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When and why to empathize with political opponents

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Affective polarization is characterized by deep antagonism between political opponents and is an issue of growing concern. Some philosophers have recently suggested empathy as a possible remedy. In particular, it has been suggested that empathy might mitigate the harm resulting from affective polarization by helping us find common ground across our differences. While these discussions provide a helpful starting point, important questions regarding the conditions under which empathizing and finding common ground are morally appropriate and likely to be useful, given the many risks associated with taking this approach, remain unaddressed. In this paper, I therefore give an account of the risks that we must reckon with if empathy and common ground are to help remedy affective polarization and repair damaged relations between political opponents. Far from suggesting that empathy is morally unimportant or intrinsically harmful, my goal is thus to extend and amplify previous discussion to promote a more nuanced understanding of empathy's role in this important aspect of the moral life and to ensure that our efforts to empathize are appropriate and fruitful.

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  1. I have elsewhere similarly considered two routes by which empathy might help us find common ground, especially in challenging cases that involve opponents from racial groups with asymmetrical power relations (Read, 2021).

  2. Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this connection with Cassam's (2020) project.

  3. Given Hannon's (2020) emphasis on illuminating the ways that empathy might help to bridge affectively polarized divides, he rightly sets aside the question of how exactly to define common ground. As I indicate below, however, while Madva (2020) does not explicitly define common ground, the intuitive notion he invokes intersects with the account sketched here in helpful ways.

  4. Of course, the classical view might accommodate the seemingly non-propositional features of common ground described here by, say, explaining the affectively laden features in terms of propositional attitudes—as has been done in the case of emotions (Wringe, 2015). I leave open the question of whether and how exactly this might be done for all the additional features. For present purposes, the point is simply that these additional features of common ground are especially important in the moral case.

  5. Notice that this false sense of what the common ground consists in is not the same as a so-called defective conversational context in which, according to the classical view, speakers falsely presuppose that everyone in the relevant conversational context believes and presupposes the same things (Stalnaker, 2002).

  6. It is important to note that "sharing" here need not imply having an affective experience that perfectly matches that of the target (Bailey, 2021; Simmons, 2014). Instead, it may be sufficient that one has an affective experience that shares the same valence as, and is relevantly similar to, that of the target.

  7. Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing the need to emphasize this point.

  8. See also the case of documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan who has advocated for engagement and dialogue with extreme racists as a means of promoting understanding and connection, as well as combating extremism (

  9. Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this important point.


  11. See, for instance, Black Lives Matter activists Kwame Rose and Tariq Touré's disapproval of Davis’ choice to engage so closely with White supremacists as opposed to more directly supporting the Black community of which he himself is a member (Ornstein, 2016).

  12. See also Bailey (2021) for a helpful discussion of some additional tensions that arise in cases of empathy for "vicious outlooks" along with the benefits of empathy with such outlooks even on the part of virtuous persons given its role in ministering to a basic and important human need to be "humanely understood" (18).

  13. There is already valuable work in the cognitive and social sciences addressing this important question. For more on evidence-based strategies for training and developing empathy for those outside our group, see Weisz and colleagues' (2020) discussion of successful empathy-motivating strategies, including mindset interventions which involve changing individuals' beliefs about the nature of empathy (i.e., the extent to which it can be extended even in cases where one is not immediately inclined to empathize), and norm-based interventions that involve conveying information about the expected accepted behaviors of members of one's group. See also Weisz and Zaki's (2017) comprehensive review of evidence-based strategies for motivating and developing empathy. See Morrell (2007) for helpful discussion of the value of empathy education in a democracy, as well as Greenberg and colleagues (2017) for discussion of evidence-based empathy training strategies in schools and their relation to social competence and public health.

  14. It is important to note, however, that the demands of any moral principle of accommodation apply only to cases of reasonable disagreement, so acting in accordance with such principles need not require these efforts to constructively engage and empathically find common ground with those who hold unreasonable views or participate in immoral practices.

  15. For a more recent discussion of the importance of exposure to novel and opposing viewpoints, see Kwong (2016) on the possibility of open mindedness as an openness to engage with and take seriously novel ideas.

  16. See Terkel's (1980) interview with Ellis for a more detailed description of this encounter.

  17. I am indebted to Max Kramer, Lisa Miracchi, Jana Schaich-Borg, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Gopal Sreenivasan, Matt Stichter, Rafael Ventura, and David Wong for their generous feedback and support. The paper was also significantly improved by comments from members of the MIRA Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, the MAD Lab at Duke University, Monika Betzler's Empathy Research Focus Group at the Center for Advanced Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, audiences at the APA Pacific Division meeting (2021), and two anonymous reviewers.


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Read, H. When and why to empathize with political opponents. Philos Stud 180, 773–793 (2023).

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