Some very awkward truths about empathy

In the last handful of posts, I have sought to demonstrate some rather uncomfortable and infelicitous things about our near-universal celebration of empathy. One is that it is based on a false metaphysical picture of human beings as weak, suffering creatures. Another is that it has been raised from a ‘local virtue’ into an ascetic ideal, with the result that many unthinkingly insist that one always ought to show empathy toward the other. A third is that it closes us off from regarding ourselves as claim-bearing and conversion-ready beings: that is, as persons who make claims and take each other’s claims seriously and, by taking these claims seriously, believe that our world understanding can be radically altered (call this last: conversion). I have gone on to argue in the last post that we can do just fine without empathy in the lion’s share of our ethical exchanges.

However, one assignment remains and that is to figure out in what sorts of scenarios empathy would be at home. Yet sharpening our focus concerning empathy’s proper place may turn out to reveal some very awkward things about our modern metaphysico-ethical picture.

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To bring the place of empathy into sharper focus, below I discuss four different cases.

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