation, friends, or family have significantly more intrinsic worth, this is simply not the case. While these things might be more important to you, the circumstances that made you, “you” and lead to you being surrounded by these, could just as easily lead to you being surrounded by a completely different set of circumstances.
Probably the best way of learning empathy for others would have to be to simply talk to them and to ask them what their perspective is. While people may not always answer honestly (for example if you ask about their views on a particularly controversial topic), doing this is likely to be the best way of ensuring that your actions are in tune with the goal of promoting the good in those around you.
From here, it is necessary to endeavour to learn about others and this can be done through reading, or studying in areas such as psychology, sociology and anthropology.
Psychology is useful, because it allows us to understand individuals and their perfectly legitimate differences. Psychologists have developed quite a number of ways of understanding personality and these can be quite useful in empathising with others. For example, some people are very “concrete” in their thinking, preferring definite, tangible reality over theory and abstract notions. Others are quite the reverse, preferring to live in the world of ideas and seeing connections that escape others. The former would tend to describe themselves as having their feet planted firmly on the ground, while the latter would be happy to acknowledge that their feet are planted firmly on the
It is not that one way of viewing the world is better than the other, because each of these ways of viewing the world comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, those who prefer abstract ideas are often the people who go on to imagine and design a better world, but can’t build it without the hands on skills that the more concrete thinkers often excel in.
From the perspective of ethics, people who are concrete thinkers tend to be more likely to obtain their ethical codes of conduct from those around them, such as family, friends and church, while those who are more in tune with the world of ideas tend to develop their own appreciation of moral and ethical truths, based on personal insights and understanding. Neither way of approaching the issue of individual ethical questions can be considered “wrong”, as long as the Ethical Principle is held as the ultimate goal of ethical behaviour. Ultimately, whether one is a concrete, or ideas based thinker, acting ethically requires constant vigilance in order to understand how to act appropriately in light of the perspectives of others.
Just as psychology can be useful for understanding individual differences, so too can sociology, anthropology, history and numerous other disciplines be useful for understanding the differences between groups and for challenging the stereotypes inherent in ideologies that rely on group-think, such as nationalism and sectarianism. While it is always interesting to note the often stark differences between different peoples and societies, it is important to understand the similarities and even more important to understand what behaviours within those societies are functional, effectively neutral and dysfunctional. These insights can allow us to have empathy for and understand the
cultural variations that might seem important to us, but not so important to others. This is important, because it can be tempting to cast all cultural differences as examples of moral turpitude, but it might simply be the case that they are simply differences and have no real impact on the functioning of that society.
More importantly, this examination of other times and places can assist us in identifying cultural practices of our own which might be in violation of the Ethical Principle. For example, in many cultures old people are venerated and treated with respect, but in our culture they tend to be shunted into nursing homes in order to spend their twilight years feeling desperately alone and abandoned by those they care about. If one was to make an honest appraisal of which culture was more in tune with the Ethical Principle, I would suggest that it would be the one that treated the elderly with dignity and as people with worth.
Whether people can learn to become more empathetic, or effectively utilise reason is a question that only psychological research can answer. My own guess is that like nearly everything else, people’s capacity to experience empathy, or use reason occurs on a bell curve, with most people being in the middle somewhere, with a few at either extreme. Like most skills, I would suggest that these are things that people can work to develop and increase their capacities to use.
Given that our ability to process information is tied directly to the function of different areas of the brain, it is not beyond the scope of possibility that there are some people who simply lack the brain structures to either feel empathy, or to utilise reason. However, I suspect that these people are in a distinct minority and that most people do have these abilities, even if they are highly atrophied.
In discussing the Ethical Principle, and ethical behaviours in general, I have highlighted how one acts with respect to others. But, it is also imperative that your empathy extends to yourself and that you understand your own desires motivations and passions. Remember, just as your desires are no more important than another’s, so too are they no less important. In acting ethically, it is often necessary to weigh up a variety of competing claims and often your claims to action will have just as much merit as those of another. Ultimately, I would suggest that in the case of a tie, you accede to the other person, as we tend to give more weight to our own desires than those of others.
However, if you are of the personality type who is continually acceding to others, you may need to have a very good look at yourself and become more in tune with your hopes, desires and fears, as you may very well be ignoring these to your detriment.
In many situations it may not be possible for any mortal to determine which is the ethically best choice to make and it is up to each person to choose what they believe to be the best of the options. On some occasions these will be equally good possibilities, while at other times they will be equally bad. Often, they won’t be equally bad, but following the moral path will require great sacrifice, up to and including one’s own life.
The Ethical Principles in Action.
A few general guidelines can be derived from the Ethical Principle. It is important to remember that if you claim a right, or privilege for yourself, you must also allow others that same right, or privilege, unless there is an incredibly compelling reason not to. Normally this should only occur when extending the privilege would cause direct harm to others, while not causing too great an injustice, or removal of freedoms to those who are adversely impacted. Vague claims to be protecting society, or the fabric of the community should always be looked upon with great skepticism, as these invariably entail little more than “protecting the status quo” and ignores the fact that societies
are in a constant state of evolution throughout the ages.
As an example, with the Ethical Principle, it is easy to see that slavery is wrong, because owning another person and reducing them to the status of property to be bought, or sold is a denial of any right to self determination, or to pursue their own agenda. Similarly, if a society had slavery in place, maintaining it because “the freed slaves might turn against us” is not an appropriate justification, as the harm done to the slaves outweighs the risk they might pose to the society at large if freed.
Similarly, one should not impose upon others in order to protect position, status, or honour. While there is nothing inherently wrong with position, status, or honour, each of these have a significant potential for limiting our desire and ability to act with Empathy. Each of these is perceived to be “given” to us by the community as a whole and when one is possessed of these, the focus can often be towards maintaining them, in order to maintain standing within the community, rather than on ensuring that we treat others as individuals, as we should.
Most obviously, this can lead to grave miscarriages of justice, such as the horrific “honour killings”, where women, who have chosen a different life partner from that decreed by their family are hunted down and killed by family members, in order to protect the family’s “honour”. These killings demonstrate an abysmal lack of empathy towards the women concerned and perhaps unsurprisingly are most common in societies where women are regarded as second class citizens, property and treated little different than slaves.
Given the earlier discussion regarding animals and their very real capacity to experience pain, it should come as no surprise that the Ethical Principle doesn’t just apply towards our interactions with other humans, but rather towards all sentient beings. Few would deny the proposition that humans are more sentient than dogs. But when compared to other potential sentient life, they might be disturbingly close. Just as humans would regard an alien species mistreating us on the basis of our perceived lack of sentience as abhorrent, so to should we regard the mistreatment of other animals in the same way. The fact is that the dog, while having a much more limited sentience than your own, can still feel pain and hurt as well as joy and pleasure.
When dealing with any sentient creature, you need to be damn sure that you are not inflicting needless and unnecessary pain. When in doubt, just don’t do it.
Why Act Ethically?
The question of why one should act ethically is quite valid and reasonable. Acting ethically is inherently self sacrificing and requires hard work and a sense of mindfulness.
There are many potentially plausible answers for this. One could argue that acting ethically benefits society and that in turn benefits you. It could be said that in acting ethically, you encourage others to do the same through the sense of obligation created by reciprocity. Maybe it is that people who act ethically have more enjoyable, successful and better lives.
There appears to be little evidence for any of these claims. The world is full of people who act unethically and who enjoy the fruits of worldly success and certainly seem to experience what they regard as enjoyable lives. Yes, some fall under the uncaring wheels of their own machinations, but they often destroy many of their more ethical adversaries before their eventual demise.
More to the point, everybody has experienced circumstances where we could have engaged in unethical behaviour with no possibility of negative repercussions. It might be when we were handed too much change at the grocers, had the opportunity to quietly cheat on a partner, or could have told a lie to a potential employer about our work at a now defunct organisation. In other words, we each have opportunities to act unethically safe in the knowledge that we cannot be found out. In these cases the potential benefits
from society, or reciprocity are irrelevant, while the potential benefits to us are guaranteed. In such a situation, why should one act ethically?
Because the we chose to act in these circumstances says much about ourselves and expresses either a fundamental hope, or a fundamental despair about the world.
It seems that the person who chooses to act ethically, even in situations where there can only be personal benefit is making a statement about their view of the world and of the Infiniverse. In acting ethically, and not pursuing their own selfish agenda, they are acknowledging that they believe in something greater than themselves, be it a philosophy, Divinity, or even just a vague, abstract feeling that there is something “more”.
This isn’t to say that they believe in god, but rather to say that even the atheist who acts ethically is acknowledging that they are not the most important thing in the universe, but that there are other things more important than themselves. Irrespective of whether they claim to believe in a life after death, they have adopted the mindset of a being that could survive eternity.
The person who acts unethically seems to be expressing the opposite sentiment. Rather than acknowledging something greater, they are instead placing themselves at the pinnacle of the universe, with nothing greater than the gratification of their own selfishness. They are, through their actions, saying that they are all that matters and that they don’t care about others.
Irrespective of whether people such as this claim to believe in god, or life after death, they have assumed the behaviours of a being that is destined for the loneliness of the self absorbed. In their selfishness, they have adopted the mindset of a being that will destroy itself long before it reaches eternity.
So the answer as to why one should ethically and with Empathy, is that act with Empathy is to act for hope; to act for life. Irrespective of what your intellectual views regarding god, or life after death, Acting with Empathy is an act of optimism about the true state of the universe.