Nicholas Wolterstorff on Empathy

Earlier this week I argued that Khizir Khan (in response to Donald Trump) has brought “empathy” into public discourse.  As I have said several times here already, I am glad to see this.  One of our readers, John Mulholland, the founder of the “Redemption of Reason” initiative at the University of Chicago, brought to my attention a powerful lecture on this subject by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.

You can watch it here:

Wolterstorff argues that empathy requires an imaginative encounter with others. It demands a level of “proximity” to people who are different or who are suffering injustice or pain or some other emotion.  But if one cannot cultivate empathy through human proximity to the “other,” then literature (he uses Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example here), drama, or film can cultivate this essential virtue.  As I argued in Why Study History?, the study of the past through primary sources can also produce this kind of empathy.

Wolterstorff speaks about empathy in deeply moral terms and connects it with the larger purpose of justice.  He seems to suggest that our empathy should be primarily focused on the oppressed or the suffering.  But as a historian I think empathy (as in “walking in one’s shoes”) must be applied to any person–oppressed,oppressor, or just an ordinary life–that we encounter in the past.  If history is going to educate (lead us “outward”) then empathy cannot be separated from our efforts to understand all of the human actors we study. We need to make sense of them as products of their own worlds, not ours.

Wolterstorff seems to agree with David Brooks when he says “the person who lacks the capacity for empathy is a sociopath.”  He thinks that most people are capable of empathy, but their capacity for empathy is somehow “blocked” by what he describes as “hardened hearts.”

According to Wolterstroff, empathy is “blocked” in several ways:

  1. People with “hardened hearts” have learned to dehumanize others and are thus incapable of empathizing with them.
  2. People with “hardened hearts” often suggest that the plight of victims is of their own making (i.e. the poor are lazy, etc…) and they thus don’t deserve empathy.
  3. People with “hardened hearts” have embraced a “visionary ideal” that they are working for some “great good” that can only be achieved by looking past the suffering or humanity of others. (“Make America Great Again?”)
  4. People with “hardened hearts” feel loyal to one’s own people and do not need to empathize with others because others are threats to their community.
  5. People with “hardened hearts” are often afraid that showing empathy to others will lead to the acknowledgment of one’s own complicity in the plight of others, which, in turn, would require a drastic change of life that most people can’t handle.

Watch the entire video to see how Wolterstorff connects empathy to justice.

2 thoughts on “Nicholas Wolterstorff on Empathy

  1. Wolterstorff argues that empathy requires an imaginative encounter with others

    The problem is, we are limited by our imagination, which itself is limited by our wisdom and experience. And, necessarily, by our knowledge of the facts.

    This illustrates the difficulty in bifurcating ’empathy’ from “sympathy,” or defining either: The former claims objectivity, eschewing the latter as the latter subjective if I follow you correctly.

    In Adam Smith’s earlier and better book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, pardon my Wiki:

    Smith departed from the “moral sense” tradition of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume, as the principle of sympathy takes the place of that organ. “Sympathy” was the term Smith used for the feeling of these moral sentiments. It was the feeling with the passions of others. It operated through a logic of mirroring, in which a spectator imaginatively reconstructed the experience of the person he watches:

    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. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation.

    So I still struggle with the distinction/definitions of empathy vs. sympathy, as Adam Smith seems to as well, at least as presented at TWOILH.

    Now, if I’m to claim empathy/objectivity [“putting myself in the shoes of”] in the matter of one

    Earlier this week I argued that Khizir Khan (in response to Donald Trump) has brought “empathy” into public discourse.

    Khizr Khan. I see an opportunist–albeit sincere in his own way–who is provably a scholar on shari’a* far more then the US Constitution, who makes his living as a lawyer in part by helping Muslims immigrate to the US, and who is using his son’s death in military service [at the hands of terrorists] to defeat Donald Trump, who is an obstacle to increased Muslim immigration to the US.

    This does not make Khizr Khan a bad person, any more than I would hold a Christian in Saudi Arabia [if there are any] having a first loyalty to fellow Christians rather than the Saudi government. I respect those who consider themselves Christians first and Americans second; I think Mr. Khan thinks of himself similarly as a Muslim. That’s where [my] empathy takes me in the case or Khizr Khan.

    What if I’ve got him figured out accurately, empathywise-speaking? This is what I’d be doing if I were him. Does this make me a bad person?



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