Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Culture of Empathy Builder:  John C. Gibbs

 In Defense of Empathy and Justice
John Gibbs and Edwin Rutsch

John Gibbs is a professor of developmental psychology at The Ohio State University and the author of Moral Development and Reality: Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg, Hoffman, and Haidt. John says, my interests pertain to cross-cultural sociomoral development, parental socialization, empathy, prosocial behavior, and antisocial behavior. I have, with students and colleagues, developed assessment measures of moral judgment, moral identity, social perspective-taking, self-serving cognitive distortions, and social skills. Together with
Martin Hoffman he wrote an article,
Hillary has a point: In defense of empathy and justice.


Fresco of the Judgment of Solomon, (Wikipedia)


Hillary Rodham Clinton had a point when she recently urged:
"The most important thing each of us can do... is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbors' eyes, to imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes, to share their pain and their hopes and their dreams"....

we emphasize that empathy and justice are co-primary or mutual. If justice serves empathy, the reverse is certainly also true ...

Morality is most objective and compelling when justice and empathy align. That is, the moral prescription to act is strongest when victims are both wronged and harmed.


 Sub Conference: Justice


Video: In defense of empathy and justice: John Gibbs & Edwin Rutsch



Hillary has a point: In defense of empathy and justice
by John C. Gibbs and Martin L. Hoffman

  • John C. Gibbs is a professor of developmental psychology at The Ohio State University and the author of Moral Development and Reality: Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg, Hoffman, and Haidt, Third Edition.

  • Martin L. Hoffman is a professor emeritus of psychology at New York University and the author of Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice.

"Yale psychologist Paul Bloom objected that we can’t actually do that (at least not as well as we think we can), especially when our neighbor is someone in a quite different situation or condition—say, a stressed-out single parent, a traumatically scarred war veteran, or an autistic child. Besides, declared Bloom, even if we could fully and accurately feel and see from another’s perspective, empathy is often too narrow and parochial to serve as a moral guide. Far less limited, Bloom asserts, is reason: specifically, the impartial principles and procedures of justice. We should “step back” from empathy and “apply an objective and fair morality,” a “dispassionate analysis” of distressing situations. Bloom has even declared that “empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.” "







Email Exchange.



John Gibbs writes an email to Edwin Rutsch. Says
"Again, I think Marty and I agree with much of what Paul Bloom says about empathy ...... "

He says he and Marty see the problems of empathy, biases, over-arousal, etc



Edwin Responds.


Hi John

I wondered if you have any feedback on my dialog with Paul Bloom? I address a lot of the criticisms I’m hearing about empathy. For me it was an odd conversation since Paul could not seem to understand what I was calling empathy. He acknowledged that it was highly successful, but was not willing to acknowledged it as empathy. I tried for 2 years to do a direct recorded interview with him but he refuses to talk with me. I believe a direct dialog would support more understanding. See

As I say in my responses to Paul, empathy itself is not bias. Bias is bias. If people are limiting their empathy and being biased, it is usually out of fear, or conditioning, etc, it is not a problem with empathy but with people often not knowing how to maintain their empathy in the face of fear or perhaps emotional contagion. I shared my mediation stories regarding this.

Also, over-arousal is not empathic because people can lose their empathic connection when they become over aroused. They become self centered and are not even aware of the other persons feeling. The argument I’m hearing is that empathy is the cause of the lack of empathy? The causal relationships seem quite skewed it seems to me.

Between empathy and over arousal are a lot of steps. Saying empathy leads to over arousal to me is like saying that having a heart beat can lead to over arousal. True, people who do not have a heartbeat, don’t get over aroused. But there’s a lot of steps between having a heartbeat and being over aroused. Blaming a heart beat for over arousal is like blaming empathy for over arousal.

In fact, empathy is the healing agent for people who are over aroused (like some the young ‘offenders’ you work with) I see it over and over again, someone is angry, agitated, nervous, hostile, frustrated, in pain, trauma, etc. and someone comes along and starts empathizing with them, and they calm down. They get calmer, more connected to themselves and eventually start connecting with others around them.


A response



Edwin Responds
Yep.. I have it and read it, Empathy and Moral Development. I showed it on the screen as we talked.

How do you mean thinking errors?
The approach I advocate is bringing people into an empathy circle. That is creating an empathic environment and connection is the first step. I would imagine that if people are coming from the self centered chronic offenders position, their thinking and reasoning will start with that self interest as the premise. So they first need to come into connection, and then the thinking and reasoning comes from that premise of empathy and connection.

There is a process developed by Dominic Barter called Restorative Circles, see
He developed it in the gang controlled slums of Brazil, where he does community based mediation. His process is essentially the active listening and empathy circle process, but with different layers of listening and dialog. It has had great success.

Have you tried an empathy circle with the youth you work with? I’d be curious how that worked?
What I am now doing is merging the human centered design framework with the empathy circles. I think this has a lot of potential.. see.