Philosophy professor to study origin of sympathy

Philosophy professor Marie George received a $20,000 research grant recently to study the evolution of sympathy and morality. George was awarded the grant from the Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series, also known as STARS.

STARS is a program run by the Center of Theology and Natural Sciences, located in Berkeley, California.

It funds scientists who are researching how science points to the character, nature, and meaning of reality in philosophical and theological terms.

“Questions concerning the similarities and differences between human and non-human animals have been a focus of my intellectual energy throughout my career,” said George.

“It’s nice to get a high level of recognition for doing what one loves.”

George’s study of the evolution of sympathy and morality was one in a group of 20 studies that were awarded the grant.

She will work alongside Dr. Oliver Putz of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, and together they will try to answer questions like “What are the origins of sympathy?”

George explained that answering that question depends on how one defines sympathy.

“Sympathy can be named an emotion, a kind of sadness often spontaneously felt upon witnessing the distress of another,” she said. “It can also name a choice to be concerned by another’s misery.”

She noted, “Sympathy in the sense of an emotion is the sort of thing Aristotle would term a ‘natural virtue,'” and explained, “more often than not, it motivates a person to perform a morally good action.”

George and Putz will also be examining sympathy in terms of non-human animals.

“We humans are able to reflect on our feelings, and either act or not act upon them.

The evidence is against non-human animals being able to do so,” she said. “Given that the emotion of sympathy drives helping behavior, and that it is beneficial for social animals to get along, it is not surprising that there is evidence that feelings of sympathy are present in certain non-human animals.”

George is quick to point out the difference in sympathy in levels of animals and humans.

“In short, the emotion of sympathy arose in social animals to foster social interactions that would allow these animals to be more successful in passing on their genes,” she said.

“In humans, sympathy takes a second form insofar as we are capable of rational reflection of the distress of others.”

When beginning the research process, George looked at the world and asked, “How do we use the word ‘sympathy?'”

In addition to asking questions and making observations, she has been reading recent works about sympathy by philosophers, primatologists, animal rights advocates, and other scientists.

“Dr. George is an excellent philosopher, and I’m glad that her scholarship and research have been recognized through this grant,” said fellow St. John’s philosophy professor, Dr. Alice Ramos. “She deserves the honor, and her research, which brings to bear Aristotelian-Thomist thought on the origins of sympathy, will produce fruitful results.”

The grant is one of George’s many accomplishments. George, who has a master’s degree in Biology and Philosophy, also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

Over the course of 15 years, she has written books and several articles.