Empathy, Connectedness and Responsibility: German Academics Discuss the Refugee Crisis

Nearly half a million applications for asylum submitted by refugees were processed by German authorities in 2015, according to the German Federal Office for Refugees and Migration. The number of people who were officially registered in Germany as potential asylum seekers was even far higher-roughly one million in 2015 – which suggests that Germany anticipates an even higher number of official asylum applications for 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel has defied many critics even in her own party and cabinet by emphasizing that Germany can and will take on more refugees, most of whom are coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We can do it!” (“Wir schaffen das!”) was the phrase she used in September of 2015 to convey her optimism and determination in the face of ever-growing numbers of refugees and the gradual rise of support for far right extremist demonstrations and violent attacks by far right extremists on refugees centers in Germany.

Refugees welcome

The German media and right wing populists are currently obsessing about statistics such as the fact that the far right and libertarian party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) will garner 10% of the popular vote or that the vast majority of the refugees are male and could lead to a demographic gender shift if they remain in Germany. While such statistics serve as an important barometer of the political climate in the German electorate or to prepare for the challenges faced by the refugees and German society in the next years, they do not address the fundamental philosophical questions raised by this refugee crisis. In the latest issue of the popular German philosophy periodical “Philosophie Magazin“, the editors asked philosophers and other academic scholars to weigh in on some of the key issues and challenges in the face of this crisis.

Should we be motivated by a sense of global responsibility when we are confronted with the terrible suffering experienced by refugees whose homes have been destroyed? The sociologist Hartmut Rosa at the University of Jena responds to this question by suggesting that we should focus on Verbundenheit (“connectedness”) instead of Verantwortung (“responsibility”).  Demanding that those of us who lead privileged lives of safety and reasonable material comfort should feel individually responsible for the suffering of others can lead to a sense of moral exhaustion. Are we responsible for the suffering of millions of people in Syria and East Africa? Are we responsible for the extinction of species as a consequence of climate change? Instead of atomizing – and thus perhaps even rendering irrelevant – the abstract concept of individual responsibility, we should become aware of how we are all connected.

We are connected with the children of Syria and Somalia by virtue of the fact that they are fellow humans who deserve to live, learn and love. We are connected to the species facing extinction by climate change because we share the ecosystems of this planet and our species may also face extinction. For Rosa, the sense of connectedness is what motivates us to help the refugees without trying to precisely determine our relative global responsibility.

Are rational thoughts or emotions a better guide for how to respond to the refugee crisis? The philosopher Volker Gerhardt from the Humboldt University of Berlin emphasizes the importance of balancing rational and emotional responses. Rationally calculating the economic cost of taking on refugees and the benefit of increasing the younger workforce once the refugees are granted permission to settle and work in Germany does not do justice to the issues. Gerhardt is aware of his own background as the child of a refugee mother after World War II who were both cared for by their relatives. Every time he sees a photo of a refugee child, it evokes memories of his own past and serves as a motivation to help. But he is also aware of the limits of such emotional and rational willingness to help. Currently, hundreds of thousands of German citizens are volunteering to help and welcome the refugees by donating their time, money and other essentials but the German government needs to realize that this spirit of charity may become exhausted if the influx of refugees is not restricted. Hilde Landweer is a philosopher at the Free University of Berlin who studies the philosophy of emotions. She explains the underlying mechanisms which allow us to feel empathy for refugees. According to Landweer, there are three components which allow to feel empathy: 1) we have to feel a sense of similarity towards the other person, 2) we have to be able “experience” their situation and 3) we have to realize that one day, we might be able to also find ourselves in such a situation. Germany’s leadership role in its willingness to help the refugees when compared to other developed countries – Britain is planning on taking in 5,000 Syrian refugees per year, the USA only 1,000 to 1,500 – may be rooted in the fact that Germans can identify with the plight of the Syrian refugees. Millions of Germans experienced expulsion and forced resettlement from their homelands after World War II when post-war Germany was carved up. Landweer believes that empathy can be nurtured by meeting refugees and hearing about their personal narratives. But empathy needs to be more than shared pain, it needs to also include looking forward to how one can restore security and joy. This positive vision is what ultimately motivates us to help.

Does Germany have a unique historic responsibility when responding to the refugee crisis? Aleida Assmann is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of Konstanz who studies collective memory and its impact on German culture. Assmann refers to the Erinnerungskultur – the culture of remembrance – in Germany. Contemporary Germans are aware of the fact that their ancestors either actively participated or passively ignored the mass murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies and other ethnicities. According to Assmann, this historic responsibility is sometime summarized as “Auschwitz should never occur again!” but she takes a broader view of this responsibility. The root of Auschwitz was the labeling of fellow humans as fremd – foreign, alien or “other” – which did not deserve respect, empathy and help. Our historic responsibility requires that we avoid the trap of viewing refugees as fremd and instead encounter them with a sense of fellowship. The inherited burden of the Nazi past becomes an opportunity for Germany to define its future: Do we want to become a society that closes its doors to fellow humans in despair or do we want to welcome them in order to build a future society characterized by caring and sharing.

These are just some of the responses given by the philosophers in the Philosophie Magazin issue but they filled me with hope. As a German living in the USA, I often fall into the trap of reading clickbait and sensationalist news articles about the refugee crisis such as the rise of crimes committed by both right wing extremists and refugees in Germany, the imagery of refugees “flooding” German cities and the political gossip about Merkel’s future. But thinking more deeply about the core issues reminds us that what is at stake in Germany is our humanity. Yes, it will be challenging to integrate millions of refugees and provide them with a new Heimat – homeland – but our history and culture compels us to act in a humane fashion and not ignore the plight of fellow human beings.




Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Feel Our Pain: Empathy and Moral Behavior

“It’s empathy that makes us help other people. It’s empathy that makes us moral.” The economist Paul Zak casually makes this comment in his widely watched TED talk about the hormone oxytocin, which he dubs the “moral molecule”. Zak quotes a number of behavioral studies to support his claim that oxytocin increases empathy and trust, which in turn increases moral behavior. If all humans regularly inhaled a few puffs of oxytocin through a nasal spray, we could become more compassionate and caring. It sounds too good to be true. And recent research now suggests that this overly simplistic view of oxytocin, empathy and morality is indeed too good to be true.


Many scientific studies support the idea that oxytocin is a major biological mechanism underlying the emotions of empathy and the formation of bonds between humans. However, inferring that these oxytocin effects in turn make us more moral is a much more controversial statement. In 2011, the researcher Carsten De Dreu and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands published the study Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism which studied indigenous Dutch male study subjects who in a blinded fashion self-administered either nasal oxytocin or a placebo spray. The subjects then answered questions and performed word association tasks after seeing photographic images of Dutch males (the “in-group”) or images of Arabs and Germans, the “out-group” because prior surveys had shown that the Dutch public has negative views of both Arabs/Muslims and Germans. To ensure that the subjects understood the distinct ethnic backgrounds of the target people shown in the images, they were referred to typical Dutch male names, German names (such as Markus and Helmut) or Arab names (such as Ahmed and Youssef).

Oxytocin increased favorable views and word associations but only towards in-group images of fellow Dutch males. The oxytocin treatment even had the unexpected effect of worsening the views regarding Arabs and Germans but this latter effect was not quite statistically significant. Far from being a “moral molecule”, oxytocin may actually increase ethnic bias in society because it selectively enhances certain emotional bonds. In a subsequent study, De Dreu then addressed another aspect of the purported link between oxytocin and morality by testing the honesty of subjects. The study Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty showed that oxytocin increased cheating in study subjects if they were under the impression that dishonesty would benefit their group. De Dreu concluded that oxytocin does make us less selfish and care more about the interest of the group we belong to.

These recent oxytocin studies not only question the “moral molecule” status of oxytocin but raise the even broader question of whether more empathy necessarily leads to increased moral behavior, independent of whether or not it is related to oxytocin. The researchers Jean Decety and Jason Cowell at the University of Chicago recently analyzed the scientific literature on the link between empathy and morality in their commentary Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?, and find that the relationship is far more complicated than one would surmise. Judges, police officers and doctors who exhibit great empathy by sharing in the emotional upheaval experienced by the oppressed, persecuted and severely ill always end up making the right moral choices – in Hollywood movies. But empathy in the real world is a multi-faceted phenomenon and we use this term loosely, as Decety and Cowell point out, without clarifying which aspect of empathy we are referring to.

Decety and Cowell distinguish at least three distinct aspects of empathy:

1. Emotional sharing, which refers to how one’s emotions respond to the emotions of those around us. Empathy enables us to “feel” the pain of others and this phenomenon of emotional sharing is also commonly observed in non-human animals such as birds or mice.

2. Empathic concern, which describes how we care for the welfare of others. Whereas emotional sharing refers to how we experience the emotions of others, empathic concern motivates us to take actions that will improve their welfare. As with emotional sharing, empathic concern is not only present in humans but also conserved among many non-human species and likely constitutes a major evolutionary advantage.

3. Perspective taking, which – according to Decety and Cowell – is the ability to put oneself into the mind of another and thus imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. This is a more cognitive dimension of empathy and essential for our ability to interact with fellow human beings. Even if we cannot experience the pain of others, we may still be able to understand or envision how they might be feeling. One of the key features of psychopaths is their inability to experience the emotions of others. However, this does not necessarily mean that psychopaths are unable to cognitively imagine what others are thinking. Instead of labeling psychopaths as having no empathy, it is probably more appropriate to specifically characterize them as having a reduced capacity to share in the emotions while maintaining an intact capacity for perspective-taking.

In addition to the complexity of what we call “empathy”, we need to also understand that empathy is usually directed towards specific individuals and groups. De Dreu’s studies demonstrated that oxytocin can make us more pro-social as long as it benefits those who we feel belong to our group but not necessarily those outside of our group. The study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses by Xu and colleagues at Peking University used fMRI brain imaging in Chinese and Caucasian study subjects and measured their neural responses to watching painful images. The study subjects were shown images of either a Chinese or a Caucasian face. In the control condition, the depicted image showed a face being poked with a cotton swab. In the pain condition, study subjects were shown a face of a person being poked with a needle attached to syringe. When the researchers measured the neural responses with the fMRI, they found significant activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is part of the neural pain circuit, both for pain we experience ourselves but also for empathic pain we experience when we see others in pain. The key finding in Xu’s study was that ACC activation in response to seeing the painful image was much more profound when the study subject and the person shown in the painful image belonged to the same race.

As we realize that the neural circuits and hormones which form the biological basis of our empathy responses are so easily swayed by group membership then it becomes apparent why increased empathy does not necessarily result in behavior consistent with moral principles. In his essay “Against Empathy“, the psychologist Paul Bloom also opposes the view that empathy should form the basis of morality and that we should unquestioningly elevate empathy to virtue for all:

“But we know that a high level of empathy does not make one a good person and that a low level does not make one a bad person. Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.”

I do not think that we can dismiss empathy as a factor in our moral decision-making. Bloom makes a good case for distanced compassion and kindness that does not arise from the more visceral emotion of empathy. But when we see fellow humans and animals in pain, then our initial biological responses are guided by empathy and anger, not the more abstract concept of distanced compassion. What we need is a better scientific and philosophical understanding of what empathy is. Empathic perspective-taking may be a far more robust and reliable guide for moral decision-making than empathic emotions. Current scientific studies on empathy often measure it as an aggregate measure without teasing out the various components of empathy. They also tend to underestimate that the relative contributions of the empathy components (emotion, concern, perspective-taking) can vary widely among cultures and age groups. We need to replace overly simplistic notions such as oxytocin = moral molecule or empathy = good with a more refined view of the complex morality-empathy relationship guided by rigorous science and philosophy.



De Dreu, C. K., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrismProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(4), 1262-1266.

Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 525-537.

Shalvi, S., & De Dreu, C. K. (2014). Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonestyProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(15), 5503-5507.

Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responsesThe Journal of Neuroscience, 29(26), 8525-8529.



Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.







De Dreu, C., Greer, L., Van Kleef, G., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (4), 1262-1266 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015316108


Decety J, & Cowell JM (2014). Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior? Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 9 (5), 525-37 PMID: 25429304


Shalvi S, & De Dreu CK (2014). Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (15), 5503-7 PMID: 24706799


Xu X, Zuo X, Wang X, & Han S (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 29 (26), 8525-9 PMID: 19571143