Blog 1: Hoffman

In Part 14, Empathy, Justice, and the Law, of Hoffman’s writing, he addresses the issue of whether or not empathy should play a role in lawmaking and law enforcement. He argues that while empathy is an important emotion to have and allow to influence justice and law, it “is limited by its fragility, dependence on the salience and intensity of distress cues, and susceptibility to influence by one’s relationship to the victim” (250). It has to be combined with reason and logic in order to keep the law unbiased, effective, and fair. Empathy and reason have to be used in conjunction in order to effectively make a smart decision to carry out the law. In his examples of court cases, such as Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education, the use of empathy was a good starting point for creating justice (legalizing abortions and eliminating segregation, respectively), but it was only a starting point created by the empathetic feeling of injustice that sparked the motivation to change the situation (248-249). If this feeling of empathy drives sequential decisions, the law could become biased because of emotional favoring. However, Hoffman suggests that a lack of empathy disallows the jurors from connecting with the victim of the situation, so some empathy is essential, but it should not be permitted to rule every decision.

This ties into one of the key words in this reading, “witnessing”. Hoffman describes it as an exposure to someone else’s stressful situation that makes the person feel empathetic distress, and thus cause them to create a long-term solution because of how they “feel for” the situation. The term “witness” is used in a lot of senses, but Hoffman takes it to a different definition, using it to describe not only a bystander, but someone who takes action in a situation. This is essential to his argument because people who fit this description are the ones who establish justice and fairness because of bad situations that they feel empathy towards.

Works Cited:

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Print.

31 thoughts on “Blog 1: Hoffman

  1. While, citing the court cases was a key argument in Hoffman’s book, it was only a part of the narrative he weaves within this chapter. An equally as important section, if not more so, are the limitations which empathy permits within the court room. Beyond the court using empathy as a spring board towards progress, Hoffman spends a lot of time analyzing how empathy can lead to the morally incorrect decision based on things like salience bias and the victim of the moment effect. These limitations are important to include in the summary because what gives Hoffman’s argument the most validity is the way he addresses and refutes these shortcomings.

    Overall, I do believe the problem statement and her interpretation of the answer are correct, however I also believe it has been oversimplified. Hoffman argues not only that empathy is important to the court and law, but that it is a crucial guiding force for reform within the system. He doesn’t necessarily argue that reason and empathy should be combined within the court, but that when one feels empathy for the victim or defendant, they will find the legal means to carry out their opinion of justice. In his conclusion he states that as a race we must train ourselves to overcome the shortcomings of emphatic response, because it is too crucial to our morality to let it be overshadowed by reason.

    The use of the court cases as evidence effectively support Hannah’s claim that reason and empathy are married within the court system. However, as I stated before, there were quite a few aspect to the essay like the scientific approach to the way empathy works in the brain and human development, beyond historical examples which provide a unique perspective on the essay, and are key to the way he frames empathetic responses as human nature.

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