Martin L. Hoffman’s essay “Empathy, Justice, and the Law” addresses the concerns of empathy playing “a role in the law”. It is Hoffman’s belief that empathy is essential to the law, especially when involving “pro-social legal principles”. However, he also believes that empathy can become biased in legal cases and that that bias must be given consideration. Hoffman supports his beliefs by using court cases and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as examples.
In many court cases, empathy is a deciding factor for the judge and jury. Many people do their best to influence the jury using empathy. Hoffman exemplifies many cases in which the use of empathy in court cases results in favorable outcomes. Yale Kamisar’s articles about police interrogations influenced the decision of Miranda v. Arizona by drawing attention to the lack of rights given to people when arrested. School desegregation was argued in the courts due to a lack of legal grounds but was eventually overturned in Brown v. Board of Education due to a feeling of empathetic injustice in the judges. Hoffman writes that this likely would have happened eventually but was expedited due to empathy. Hoffman also makes the point that empathy can cause bias in the courtroom. He brings up a case of a British nanny who shook an eight month old child to death. The nanny was given a life sentence due to empathy for the child’s parents but then her sentence was reduced and she was released because the judge felt empathy for her. This empathetic bias influences Hoffman’s belief that though empathy is important in court cases, empathetic bias must also be considered.
Hoffman uses the term witnessing many times throughout his essay. Witnessing is generally thought to mean seeing something. However, Hoffman’s psychological use of “witnessing” defines the word as empathy for a group of people experiencing some distressing factor that leaves a lasting effect on a person not directly effected by this factor. Hoffman draws attention to the empathic use of witnessing in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The woman in the novel, though a housewife who was politically uninvolved, took great offence to the Fugitive Slave Law and wanted to change it. She saw how unfairly slaves were treated and experienced empathic witnessing. This caused her to want to do everything she could to help slaved. Witnessing is also a key concept in court cases where the judge or jury feels empathy for a group of people undergoing an injustice. The importance of Hoffman’s use of witnessing is due to it being a subcategory of empathy. Witnessing is such a strong form of empathy that it often leads people to act on unjust situations effecting different groups of people. This can sometimes lead to laws being advocated for and eventually passed to fix these situations.
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.