Being Me Being YouAdam Smith and Empathy

Being Me Being YouAdam Smith and Empathy

Samuel Fleischacker

Print publication date: 2020

ISBN: 9780226661759

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Many people today hold up empathy as crucial to caring about all humanity and bridging divides between hostile groups. Others accuse it of reinforcing xenophobic tribalism, and of directing people to help only individuals they see or whose stories they know. Who is right? Is empathy essential to cosmopolitanism, and a valuable moral instrument, or does it blur the differences among people, reinforce ethnocentrism, and distract us from fair and effective moral action? Being Me Being You argues that the answer to that question depends on the conception of empathy one is working with. It recommends the “projective” conception of empathy, introduced by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, as against the “contagious” conception of empathy to be found in the writings of his contemporary and friend David Hume. (Both men are among the first theorists of empathy, but they called it “sympathy.”) Smith developed a conception of empathy by which it is not merely an instrument for moral action, but a key component of what it is to be human. For Smith, however, empathy is also crucial to our having distinctive perspectives—to what we call “difference” today; empathy enables our common humanity and our distinctiveness to come together. Relatedly, Smith showed how it could help us combine our cosmopolitan aspirations with our local loyalties, and how it could make for public policies that are sensitive to each person’s different needs and aspirations. In all these ways, Smith’s empathy-centered humanism remains invaluable today.