Empathy causes helping behavior. When your best friend in the same college is in financial trouble and has been evicted from her apartment, for example, you might empathize with her (e.g., feel sorry for her) and decide to let her stay in your apartment for a while (e.g., Batson et al., 1981).
Is empathy-induced helping behavior altruistic? Are you genuinely altruistic when your empathy causes you to let your friend stay in your apartment? According to “the empathy altruism hypothesis” (Batson 1991, 2011, 2018), empathy causes genuinely altruistic motivation for helping others. According to “the self-other merging hypothesis” (Cialdini et al. 1997), in contrast, empathic helping is due to the “merging” between the helping agent and the helped agent. When the helping agent and the helped agent are “merged”, the traditional dichotomy between egoism and altruism is blurred. Empathy-induced behavior is not altruistic, nor egoistic, but nonaltruistic.
Although the self-other merging hypothesis nicely explains empathy-induced helping behaviour, it faces a serious conceptual question; what does it mean exactly to say that the helping agent X and the helped agent Y are “merged”? May (2011, 2018) examines and rejects possible interpretations of self-other “merging”; some interpretations attribute psychologically unrealistic beliefs to the helping agent, while others fail to explain the helping behaviour exhibited in experimental settings. May’s challenge suggests that a plausible interpretation of self-other “merging” must successfully predict and explain the helping behaviour exhibited in experimental settings, and must not posit psychologically unrealistic beliefs, desires, etc.
Our new paper “Empathy, Altruism, and Group Identification” offers a new interpretation of self-other merging. According to our interpretation, “the group identification interpretation”, self-other merging involves group identification, where group identification is understood as the process in which one achieves a form of self-conception as a group member (Brewer 1991; Turner 1982; Salice & Miyazono 2020).
X’s act of helping Y is explained by the fact that when X empathizes with Y, X group-identifies with Y and thereby comes to conceive of Y’s welfare as being constitutive of X’s first-person plural (“our”) welfare. The group identification interpretation of the self-other merging hypothesis does not posit psychologically unrealistic beliefs, desires, etc. Also, this interpretation successfully predicts and explains the helping behaviour in the experimental settings.
Empathy-induced helping behaviour, when interpreted by the group identification interpretation, does not fit comfortably into the traditional egoism/altruism dichotomy; it is neither purely altruistic nor purely egoistic. We thus argue that empathy-induced helping behaviour is both altruistic and egoistic at the same time. More precisely, it is altruistic at the individual level (because X is motivated by the concern for Y’s welfare at the individual level) and egoistic at the group level (because X is motivated by the concern for Y’s welfare in so far as it is constitutive of X’s first-person plural welfare).