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Conservatives Are Waging a War on Empathy -- We Can't Let Them Win

Conservatives are trying to redefine empathy as irrational personal feeling. In fact, empathy is the basis of our democracy and must be defended.
 
 
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The Sotomayor nomination has given radical conservatives new life. They have launched an attack that is nominally aimed at Judge Sotomayor. But it is really a coordinated stealth attack -- on President Obama's central vision, on progressive thought itself, and on Republicans who might stray from the conservative hard line.

There are several fronts: Empathy, feelings, racism, activist judges. Each one has a hidden dimension. And if progressives think conservative attacks are just about Sotomayor, they may wind up helping conservatives regroup.

Conservatives believe that Sotomayor will be confirmed, and so their attacks may seem irrational to Democrats, a last gasp, a grasping at straws, a sign that the party is breaking up.

Actually, something sneakier and possibly dangerous is going on.

Let's start with the attack on empathy. Why empathy? Isn't empathy a good thing?

Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought. It is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others -- not just individuals, but whole categories of people: one's countrymen, those in other countries, other living beings, especially those who are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed. Empathy is the capacity to care, to feel what others feel, to understand what others are facing and what their lives are like. Empathy extends well beyond feeling to understanding, and it extends beyond individuals to groups, communities, peoples, even species. Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice.

Progressives care about others as well as themselves. They have a moral obligation to act on their empathy -- a social responsibility in addition to personal responsibility, a responsibility to make the world better by making themselves better. This leads to a view of a government that cares about its citizens and has a moral obligation to protect and empower them. Protection includes worker, consumer, and environmental protection as well as safety nets and health care. Empowerment includes what is in the President's stimulus plan: infrastructure, education, communication, energy, the availability of credit from banks, a stock market that works. No one can earn anything at all in this country without protection and empowerment by the government. All progressive legislation is made on this basis.

The president wrote of empathy in The Audacity of Hope, "It is at the heart of my moral code and it is how I understand the Golden Rule -- not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes."

President Obama has argued that empathy is the basis of our democracy. Why do we promote freedom and fairness for everyone, not just ourselves or the rich and powerful? The answer is empathy. We care about our countrymen and have an obligation to act on that care and to set up a government for the protection and empowerment of all. That is at the heart of everything he does.

The link between empathy and democracy has been established historically by Professor Lynn Hunt of UCLA in her important book, Inventing Human Rights. Hear her speak here.

The link between empathy and progressive thought is spelled out in my book Moral Politics and in my new book The Political Mind, just out in paperback.

In describing his ideal Supreme Court justice, President Obama cited empathy as a major desideratum. Why? Because that is what our democracy is about. A justice has to take empathy into account because his or her decisions will affect the lives of others. Before making a decision you have to put yourself in the shoes of those who your decision will affect. Similarly, in judging causation, fairness requires that social causes as well as individual causes be taken into account. Empathy forces you to notice what is crucial in so many Supreme Court cases: systemic and social causes and who a decision can harm. As such, empathy correctly understood is crucial to judgment. A judge without empathy is a judge unfit for a democracy.