Articles and Reviews
Empathy and the Value of Humane Understanding. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, forthcoming.
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Empathy is a form of emotionally charged imaginative perspective-taking. It is also the unique source of a par- ticular form of understanding, which I will call humane understanding. Humane understanding consists in the di- rect apprehension of the intelligibility of others’ emotions. This apprehension is an epistemic good whose ethical sig- nificance is multifarious. In this paper, I focus on elaborat- ing the sense in which humane understanding of others is non-instrumentally valuable to its recipients. People have a complex but profound need to be humanely understood. Because we respond to others’ very real need when we pur- sue this sort of understanding of their emotions, empathy is best understood as itself a way of caring, rather than just a means to promote other caring behavior.
Empathy and Testimonial Trust. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 84 (2018)
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Our collective enthusiasm for empathy reflects a sense that it is deeply valuable. In this paper, I show that empathy bears a complex and surprisingly problematic relation to another social epistemic phenomenon that we have reason to value, namely testimonial trust. My discussion focusses on the significance of this relation in the context of ally-ship. Oppressed people suffer from an unjust dearth of trust in their testimony. I first argue that empathy for oppressed people can be a powerful tool for engendering a certain form of testimonial trust, because there is a tight connection between empathy and a (limited) approval of another’s outlook. I next suggest that this picture of how empathy engenders trust also makes it clea why the trust empathy can support is not the only kind that members of oppressed communities might reasonably demand. Empathy can provide no support for trust that persists in the face of the recognition that another’s perspective is alien to us, and there is good reason to believe that this “riskier” form of trust is both needful and something responsible allies can be expected to furnish.
Empathy, Care, and Understanding in Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Adam Smith Review 9 (2016)
Adam Smith’s explicit pronouncements about empathy’s role in fostering understanding and concern generate a problem. Smith assigns a double duty to the series of mental operations that issue in empathy, treating it as the source of both our understanding of other people and our non-instrumental concern for them. However, if Smith’s empathetic mechanism does generate an accurate understanding of the other, that understanding will simply not be the right kind of acquaintance to generate concern. Only a seriously confused grasp of the attitudes and passions of the other could give birth to a heretofore absent non-instrumental concern for others. The fulfillment of either one of the empathetic mechanism’s supposed functions requires conditions that will make it impossible for the other function to be fulfilled. Smith’s official account of empathy is seriously flawed. However, his theory of human sociability also contains within it the seeds of an important improvement upon the official account. I argue that given Smith’s conception of empathy, he should on pain of inconsistency be committed to a very different conception of concern’s relation to empathy and understanding than the one he more explicitly endorses.
What Knowledge is Necessary for Virtue? Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 4 (2) 2010
Aristotelian ethics prides itself on its close fit with the endoxa concerning how virtues are properly conceptualized and invoked in our evaluation of agents. However, some critics contend that its picture of the virtues is, in reality, strikingly unrealistic. One version of this criticism that has proven to have considerable staying power is the argument that Aristotelianism demands too much of the virtuous person in the way of knowledge to be credible. This general charge is usually directed against either of two of Aristotelianism’s apparent claims about the necessary conditions for the possession of a single virtue – namely that 1) one must know what all the other virtues require, and 2) one must also be the master of a preternatural range of technical/empirical knowledge. In this paper, I argue that Aristotelianism does indeed have a very high standard when it comes to the knowledge necessary for the full possession of a virtue, in both of these respects. However, I deny that this has unacceptable implications when it comes to the evaluation of moral agents. The demandingness of the ideal of full knowledge to which Aristotelianism is committed can be effectively counterbalanced by the recognition that some kinds of knowledge are much more important to various virtues than others are. Aristotelians and their critics alike tend to overlook this truth. Nevertheless, it has important implications for our evaluation of agents’ virtuousness.
Review of Sophie de Grouchy's Letters on Sympathy: A Critical Engagement with Adam Smith's the Theory of Moral Sentiments, trans. Sandrine Bergès, ed. Sandrine Bergès and Eric Schliesser.
A review for NDPR of the 2019 Bergès/Schliesser edition of Sophie de Grouchy's important but long-neglected Letters on Sympathy. Includes a discussion of the differences between Grouchy and Smith's notions of sympathy, and some speculation about her theory's ability to account for the origin and nature of human benevolence.