In the passage Empathy, Justice, and the Law, the author Martin L. Hoffman mainly addresses one question: how empathy can be related to the law. He claims that despite some limitations, in general sense, empathy is attributed to a pro-social motive and thus can be very useful in initiating and changing laws. To illustrate his point, he first gave a definition of empathy and how it can motivate people to help others. Then he identified five modes of empathy: mimicry, conditioning, direct association, (above three are pre-verbal and automatic ones),and verbal-mediated association, perspective taking,(these two are higher-cognitive modes).Perspective taking can also be divided into three types, self-focused, other-focused, and combined self-other focused. According to Hoffman, the third type is extremely important for empathy’s contribution to laws because it benefits from both the emotional intensity of self-focused and the sustained attention to victims of other-focused. After that, Hoffman talked about the different developmental stages of empathy. Begin with the toddlerhood at around 2 years-old when child developed sense of sympathy other than just empathic distress. As age goes up a little, they become able to empathize not only the simples but more subtle feelings which Hoffman called the veridical empathy .When child reaches 7-10 years-old, and begins to have a better understanding of separate individuals, they start to form empathy distress over another’s life condition, not only over a specific event. Eventually, after they get to know social concept and classifying people, they can comprehend and developed empathy distress towards a certain group of people. Sometimes, this final stage can be so strong that it progress to what Hoffman called “witnessing”, which means the empathy distress become so strong that even become life-changing, one devoted oneself into helping certain groups of people over a long period of time at great personal cost, instead of immediate action. Hoffman gives a few examples of witnessing like Kielburger who found Free the Children because of strong empathy distress caused by a child-labor photo. He then listed several feelings that empathy distress can transform to, including compassion, guilty, anger, and injustice. He specifically points out Empathy over injustice is important because it combines nature triggered empathy and sense of justice which can be applied to making and changing laws. In following paragraphs, in order to emphasize his general points, Hoffman gave some detailed examples of people whose empathy helped change laws, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the abolition of slavery, Yale Kamisar and the accused of right to be silent and have a lawyer. He then showed us that in some Supreme Court cases such as school desegregation and legalizing abortion, empathy also plays a very important role, directly or indirectly. At last, he also acknowledge limitations on empathy such as: in-group-familiarity bias, here-there bias and victim-impact bias, in those cases empathy may lead to a wrong direction where the guilty one may gains sympathy and the victim get blamed.
Hoffman concluded and pointed out his view that empathy is generally a pro-social behavior and can have an impact in law-making, but we have to keep in mind those limitations, using our logical thoughts and reasons instead of fully relying on it.
In this passage, Hoffman used the word ‘witnessing’ in a specific way that’s different from what we normally used it. As he said ‘Empathy for a distressed group may progress to a point that Kaplan and Laub called ‘witnessing’ ’. By the word witnessing, Hoffman means that the empathic distress aroused when someone sees a certain group of people suffering progress to an extent that it provides strong motivation for one to devote oneself into helping those people beyond the situation and last a long time. Hoffman specifically and frequently used this term in this passage because it is the ultimate stage of empathy development which is very different from those lower stages as sympathy and empathy over one’s life time. The ‘witnessing’ effect is actually the most important pro-social attribute of empathy because it benefits the society in a real sense. Hoffman used this word in a memorable and unconditional way combined with related examples to emphasize his point that empathy can be used to make and change laws.