Varieties of Empathy and Moral Agency

Topoi 33 (1):1-11 (2014)
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Contemporary literature includes a wide variety of definitions of empathy. At the same time, the revival of sentimentalism has proposed that empathy serves as a necessary criterion of moral agency. The paper explores four common definitions in order to map out which of them best serves such agency. Historical figures are used as the backdrop against which contemporary literature is analysed. David Hume’s philosophy is linked to contemporary notions of affective and cognitive empathy, Adam Smith’s philosophy to projective empathy, and Max Scheler’s account to embodied empathy. Whereas cognitive and projective empathy suffer from detachment and atomism, thereby providing poor support for the type of other-directedness and openness entailed by moral agency, embodied and affective empathy intrinsically facilitate these factors, and hence are viewed as fruitful candidates. However, the theory of affective empathy struggles to explain why the experience of empathy includes more than pure affective mimicry, whilst embodied empathy fails to take into account forms of empathy that do not include contextual, narrative information. In order to navigate through these difficulties, Edith Stein’s take on non-primordial experience is used as a base upon which a definition of affective empathy, inclusive of an embodied dimension, and founded on a movement between resonation and response, is sketched. It is argued that, of the four candidates, this new definition best facilitates moral agency



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Citations of this work

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References found in this work

A treatise of human nature.David Hume & D. G. C. Macnabb (eds.) - 1977 - New York: Dutton.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments.Adam Smith - 1759 - Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. Edited by Elizabeth Schmidt Radcliffe, Richard McCarty, Fritz Allhoff & Anand Vaidya.
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40).David Hume - 1969 - Mineola, N.Y.: Oxford University Press. Edited by Ernest Campbell Mossner.
Totality and infinity.Emmanuel Levinas - 1961/1969 - Pittsburgh,: Duquesne University Press.

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