The type of empathy these skeptics tend to attack is affective empathy, namely feeling an emotion consonant with that of another person because that other person is feeling it (or because they are in the situation they are in). However, the same charge could be made against perspective taking too. After all, taking another’s perspective inclines the perspective taker more positively towards the target, just like affective empathy does.
         The idea that we represent the world, not from the perspective of a disembodied thinker, but from the perspective of engaged users of it (if I may use such a term) is familiar from such philosophers as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The latter even went as far as to say that what characterizes our existence is not the Cartesian cogito—I think therefore I am—but rather this: I act, therefore I am.          Upon reflection, of course, this all makes good sense. We are organisms, after all, who need to survive in the world before we have luxury to reflect on it. And so, what we are liable to represent is what furthers those interests. Apart from the purely physical constraints on vision, it makes sense to represent the world on an egocentric frame. Things are seen as close or far and being seen to be so is already a way of seeing the world as affording certain possibilities for action. My concern is not, however, such a very general way of thinking about our unreflective way of perceiving or cognizing the world, but the more specific pertaining to interpersonal relations. That is the topic of the next post.
         A perspective can be understood as a person’s entire Weltanschauung, including all the beliefs, desires, propensities, character traits, etc. that are peculiar to them. But there is another way of thinking about perspectives, and one that is more useful for understanding what empathy can do and why it is helpful. This in terms of how an organism with a particular perceptual and cognitive structure and a certain ecological history represents the world from a first-person perspective. A visual perspective, for instance, is a way of representing the world on an egocentric frame. It is partial, of course, representing what is in front of us, but doing so in relation to us. Things are represented as nearer or further away, for instance. Moreover, distances are represented presenting a visual world that is eminently actionable.
Heidi Maibom, University of Cincinnati and University of the Basque Country
         To get a sense of the shape of my argument, consider what the objector’s concern seem to presuppose. That is that when we do not empathize with others, we have a more impartial an unbiased view of them. But is that true?
         In The Space Between: How Empathy Really Works, I argue against this view when it comes to both form of empathy, although I focus mostly on perspective taking. Instead of making you more biased and partial, I argue, empathy in fact makes you less biased, less partial. And if we equate impartiality with objectivity, it follows that it also makes you more objective or, at any rate, less subjective. How is that?
After enjoying success as an important moral emotion, empathy has fallen on hard times. It is now popular to decry empathy as an emotion that not only has no good use in a moral system, but also is positively corrupting. Empathy, we are told, biases you in favor of one person and, at least potentially, against everybody else. In other words, it deals in partiality and partiality is the enemy of morality, which councils us to have an impartial regard for everybody. Or so the story goes.
         The short, but uninformative, answer is ‘no’. This is because if it is important to take another person’s perspective to understand them it is not because they have a perspective and we do not. It is because we all have a particular perspective on the world. If, therefore, I take another’s perspective as well as my own, I get a more nuanced view of the world. Not everybody’s perspective will do that, you might object. And to an extent you would be right. Certain perspectives are certainly more informative than others. But there are a variety of ways in which we can think about perspectives, and the one that I have in mind pretty well ensures the informativeness I am talking about. 
Terminology: A first-person perspective contains three sub-perspectives: an agent perspective (how we view ourselves, our own actions, and what happens to us), an observer perspective (how we view others, their actions, and what happens to them), and an interactor perspective (how we view others and ourselves when we are directly engaged with them). In these posts, I only discuss the agent and observer perspectives.

Similar Posts