We’re torn, today, over what to think about empathy. On the one hand, everyone talks about the need for it; there seems to be a new book on it every week, and we hold it up as the key to bridging divides between hostile groups. On the other hand, we say, “You can’t know what it’s like to be me,” and we insist on the importance of perspective and difference. Some psychologists add that empathy reinforces our divisions into closed, xenophobic tribes, and directs us to help only individuals we see or whose stories we know, rather than doing things that would benefit larger numbers of people.
So which is it? Is empathy essential to cosmopolitanism, and a valuable moral instrument, or does it blur the differences among people, reinforce ethnocentrism, and distract us from fair and effective moral action? Being Me Being You argues that the answer to that question depends on what conception of empathy we have. It recommends the “projective” conception of empathy, introduced by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, as against the “contagious” conception of empathy to be found in the writings of his contemporary and friend David Hume. Smith developed a conception of empathy by which it is not merely an instrument for moral action, but a key component of what it is to be human. For Smith, however, empathy is also crucial to our having distinctive perspectives — to what today we call “difference”; empathy enables our common humanity and our distinctiveness to come together. Relatedly, Smith showed how it could help us combine our cosmopolitan aspirations with our local loyalties, and how it could make for public policies that are sensitive to each person’s different needs and aspirations. In all these ways, Smith’s empathy-centered humanism remains invaluable today.
Author: Sam Fleischacker
Published Date: 2019
Publisher: University of Chicago Press