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Does Empathy Have Any Place in Aquinas’s Account of Justice?

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Recent developments in cognitive science have prompted philosophers to speculate about the importance of empathy, the ability to directly apprehend and take on the mental and emotional states of others, in understanding and being motivated by moral norms—particularly moral norms concerning other humans. In this paper, I investigate whether some kind of empathy is involved in Thomas Aquinas’s account of the virtue of justice, which he describes as essentially other-directed. I claim that a kind of empathy is involved in Aquinas’s notion of friendship and that this notion of friendship is related to justice as a virtue as its goal. Having the virtue of justice is geared towards establishing true friendship, at least in part. In so doing, it is directed towards establishing a sufficient groundwork for genuine empathy. Instances of genuine empathy, then, are approximations of this goal of the work of justice, even if they occur outside the context of a true friendship. Given this, I describe possible roles Aquinas might afford empathy and empathetic emotions in the context of cultivating the virtue of justice, including roles in motivation and knowledge.

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  1. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (2010) gives a similar list of characteristics of emotions. I say “apparent” because I acknowledge that some non-cognitivists about emotions will claim that certain kinds of emotions do not actually have genuine intentional objects; rather, they only appear to have such objects (e.g., Prinz 2004).

  2. Here, they reference Hatfield, et al. 2009, who call this “primitive empathy.”

  3. For example, suppose someone who is angry were to ask you to engage your imagination by saying, “Well, how would you feel if [the thing that prompted the anger in him or her] happened to you?” In this case, Coplan (2011) says that one may then experience something at our friend’s prompting. What one experiences, however, she calls pseudo-empathy, “a type of self-oriented perspective taking,” in which one does not enter into the mind or the life of the other person in any significant way (Coplan 2011, p.54).

  4. Singer and Lamm note that “feeling for another” has been adopted as a meaning for empathy elsewhere (e.g., Batson, et al. 2009).

  5. Hoffman denies that this is a requirement, noting that there are instances of “empathic anger” upon seeing a friend unjustly injured in some way (Hoffman 2000, p. 29). I think that the anger one experiences could be a result of an immediately prior instance of empathy. The anger one experiences is a feeling for another, not a feeling with. In fact, Singer and Lamm claim, “In most cases mimicry or emotional contagion precedes empathy, which precedes sympathy and compassion, which in turn may precede prosocial behavior” (Singer and Lamm 2009, p.82).

  6. The translation of Aquinas’s Summa theologiae (in the text, ‘ST’) that I primarily rely upon is Thomas Aquinas 1920.

  7. The translation of Aquinas’s Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics (in the text, ‘In Eth’) that I primarily rely upon is Thomas Aquinas 1964.

  8. For more on her thought here, see Stump 2010, particularly ch. 4. The difficulty that those with autism have with understanding others as people is illustrated, for example, in their difficulties in properly using the second-personal pronoun ‘you’. Those with autism are more likely to think of ‘you’ as a third-person attribution. Studies also indicate that those with autism have more difficulty passing “false-belief” tests (e.g., Trafton 2011).

  9. Johannes Roessler describes the reciprocity in the following extended quotation: “. . . infants begin by being moved to adopt a caregiver’s attitude to an object, but after a few weeks they will also be able to take a more active role, actively pointing and expressing comments about objects, and thereby moving the caregiver to share their attitude. Infants seem increasingly able to single out interesting objects, and to expect the caregiver to share the relevant attitude to them. So, from an early stage, the relationship is a reciprocal one, and this implies that infants conceive of others’ attitudes not only as a standard to follow, but also as answerable to the standard set by the nature of objects” (Roessler 2005, p.249).

  10. Elsewhere, Aquinas says, “. . . people call someone a friend who has close contact with another . . . has the same tastes … and shares sorrows and joys” (In Eth bk. IX, lec. 4, §1800).

  11. The issue of certain translations from Latin to English is no small matter here. I will leave the terms ‘passio’, ‘passiones’, and ‘affectus’ untranslated. For an account on some of the issues surrounding translation, see D’Arcy 1963, and White 2002.

  12. Other than myself, several have claimed that the affectus may be manifested as what we call “emotions” today, including James 1997, pp.61–2; Leget 2003, p.574; Lombardo 2011, pp.224–7; and Miner 2009, p.35n.6.

  13. For more on the interaction between the intellect and the cogitative power with respect to passiones, see Pasnau 2002, especially ch. 8. How exactly these processes work is not immediately germane to this project, however.

  14. Miner offers this clarification: “For any act that is proper to the sensitive appetite, the object of that act is desired as either pleasant or useful. For any object desired as pleasant (or shunned as painful) by the sensitive appetite, the corresponding [passio] belongs to the concupiscible [power]. For any object that the sensitive appetite desires … as useful for obtaining something that is pleasant (or avoids as dangerous because it will lead to what is painful), the corresponding passion belongs to the irascible [power]” (Miner 2009, p.50).

  15. John F. X. Knasas grounds a conception of tolerance among all humans insofar as humans are “intellectors of being.” This, he claims, makes humans particularly worthy of respect qua humans: “Among all the instances of being as the good, the human, through intellection, has the good in an especially intense manner. … the intellector-of-being conception is closely related to the intellector-of-the-good conception because being is not just any whole … but the entirety of perfection. Hence, it is not surprising that even a creaturely intellector of being would command respect” (Knasas 2011, pp.20–1).

  16. In both cases, what Aquinas calls “consequent passiones” result, as opposed to antecedent passiones. While antecedent passiones occur prior to a judgment of reason, consequent passiones occur after a judgment of reason. Accordingly, only consequent passiones contribute to the goodness of a particular action (Cf., also, ST I-II q. 17 a. 7 ad 2).

  17. Similarly, it may be that both a person and his or her true friend are able to better enjoy the joys of friendship insofar as virtuous desires and appetites are mutually shifted towards taking on objects that are more stable in the context of friendship. I thank an anonymous referee for indicating that this would be a good point to add here.

  18. For more on the distinction between this direct kind of knowledge and “knowledge that” in the context of a second-personal relationship, see Stump 2010, especially ch.4.


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I’d like to thank J. Aaron Simmons and John Sanders, the organizers of the SCP Midwest Region Conference at which a shorter version of this was read. I’d also like to thank Heidi Giebel, Erik Anderson, Tom Kavanaugh, and an anonymous referee for their questions and comments. Special thanks also to Eleonore Stump, Daniel Haybron, and Colleen McCluskey, for their helpful comments on this project.

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Correspondence to Stephen Chanderbhan.

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Chanderbhan, S. Does Empathy Have Any Place in Aquinas’s Account of Justice?. Philosophia 41, 273–288 (2013).

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