Empathic imagination and its limits

Steven R. Smith

in Equality and diversity

Published by Policy Press

Published in print July 2011 | ISBN: 9781847426079
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9781447302209 | DOI:
Empathic imagination and its limits

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  • Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility


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This chapter explores what is meant by the plurality and separateness of persons with regard to the notions of otherness, difference and agency. It relates this to the defense presented in Chapters One and Two of the values of incommensurabilty, and the suspension of judgments concerning the comparative worth of people's lives and values held. For several egalitarians, the act of distributing material resources to the disadvantaged and marginalised often presuppose an emphatic connection, eliciting emotions such as sympathy and pity for those people defined as ‘worse off’. In this chapter, it is argued that the ‘first-order’ emphatic imagination, which evaluates objective knowledge about a person's experience, and then empathises, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for relating to others as different and separate persons and as agents. A ‘disposition of surprise’ should be encouraged responding to a person's subjective and highly unexpected engagement with her life, disrupting any epistemological settlement concerning the nature of her experiences and imagined effects. This disposition recognizes the fallibility in emphatic imagination, however the recognition of the fallibility of first-order imagination helps persons to identify with different others understood as separate agents. By recognising these mistakes, a person becomes more willing in appropriately viewing and relating to ‘disadvantaged others’ who are agents too, and to ‘second-order’ emphatic imagination, acknowledging a person's subjective ability to have a life and a view as qualitatively rich and valuable, contrary to the expectations derived from shared ‘objective knowledge’ about this person and her experiences and circumstances. In this chapter, focus is directed on the nature of agency and the limits of emphatic imagination regarding other persons defined as ‘disadvantaged’.

Keywords: plurality; separateness of persons; notions of otherness; difference; agency; first-order emphatic imagination; disadvantaged others

Chapter.  11059 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility

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