Blog Post #1- “Empathy, Justice, and the Law” by Martin L. Hoffman

Martin L. Hoffman’s, “Empathy, Justice, and the Law” discusses how empathy is provoked and  then how it is relevant in law. He concludes that people tend to have good consciences and as a result, they often try to empathize with someone in distress and they try to help out these victims. In terms of law, this innate tendency to empathize can get in the way of determining the legality of a case, so while empathy is an inherently good trait, it can skew one’s perception in a legal case. Hoffman claims that people begin to develop a elementary sense of empathy, affective empathy to be more specific, at a young age, perhaps as young as three or fours years old. Subsequently, as one develop, he/she understands more about the world, the way people feel, and the way a victim’s situation affects the feelings a person has. According to Hoffman, empathy has driven many acts of empathy, such as the German people saving the Jews from the Nazis. However, in terms of law, Hoffman argues that while empathy can be relevant in the case of law, it can also be biased in determining the legal outcome of a case. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, brings proper awareness to the unfairness and cruelity of slavery, showing that empathy can help in law. People recognize the unjustified struggle that enslaved people faced on plantations and through their empathy, slavery was abolish thanks to empathy. Thanks to a level of awareness, people were able to do something about a moral issue that they felt morally obligated to help with. However, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which ultimately worked to desegregate school, the bias of empathy in a legal case is seen because looking at the struggle black kids faced having to be separated and put in inferior schools made people feel bad for them and want to help them. While empathy was a major player in the ultimate decision to desegregate, Hoffman argues that empathy is still important to have in these cases to make the right moral ruling.

A key word that Hoffman uses frequently throughout the piece is “distress” specifically in the case of empathic distress. Hoffman uses the term “empathic distress” to express the idea that the innate goodness of people causes them to feel distress in the case of another person’s suffering. Whether this is because the “empathizer” is relating back to a similar traumatizing experience related to the victim’s distress or they can just deeply understand how difficult someone’s situation is, people tend to help someone in distress because they empathize with them.  In terms of the law, court officials saw the distress that victims were going through and the natural reaction for them to empathize, at least to some extent with them, led to morally good rulings.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Martin L. “14 Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. N.p.: n.p., 2011. 230+. Oxford Scholarship, Jan. 2012. Web. 7 Sept. 2016.

41 thoughts on “Blog Post #1- “Empathy, Justice, and the Law” by Martin L. Hoffman

  1. Regarding the four critical points that every summary should have, your summary is fantastic. You clearly introduce the author and his work, the question the author is answering, and his response to that question within the first three sentences. The rest is devoted to the explanation of Hoffman’s conclusion.
    While I do agree with your take on Hoffman’s idea of empathy as being able to “skew one’s perception in a legal case”, I do not think that you talk about the negative side of this effect enough. You mention various cases where empathy has engendered public sentiment in a positive way, but absent is the idea that the fragility of empathy can be detrimental to the law, as in the case of the British nanny. In short, I agree with all that you wrote, but I think you could provide further evidence of the inherent faults within empathy.

    • *REVISION*

      Regarding the four critical points that every summary should have, your summary is fantastic. You clearly introduce the author and his work, the question the author is answering, and his response to that question within the first three sentences. The rest is devoted to the explanation of Hoffman’s conclusion. In this section, you effectively point out multiple examples of the benefits of empathy in the law. In this sense, it is very well done, but I believe it is missing a few pieces that would strengthen your take on Hoffman’s idea of empathy.

      While I do agree with your take on Hoffman’s idea of empathy as being able to “skew one’s perception in a legal case”, I do not think that you talk about the negative side of this effect enough. You mention various cases where empathy has engendered public sentiment in a positive way, but absent is the idea that the fragility of empathy can be detrimental to the law, as in the case of the British nanny. In short, I agree with all that you wrote, but I think you could provide further evidence of the inherent faults within empathy.

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