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Empathy and Common Ground

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Abstract

Critics of empathy—the capacity to share the mental lives of others—have charged that empathy is intrinsically biased. It occurs between no more than two people, and its key function is arguably to coordinate and align feelings, thoughts, and responses between those who are often already in close personal relationships. Because of this, critics claim that empathy is morally unnecessary at best and morally harmful at worst. This paper argues, however, that it is precisely because of its ability to connect people by coordinating and aligning their feelings, thoughts, and responses, that empathy is especially well suited to perform one particular moral task that has been largely overlooked in moral philosophical discussions. That is, helping people, including those who are antagonistically opposed on matters of moral, social, and political importance—what I call antagonistic moral opponents—find common ground: a set of shared beliefs, attitudes, values, or experiences that lays the requisite ground for even minimally positive relationships. Doing so can contribute to a number of morally, practically, and epistemically important outcomes, including resolving fraught disagreements, mitigating antagonism, promoting cooperation, learning from differences, and even forging positive relationships of various sorts. Contra critics, I therefore maintain that empathy is important for at least one area of the moral life.

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Notes

  1. See also Morrell (2010) for a comprehensive discussion of the democratic value of empathy. See Muradova (2020) for a more recent investigation of the role of perspective taking in promoting reflective political reasoning through deliberative democratic practices.

  2. See Davidson (1996) for a detailed account of this incredibly rich case. See also Diane Bloom’s (2002) documentary, An Unlikely Friendship.

  3. At one point, Atwater defended Ellis’ Klan exhibit, which he had set up at the school during the charrette, encouraging the group of Black students who wanted to take it down to instead hearwhat he had to say—a gesture that Ellis greatly appreciated and that underscored Atwater’s extreme generosity and willingness to listen to others’ views (Bloom 2002).

  4. https://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes

  5. See also Blum (2018), Decety and Jackson (2006), and Zaki (2018) for similar accounts of empathy that include a motivational dimension.

  6. See Weisz and Zaki (2017) for a comprehensive review of several empirically informed strategies for motivating individuals to empathize.

  7. See Tropp and Saxena (2018) for a review of promising strategies for shifting group norms regarding empathy in schools.

  8. See also Bloom’s real life Baby Jessica example, “The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy,” by Paul Bloom, The New Yorker, May 2013 (online).

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Acknowledgements

I am deeply grateful for invaluable feedback on the ideas in this paper from David Wong, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Gopal Sreenivasan, Monika Betzler, Karsten Stueber, and two anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Hannah Read.

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Read, H. Empathy and Common Ground. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 24, 459–473 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-021-10178-4

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