Is Empathy Possible?

Our next philosophy club meeting will be on the question of “Is Empathy possible, and if so, how?”

“In The Audacity of Hope, the book Obama wrote in 2006 to test enthusiasm for a possible White House run, he describes empathy as both the “heart of my moral code” and a “guidepost for my politics.” Defining it succinctly as a successful attempt to “stand in somebody’s else’s shoes and see through their eyes,” Obama regards empathy not as an exceptional gesture but an organizing principle for ethical behavior and even a preferred way of being. By cultivating our capacity for empathy, he says, we are forced beyond “our limited vision.” We unburden ourselves of the trivial rigidities that divide us, allowing us to “find common ground” even in the face of our sharpest disagreements. . . .

In an address at Ebenezer Baptist Church in January of 2008, Obama returned to a central theme of The Audacity of Hope, an “empathy deficit” that he believed was warping U.S. politics. Speaking from what was once Martin Luther King’s pulpit, the candidate lamented America’s “inability to recognize ourselves in one another,” a condition that fuels destructive trends—failing inner city schools, racial bias in criminal-justice proceedings, the scourge of predatory lending—that disproportionately afflict minority communities. These “profound institutional barriers” needed to be torn down, Obama said. However, good policy had to be preceded by “a change in attitudes—a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts” consistent with overcoming, as a people, an “empathy deficit.”
Writing midway through Obama’s second term, Coates offers a very different perspective on the potential for empathy to heal racial divisions. Recalling an appearance on a Sunday morning talk show where he was invited to discuss criminal-justice reform, Coates opens the book by affirming the chasm in lived experience between white and black Americans. “A satellite closed the miles between us,” he says of the white woman who was interviewing him, “but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak.” – John Paul Rollert, The Atlantic

Here are some articles to get us thinking about our upcoming philosophy club discussion:

Is Empathy Possible?

Empathy and the Holocaust

Empathy and Race

Does Great Literature make us better?

We will meet in the Collaboratory (1st floor of Caroline Hall) at 10:30 on November 6.

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