Expanding Empathy Speaker Series
Bringing together perspectives on empathy and moral decision-making from researchers from around the world, and providing a window into understanding when, why, and how people decide to have empathy and concern and help other people.
The Expanding Empathy speaker series is hosted through the Moral Agency and Moral Development Initiative in the Rock Ethics Institute. The initiative is convened by Daryl Cameron, assistant professor of psychology and research associate in the Institute. The series is devoted to understanding the psychological underpinnings of empathy and moral decision-making.
“The objective of the Expanding Empathy speaker series is to bring in researchers from around the world who do work on empathy and moral decision-making from a variety of perspectives,” Cameron explains. “And it’s meant to provide a window into understanding when, why, and how people decide to have empathy and concern and help other people.”
“It’s meant to be a diverse set of perspectives and angles on the different ways that empathy can manifest in everyday life contexts,” Cameron says. “And not just abstract, philosophical discussions—which are quite nice—but some of the topics we studied have direct, practical relevance to things like inter-group conflict and changes in empathy over time and across generations.”
The speakers tailored their presentations to a broad audience, anyone interested in empathy: the public, undergraduate and graduate students, and researchers alike. And as there have been a variety of calls within Penn State to expand the focus on empathy in the University community, Cameron wants to start expanding the series next year with that in mind.
During spring semester 2019, three speakers launched the series: Michael Poulin, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at SUNY Buffalo, discussed research that suggests that empathy and personal discomfort need not go hand in hand, and that less discomfort may translate to more prosocial action. Kurt Gray, associate professor of psychology at UNC, Chapel Hill, discussed why the past 20 years of moral psychology research may be misguided and outlined a new theory of moral judgment grounded in mind perception. Sara Konrath, assistant professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University, discussed changes over time in empathy and mental health as symptoms of societal burnout.
In 2022, the Expanding Empathy series at the Rock Ethics Institute is entering its fourth year, as a core feature of the Moral Agency and Moral Development Initiative led by Dr. Daryl Cameron. In the three previous years, we brought in psychologists from around the world to discuss empathy and morality and how they impact our everyday lives. Starting in March 2020, the series moved to a virtual Zoom webinar format, which afforded many new possibilities for interaction such as speaker panels (including one on empathy and the pandemic during the early days), as well as bringing in speakers from around the world (including England and Australia).
In this year’s iteration, Dr. Cameron and Dr. Martina Orlandi, Post-Doctoral Scholar in Engaged Ethics at the Rock Ethics Institute and Schreyer Honors College (as well as member of Dr. Cameron’s Empathy & Moral Psychology Lab) are co-organizing the series and experimenting with the format further. To highlight the value of interdisciplinary conversation, they have organized four pairs of speakers who will jointly provide perspective on a shared theme. Each panel consists of one psychologist and one philosopher, who will each give a talk on a shared theme and then find points of convergence and divergence in live discussion with audience afterward. The themes include the ethics of online outrage; empathy and trust in interpersonal interactions; the ethics of empathy in everyday life, including in relation to COVID-19; and how empathy plays a role in intergroup conflicts and reconciliation.
Additionally, for each panel, Dr. Orlandi will be arranging a podcast (“N.7”) with each speaker to highlight their background and research interests, to provide the audience with a sense for why they care about and study these ideas. Lastly, we anticipate that the speakers will take part in meetings of the Moral Agency Workshop as well, an interdisciplinary working group of faculty and students across the social sciences and humanities. The workshop will allow Penn State faculty and students the opportunity to network more informally and talk with the invited speakers.
The overall goal of the Expanding Empathy series is to highlight the value of cutting-edge scientific and philosophical work on empathy and moral judgment, and to highlight the importance of the interdisciplinary moral psychology research being done here at Penn State as well. This year, in addition to the primary sponsorship from the Rock Ethics Institute, the series also will be receiving support from the Department of Psychology, Department of Philosophy, and Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, and the series overall is consistent with Dr. Cameron’s goals of empathy outreach through his funding at the John Templeton Foundation.