Altruistic Reveries: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences

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Undertaking an ethical inquiry without empathy — sensitivity to what is happening to and with the other — would be like engaging in an epistemological inquiry without drawing on the resources of perception. Thus, empathy is a method of access as well as a foundational structure as such.

In the final analysis, morality is separate from empathy and neither necessarily grounds the other, although arguably both point to a common root in human beings as the source of possibility. It will not be practical to argue here at this late point whether humans are intrinsically good or evil. Human beings are intrinsically human. Human possibilities include both good and evil as well as empathy. The evidence provided by the history of the 20 th century is not encouraging, yet it is not too late to turn it around as regards the present and future of humanity.

No doubt, cynics will find a flaw in every accomplishment and assure that no good deed goes unpunished. Likewise, it is a part of the possibility of empathy to be so used and abused, although humans with integrity and character will undertake the positive development of full, adult empathy so that the misuse does not occur or is made less likely. An Example and a Working Definition In the parable of the Good Samaritan Luke , the Priest and the Levite cross the road and pass by the Jewish traveler who was robbed, beaten by thieves, and left for dead.

The Anglo-American Tradition a. Hume explicitly writes: Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The other main witness to the vicissitudes of sympathy is Adam Smith, to whom we now turn.

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He also acknowledges a traditional overlap between the two, noting, however, the generalization of sympathy: Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others, sympathy, though its meaning was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever For example, in defining sympathy, Smith cannot use the same term without succumbing to the logical fallacy of petitio principi : As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation [.

In Smith, sympathy is fellow feeling plus dis approbation: That where there is no approbation of the conduct of the person who confers the benefit, there is little sympathy with the gratitude of him who receives it: and that, on the contrary, where there is no disapprobation of the motives of the person who does the mischief, there is no sort of sympathy with the resentment of him who suffers it ; chapter abstract. At first it seems that it can: Now while it is possible to supplement the impartial spectator definition with the contract point of view, there are other ways of giving it a deductive basis.

Thus Slote: The criterion offered [. Next, going beyond imperfect duties such as altruism to perfect ones, Slote offers a general criterion of right and wrong action based in the notion of empathy — specifically empathic caring or concern for others: [. The Continental Tradition The Anglo-American and Continental traditions neither of which is homogeneous in themselves have enjoyed an expanding exchange of views in comparison with past periods when each tradition tended to maintain its own island of ideas.

The Challenge to Empathy of the Event of the Holocaust The Holocaust represents a challenge to our empathy as we try to grasp the meaning of historic event from afar in anguished, benumbed remembrance. Empathy in the Context of Psychoanalysis and Ethics The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut defines empathy as the primary method of data gathering about other human beings in the discipline of psychoanalysis.

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A Common Root of Empathy and Ethics In the final analysis, morality is separate from empathy and neither necessarily grounds the other, although arguably both point to a common root in human beings as the source of possibility. References and Further Reading Lou Agosta. Lichtenberg et al. Engages the implicit transcendental argument that empathy is the foundation of intersubjectivity community. Lou Agosta. Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave. A hermeneutic account of empathy, extending it by means of Heidegger hermeneutics , Husserl phenomenology , Searle language analysis , and Kohut self psychology.

Hannah Arendt. Love and Saint Augustine. University of Chicago Press, Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking Press. John L. New York: McGraw-Hill, Bruno Bettelheim.


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A Home for the Heart. New York: Bantam Paperback, Simon Baron-Cohen. A foundation for psychoanalysis in affective dynamics empathy separate from libido and drives. Peg Birmingham. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Farrow and P. Woodruff, eds.

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Training induction in empathy reduces aggression. Michael Boylan. The Good, the True and the Beautiful. New York: Continuum Books. Uses sympathy to ground an account of the affective good will. Ted Cohen. Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor.

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The capacity for metaphor arguably underlies the capacity for empathy that is, thinking of others. Stephen Darwall. A linguistic-grammatically informed version of the struggle for recognition without endorsing Hegel that you should not hurt me. A monumental study, arguing among other things that Hume goes beyond sympathy and moral sentimentalism to rule-regulation. Charles Darwin. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Basic emotions are continuous, arguably due to shared physiological evolutionary infrastructure, between man and animals.

Frans de Waal. The Age of Empathy. New York: Harmony Press.

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Empathy with higher mammals breaks through to the general reading market. Has a fMRI machine and knows how to use it to study empathy. One of the most robust definitions of empathy in the literature.


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  • Just as the title says. Without empathy, the infant is damaged emotionally and behaviorally, resulting in autistic- and psychotic-like symptoms. New York: Henry Holt. Same as Ekman below. Paul Ekman. New York, W. Develops the idea of micro-expressions betraying otherwise hidden affects, which are relevant inputs to further empathic processing the latter not discussed by Ekman.

    Should be read along with Hume. Empathy in Mental Illness. Diseases of absent empathy such as autism, psycho-pathy, hospitalism; the neurological infrastructure in mirror neurons, extending to philosophy.


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    London: Hogard Press, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious , tr. New York: W. Norton, Michael N. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Vittorio Gallese. Argues for a shared empathic manifold based on mirror neurons. Arnold Goldberg. Examples of empathy based on immersion in listening to the other. Pat Greenspan. Berkeley: University of California Press. Ambivalent feelings happen, requiring revising our understanding of consistency and rationality. Ralph R. Empathy as building a model of the other and using it to capture the other.

    This is the philosophy of science being debated at the time that Heinz Kohut was writing his first empathy article Kohut Lawrence J.

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    Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Contains a chapter on empathy and engages empathy on the critical path of the existential foundation of ethics. Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo, Richard L.

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