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Empathy, or the ability to understand and resonate with the experiences of others, has long been considered by philosophers and scientists to be an important part of human morality. We present a new framework that explains empathy as resulting from motivated decisions. Drawing on models of cybernetic control, value-based choice, and constructionism, we suggest that empathy shifts depending on how people value and prioritize conflicting goals. We generate novel predictions about the nature of empathy from the science of goal pursuit, and address its apparent limitations. Empathy appears less sensitive to suffering of large numbers and out-groups, leading some to suggest that empathy is an unreliable ethical guide. Whereas these arguments assume that empathy is a limited-capacity resource, we suggest that apparent limits of empathy reflect byproducts of domain-general goal pursuit. Arguments against empathy reflect a misguided essentialism: they mistake our own choices to avoid empathy for intrinsic features of empathy, treating empathy as a capricious emotion in conflict with reason. We suggest that empathy results from a rational decision, even if its rationality is bounded, as in many decisions in everyday life. Empathy may only be limited if we choose to avoid pursuing empathic goals.
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