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Empathy, Group Identity, and the Mechanisms of Exclusion: An Investigation into the Limits of Empathy

Abstract

There is a conspicuous tendency of humans to experience empathy and sympathy preferentially towards members of their own group, whereas empathetic feelings towards outgroup members or strangers are often reduced or even missing. This may culminate in a “dissociation of empathy”: a historical example are the cases of Nazi perpetrators who behaved as compassionate family men on the one hand, yet committed crimes of utter cruelty against Jews on the other. The paper aims at explaining such phenomena and at determining the limits of empathy. To this purpose, it first distinguishes between two levels of empathy, namely primary or intercorporeal and extended or higher-level empathy. It then investigates the mutual interconnection of empathy and recognition, which may be regarded as a principle of extending empathy to others regardless of whether they belong to one’s own group or not. However, this principle is in conflict with ingroup conformism and outgroup biases that hamper the universal extension of empathy. Thus, a denial of recognition and exclusion of others from one’s ingroup usually results in a withdrawal or lack of extended empathy which then influences primary empathy as well. On this basis, and using the historical example of mass executions during the Holocaust, the paper investigates the mechanisms of exclusion which may lead to a withdrawal of recognition and finally to a dissociation of empathy.

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Notes

  1. This is now often simply called “cognitive empathy”, particularly in cognitive neuroscience (for example Smith 2010; Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2009). However, since the very term empathy implies an affective (not necessarily positive) attitude towards the other, the notion of “cognitive empathy’’, rather seems an oxymoron. The cognitive processes involved rather serve to differentiate and usually to intensify one’s empathetic feelings. This is not to deny that for example psychopaths may use merely cognitive means of imagining others’ feelings and thus all the more effectively manipulate them. However, if there is really no affective experience involved whatsoever, it would be more adequate to speak of “quasi-empathy” in this case.

  2. On a third form of “reiterated empathy” (Stein 1989), that means, feeling the other’s empathetic feelings towards oneself, see Fuchs 2017a.

  3. A neurally based resonance system (“mirror neurons”) contributes to this intercorporeal resonance at the roots of empathy (Gallese 2002; Bråten 2007). To take only one example: seeing someone else being painfully hurt activates one’s own neural pain matrix in the cingulate cortex (Hutchison et al. 1999), as if one would feel the pain in one’s own body. It should be noted, however, that primary empathy, as being based on a “dialogical” process, has to be distinguished from emotional contagion, in which a similar emotion is induced in oneself without being aware that it is caused by the other (e.g. babies start crying when they hear other babies cry, to give a well-known example).

  4. A similar critique of Honneth’s overstretching the concept of recognition has been put forward by Butler (2008), Geuss (2008) and Varga and Gallagher (2012). The latter propose to use the term “affective proximity” instead, which characterizes primary intersubjectivity in a similar way as my notion of primary empathy.

  5. This normative concept of recognition is also supported by Brandom: “To recognize someone is to take her to be the subject of normative statuses, that is, of commitments and entitlements, as capable of undertaking responsibilities and exercising authority” (Brandom 2007, p. 136). One may argue that this does not apply to Cavell’s notion of acknowledgement which is not necessarily related to a Hegelian background. This cannot be discussed here in more detail; however, I am inclined to demand higher-level intersubjectivity as a presupposition for acknowledgment as well.

  6. Interestingly, Kant also emphasizes the decentering that is implied in the important notion of respect: “Respect is properly the conception of a worth which thwarts my self-love. (…) The object of respect is the law only, that is, the law which we impose on ourselves, and yet recognize as necessary in itself. (…) Respect for a person is properly only respect for the law (of honesty, etc.) of which he gives us an example” (Kant 1873, p. 18). One might not share Kant’s emphasis on an abstract principle of law in this context; nevertheless it becomes clear that feelings belonging to recognition such as respect presuppose a higher-level standpoint, from which the “general other” (Mead) comes into view.

  7. “Under the effect of reifying stereotypes (of women, Jews, etc.), groups of individuals are retroactively deprived of the personal characteristics that have been accorded to them habitually and without question on the basis of antecedent recognition” (Honneth 2008, p. 81; emphasis added).

  8. Of course, this is not to deny that groups of individuals may also be “retroactively deprived” of recognition and empathy, as Honneth argues (and I will investigate these processes in what follows). I am rather defending the more skeptical view that universal recognition and empathy are from the outset the exception rather than the rule.

  9. One can empathically understand another’s anger or shame without feeling angry or ashamed oneself.

  10. See Calloway-Thomas (2010) for an extensive study on the intercultural dimension of empathy.

  11. Thus, studies have found that dispositional disgust-proneness of individuals is associated with dehumanizing tendencies (Hodson and Costello 2007). Moreover, when test subjects were shown pictures of disgust-inducing groups (like homeless or drug addicts), their fMRI scans lacked activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is otherwise involved in social cognition and cognitive empathy (Harris and Fiske 2006). In other words, the presented groups were perceived as more object-like.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful for the valuable comments and suggestions of Lukas Iwer, James Dowthwaite, two anonymous reviewers and the editors on earlier versions of the paper.

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Fuchs, T. Empathy, Group Identity, and the Mechanisms of Exclusion: An Investigation into the Limits of Empathy. Topoi 38, 239–250 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-017-9499-z

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Keywords

  • Empathy
  • Recognition
  • Group identity
  • Exclusion
  • Objectification
  • Dehumanization