In Martin L. Hoffman’s essay, “Empathy, Justice, and the Law,” Hoffman discusses the importance of empathy in law as well as the numerous ways in which empathy can be invoked. Hoffman argues in favor of the presence of empathy in America’s legal system despite opponents who list the detriments empathy can have on court rulings. He notes empathy as a motivator that drove some of America’s greatest Supreme Court rulings, such as Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Miranda v. Arizona, now considered defining principles in American law today. Empathy’s presence in the legal system offers a human perspective and understanding that cold reason cannot. By using empathy, it has been shown that people, Harriet Beecher Stowe for instance, have contributed to history, bringing about change in both the mindset of the people and eventually the law itself. With this evidence, Hoffman builds a strong argument for empathy’s importance in legal contexts. Hoffman acknowledges the shortcomings of the inherent biases that come with empathy, and encourages that people learn to recognize their biases and develop strategies that support reason-based and empathic decision-making with as little bias as possible.
In addition to writing about empathy’s role in law, Hoffman is careful in defining empathy’s meaning within the context of his essay which is centralized around empathy. While there are a number of interpretations of empathy, the empathy Hoffman consistently refers to in his essay is affective empathy, the type of empathy that goes beyond acknowledgment of another’s feelings and takes it upon oneself to feel what the victim feels. This distinction is important when Hoffman writes, “I now turn to individuals whose empathy with societies’ disadvantaged led to actions on their behalf, which in turn had contributed significantly to changes in laws that not only benefitted the disadvantaged but also has consequences for society as a whole” (Hoffman 238). Without Hoffman’s definition of empathy, it would be confusing trying to understand why merely acknowledging the feelings of the disadvantaged would lead to such drastic changes. But if readers understand that it was affective empathy that had caused such reactions and distress to bystanders that it compelled them to help, one can truly understand the power of empathy in moral decision-making. In defining empathy as the affective variety in his essay, Hoffman allows readers to understand the amount emotion and humanity empathy is capable of drawing out of people, making it an integral part of our legal system which would operate solely on cold reason if left alone.
Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Sept 7, 2016.