The Fine Line of Empathy

One of the largest debates surrounding the concept of empathy is the extent to which it should be used in making decisions. Some argue that in order to be entirely unbiased, as one would need to be on a jury, for example, empathy should be entirely left out from the decision making process and one should focus strictly on facts. Others believe that empathy is an important consideration that makes us human and allows us to empathize with various people and situations. While my blog posts don’t confirm the ‘right’ position in any sense, they aim to investigate these ideas for a further understanding of the practical uses of empathy.

The first blog post about disagreement with Morton’s passage Empathy for the Devil discusses the limits, or lack thereof, of our imagination in empathy. Morton’s argument as a whole revolves around the idea of the limitations of empathy for atrocious acts, but he makes a minor claim that our empathy is unlimited in the fictional world. This is partially because the audience understands that it isn’t real and it’s actually occurring, and partially because the creator of that world attempts to make characters that are easily relatable to the audience, so we feel more connected to them. However, the most atrocious of acts cannot be empathized with, no matter the circumstance, based on basic universal ethics that disapprove of humans committing these acts. In this instance, empathy should not be considered as a viable emotion in how an audience views a character that commits actions that are so horrendous.

My second blog post discussed the implications of empathy and its role in social media, specifically for Ashley Payne, who was fired from her teaching job after an anonymous parent reported her Facebook posts to the principal at her school for inappropriate behavior. Payne posted pictures of herself on summer vacation enjoying some wine and beer, and once referenced a swear word in her post. Because the certain viewer of her post was enraged and didn’t empathize with Ashley’s situation or her reason for posting, they complained and she was consequently forced to resign. Social media commonly lacks this theme of empathy, and users disregard any consideration of others’ feelings when posting.

The final blog post, surrounding the book Go Set a Watchman, develops ideas of the inherent racism found in Jean Louise’s hometown of Maycomb, Alabama that she failed to notice as a young girl, and the gaping hole where empathy for all people should be. Decision making in Maycomb is characterized by white privilege. When she returns in the beginning of the telling of this story as a grown up, she is astonished to see how different the town, and particularly her father Atticus, is from how she remembered it. She came from New York, where racism was dying at the time and cultures were becoming more welcoming and inclusive. However, in her southern little city, empathy for those of different races was still extremely lacking. Jean Louise and the audience discover that most people there, and especially Atticus, act irrationally towards those who they consider inferior, simply because they can. They favor people like themselves and have no empathy for anyone else, therefore they refuse to make decisions that support them.

There are no set-in-stone rules for how empathy can be involved in decisions; it mostly depends on the situation. In general, it’s best to use what Adam Smith, in the context of Martha Nussbaum’s writing, calls a judicious spectator: someone who takes empathy into account and factors in the influences of a victim’s emotions, but still keeping an open mind as to not have prejudices towards any particular side or decision (Poetic Justice, 72). While even this isn’t completely and entirely effective, it’s the best place to start in utilizing empathy as a decision maker.

Works Cited:

Nussbaum, Martha. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and                       Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 53-78. Print/Web.

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