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Ethics of Empathy




Detail from Camille Claudel, L'Âge mûr.

Date: Wednesday 22 October 2014
Venue: Dixson Room, State Library of NSW, Sydney
Convenor: Juanita Ruys (The University of Sydney)

Empathy as a term is a modern concept, but the idea of a fellow-feeling with others has a long history. In the twenty-first century—in a world of global charities, tax-deductible donations, and instant outpourings of funds and expressions of grief in the wake of human and natural disasters—it might seem that empathy is the natural reaction to the suffering of others, an inherent good. But does this reflect the history of empathic feelings? Is there an alternative tradition in which empathy is seen as a dangerous emotion, one capable of derailing higher ethical imperatives, such as reason, justice, salvation? What is the relationship between empathy and sympathy and which of these —if either—should we be cultivating? What role does aesthetics play in initiating and motivating our empathic impulses? Can the creative arts— whether fine arts, film, or literature—trigger empathy-driven action, and do they have a duty to do so? If so, should they be aiming to elicit responses at the level of the individual conscience or produce a cultural phenomenon that subsumes the individual in group identity and action? Does religion relate to questions of empathy and its potential imperatives differently from philosophy, and how do these massive semiotic systems valorize the links between aesthetics, ethics, and action? These are some of the big questions to be addressed in ‘Ethics of Empathy’ symposium.

Watch Lectures

CHE aims to make valuable intellectual work publicly accessible. In that spirit, please enjoy recordings of the papers presented at the Ethics of Empathy Symposium. Many thanks to the participants, who have graciously shared their work.

Keynote: Robert Sinnerbrink (Macquarie University) Empathic Ethics: Phenomenology, Cognitivism, and Moving Images

Can movies be ‘ethical’? Some of the most lively and innovative philosophical engagement with cinema and ethics in recent years has come from phenomenological and cognitivist perspectives in film theory. This trend reflects a welcome re-engagement with cinema as a medium with the potential for ethical transformation, that is, with the idea of cinema as a medium of ethical experience. This challenges the more sceptical view according to which cinema’s power of affective and emotional engagement inevitability reproduces ideological biases through viewer manipulation. My presentation explores the phenomenological turn in film theory (with its focus on affective, empathic, and embodied responses to cinema), emphasizing the ethical implications of phenomenological approaches to affect and empathy, emotion and evaluation, care and responsibility, and our experience of ‘the Other’. The oft-criticised ‘subjectivism’ of phenomenological theories, I argue, can be supplemented by recent cognitivist approaches that highlight the complex forms of affective response, emotional engagement, and moral allegiance at work in our experience of moving images. I will explore this exciting crossover between phenomenological and cognitivist approaches in regard to recent films that have attracted critical attention from both perspectives. My suggestion is that an ‘empathic ethics’ is at work in a number of films, such as Ashgar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) and the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night (2014), which offer striking case studies of a ‘cinematic ethics’.

Louise D’Arcens (University of Wollongong): Laughing at the Middle Ages: The Ethics of Historicist Humour

This paper asks: how and why has modernity laughed at the Middle Ages, and what are the ethical stakes of this laughter?

It is a truism that what a society collectively laughs at discloses its ethical aspirations, norms, and boundaries. There has been a strong focus recently on the ethics of humour as an instrument of social tolerance or exclusion, with humour scholars attempting to calibrate the social dynamics between the subject of the comic text, its object, and its audience, in an attempt to identify the line between humour and offense. There is broad consensus that humour operates diversely: it can express social norms, or, conversely, function as reflexive meditations on those norms. But whatever the intention, humour, and the response to it via laughter, are both reflective practices that lay bare the complex intersubjective nature of social experience. Humour and laughter are inherently ethical practices that can have direct and even urgent ramifications for the coherent functioning of the social body.

One aspect of this social operation that is overlooked, however, is the way societies use laughter to reflect on the historical dimension of what Helmuth Plessner calls their ‘eccentric positionality’, and how this is expressed via humour that takes the historical past as its object. This paper addresses this oversight by examining a range of comic medievalist texts, exploring their intricate dynamic of historical ridicule and empathy, and considering how laughing at the Middle Ages discloses later societies’ self-understandings and cultural values.

Helen Day (University of Central Lancashire): Empathy, Unreliability and Lying in Literature for Children and Young Adults

This paper examines a number of novels for children and young adults that feature an unreliable or lying narrator, comparing narratorial strategies in relation to empathy, unreliability and lying. First introduced by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), the term ‘unreliable narration’ describes the discourse of an untrustworthy narrator who misrepresents or misevaluates characters or events. A ‘lying narrator’ defines a narrator who not only lies but also, significantly, admits to lying. The Story of Tracy Beaker (1991) by Jacqueline Wilson, featuring a girl in care, and R.J. Palacio’s sequel The Julian Chapter (2014), whose main character is the ‘bully’ of Wonder, can both be found in the 9-12-year-old section of bookshops. Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable (2006) featuring a teenage rapist and Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries (2004), whose unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with her roommate at an exclusive boarding school, are both for young adults.All four novels feature a narrator who attempts to elicit both sympathy and empathy from their reader. It matters, and has ethical implications, whether the reader of these texts is a child, young adult (or indeed an adult) and how much worldly experience and readerly experience they have. In other words, it matters whether the reader understands that a bully or a rapist might, for example, be unable, psychologically, to confess to what they have done, and it matters whether the reader does in fact recognize the narrative techniques used to persuade him or her (and know that he/she is being lied to). This has implications for whether readers feel empathy and indeed whether they might respond in a different way from that intended by the author. A textually inexperienced, world inexperienced reader (of any age) may well be taken in by the narrator, empathize with him or her, and therefore be shocked when the narrator is exposed or s/he may finish the book without recognizing the ‘truth’ that the narrator has been trying to hide. The use of unreliable narration, in each of these novels, has compensations for the child or teenage reader who manages to work out for themselves when and why the narrator is lying. This is important for the child and young adult reader’s development, or lack thereof, both as a reader and as a person.

Yasmin Haskell (The University of Western Australia): “Empathy”, Impersonation, and Emulation in the Early Modern Society of Jesus

‘Empathy’, in the sense of a desirable, healthy, and even virtuous human capacity to feel as another does, is a psychological construct of relatively recent origin. And yet the literature of the old Society of Jesus represents a rich field for inquiry into prefigurations of modern ‘empathy’, and perhaps especially the ‘ethics of empathy’. Not only did early modern Jesuits extensively theorise the passions but, perhaps more than any other new religious order, they sought to rouse and direct them, through art, music, poetry and drama, into actions. In this paper I shall touch on, for example, the ‘empathic’ visualisations of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, the formulation of Jesuit ‘accommodation’ by Chinese missionary, Matteo Ricci, and some Jesuit understandings of ‘sympathy’ in the seventeenth century. It will be suggested, however, that Jesuits approximate to modern understandings of ‘empathy’ less in their theological and psychological writings than in their teaching, practice and performance of rhetoric, poetry and drama.

Fincina Hopgood (The University of Melbourne): Laughing in the Face of Madness: Using Comedy to Create Empathy for Mental Illness on Screen

Recent portrayals of mental illness in Australian film and television have looked to comedy as a means of developing an empathetic relationship between characters on screen and the audience. This paper examines three feature films that dared to use comedy in their representation of an issue that is still burdened with stigma and stereotyping: The Black Balloon (Elissa Down, 2008), Mary and Max (2008), and Mental (P.J. Hogan, 2012). These films share a common point of origin: their writer-directors each drew upon their experiences as siblings or close friends of people living with mental illness. My research explores the confluence of comedy and autobiography in these filmmakers’ attempts to portray mental illness with authenticity and empathy. Researching the marketing, commercial performance, and critical reception of these films is an integral part of my methodology, which examines the industrial context within which these films were produced. This context informs the creative decisions of the filmmaking team in their approach towards the subject of mental illness. Increasingly, this industrial context includes the advocacy and oversight of mental health organisations keen to ensure that mental illness is portrayed on screen with accuracy and sensitivity. Comedy can be a risky strategy when portraying mental illness on screen: some viewers may take offence at these films’ invitation to laugh at such a serious topic, while others may not find the films funny at all. In this way, comedy tests both the limits of empathy and our understanding of the experience of living with mental illness. The challenge for these filmmakers is to move us from laughing at people with mental illness, to laughing with them.

Jay Johnston (University of Sydney): Critical Emotion: Embodying Ethics while Contemplating Aesthetics

Do we have an ethical imperative to cultivate our aesthetic literacy? Can we glean the intersubjective exchanges that occur between reader and text, viewer and artwork? How can we understand and respond to the emotions that are produced in these encounters?

In considering these three questions this paper will highlight two central themes requisite for understanding the mutual interrelationship of aesthetics and ethics. The first theme considers the ontological and material status of the agents involved, including the boundaries ascribed to subjectivity and the agency ascribed to materiality. The second theme is the duration of the exchange: its temporal dynamic. That is, the length of time consciously engaging in such relations affects the individual’s scopic regimes — how they ‘look’ and what they perceive.  Employing an eclectic range of examples including late antique ‘magical’ handbooks, medieval insular manuscripts, and contemporary art installations, this paper will delineate a methodology of embodied ‘reading’ that brings the interrelation of aesthetics and ethics into sharper focus.

Kimberley-Joy Knight (The University of Sydney/University of St Andrews): The Contagion of Tears in Thirteenth-century Hagiographies: an Empathic Impulse?

In several of the earliest Dominican hagiographical texts we read how the brothers would be drawn to tears when they witnessed the lacrimation of their founder, Dominic of Caleruega (d. 1221). This lachrymose response occurred during the preaching of sermons and in moments of seemingly private prayer focused on empathizing with Christ’s suffering. Should we read this as an empathic impulse and, if so, what stimulated it and what emotions were being shared? Given the opacity and multivalence of tears as an emotional expression, could the brothers accurately interpret them and empathize with their leader, or was their engagement based on brotherly affection (dilectio) or a desire to foster prosocial behaviour? Where recent studies of empathy in hagiography have explored the techniques used to arouse an empathic response from the reader (de Nie; Bouchard, 2013), this paper will analyse the episodes of ‘empathic contagion’ between saint and follower and consider whether emotions were transmitted through tears. It will be argued that this response, triggered by the crying face, engendered several layers of meaning: it countered any incredulity associated with tears, encouraged inter-fraternal bonding, helped to define the early Dominican identity and worked towards the collective goal of salvation.

Andrew Lynch (University of Western Australia): “Violence” and Empathy in Later Medieval English Narrative Contexts’

In Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee, Dame Prudence refers to even a rightful use of physical force as a ‘violence’. By contrast, many medieval texts extend the right to employ ‘good’ physical force far more widely, and largely reserve ‘violence’ as a term for especially tyrannous, oppressive, treacherous or outrageous deeds, not necessarily in physical conflict. ‘Violence’, when used of human actions in the medieval period, seems normally to have involved an ethical or ideological judgment identifying the wrongful use of force or superior power, rather than a description of physically aggressive actions and events in general, as the word tends to mean today.
Accordingly, it may be misleading to regard wars, battles, tournaments and armed combats in medieval writing necessarily as instances of ‘violence’ in medieval eyes. If violence involves the breaking of an explicit or implicit rule of conduct, the term seems imperfectly applicable to fighters apparently represented as doing what they should, or to battles in which the normal rules are followed, however bloody the results. An interpretative problem for modern readers of medieval literature is to find the signs indicating when a judgment of ‘violence’ might properly apply, given that the word itself is quite rarely used in war writing, and relatively few texts treat the issue on the basis of a thorough ethical discussion. Rather, this essay will argue, ‘violence’ commonly occurs as a complex ideological effect achieved within generic frameworks by particular discourses and literary strategies, and accordingly it has a problematical relation to ethical considerations, including empathic disposition towards others. After a discussion illustrating differences between medieval and modern understandings of violence, the paper will analyse  constructions of its nature and significance in a later medieval English poem, the alliterative Morte Arthure.

Carolyn Strange (Australian National University): The Problem with Pardoning: Manliness and Empathy in the Nineteenth Century

The pardon, historically a prerogative of monarchs, underwent negative scrutiny in the age of Revolution and reason. Kings could be tyrannical but also act with kindness, when moved to compassion by the suffering of offenders and the supplications of their kin. While jurists such as Blackstone in England and Marshall in the U.S. defined pardoning as an ‘act of grace’ and a demonstration of the monarch’s beneficence, discretionary justice attracted critics who promoted just deserts and strict proportionality in punishment. One of the most ardent opponents of executive discretion was Francis Lieber (1798-1872), a Prussian émigré to the U.S. and a constitutional law expert. Like many detractors, Lieber contended in 1850 that the pardon power, vested in governors and the President, was open to corrupt abuse; yet he was equally exercised over republican executive officers’ closeness to the people, and the ease with which women, in particular, could ‘meddle’ with the impartial administration of justice. In view of this critique of induced empathy, how did male executive office holders explain and defend their decisions to commute criminal sentences and to pardon? By analysing clemency records associated with the pardon power in New York State, I will show how governors manfully upheld the capacity of executives to feel for the suffering of prisoners and their families, although their freedom to express that capacity waned by the late nineteenth century, as indeterminate sentencing, earned release, and parole intruded on individualized discretion, reforms that turned manly sentiment into womanish sympathy.

Anik Waldow (University of Sydney): Sympathy and the Manipulation of Emotions: Rousseau on the Theatre

When D’Alembert suggested that Geneva should establish a theatre, Rousseau reacted with fury. ‘Theatres and Drama’, Rousseau writes in his letter to D’Alembert, ‘in any little Republic, and especially in Geneva, weaken the State’ (Letter to D’Alembert, 336). For Rousseau the theatre is dangerous because it manipulates our emotions by appealing to our capacity to sympathise with the joys and sorrows of others. It thereby dissolves the ‘natural’ fit between the citizens’ moral sentiments and the institutionalized social practices established and protected by the laws of the state. Yet at the same time Rousseau maintains that in order to integrate citizens into the wider sphere of the state we have to make use of our sympathetic capacity. In this paper I explore how Rousseau’s account of a sympathy-driven civic education undermines his conception of human nature as the ground on which society should be erected. I argue that ultimately it is society and its institutionalized practices that jointly determine which kinds of sentiments are to be cultivated, and thereby essentially shape our understanding of what is natural to us.