On the Role of Empathy (or its Absence) in Policy

Over a year ago, I had a discussion with an old friend about the right (or lack thereof) of businesses to refuse service if said service contradicts their religious beliefs. Such discussions can get nasty, but this one did not; he’s a calm and measured fellow, as I like to think myself as well.

One thread of his argument really stood out to me though, one question kept coming back from his end: could he empathize with a business owner/practioner’s conscientious objection in various situations (having to decorate a cake for a wedding, having to fulfill a morning-after pill prescription, having to perform an abortion procedure.) It seemed a decisive factor as to whether he would support the state allowing that person to opt out of performing the service. In his case, it seemed he could empathize more with the last one than the first two.

As someone who likes to think of myself as a high-minded, principled philosopher, I was taken aback by what seemed like, as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki would put it, “the basest sentimentality.” But it’s been stewing in the back of my mind ever since.

First, my question was: could relative empathy be the thread that ties liberalism together? Is the state really just a vicious dog held on its leash by whether liberal voters feel a connection with various groups? The Democratic party had always struck me as an arbitrary coalition. But it would make sense if it were driven not by principles per se, but scales of empathy that tip against the religious, business owners, the unborn, and to a lesser extent, police and military servicemembers, compared to empathy toward anyone who finds themselves at odds with those groups.

It seemed compelling, but then I wondered: could relative empathy be the thread that ties ideology itself together? I wanted to examine Republicanism through the same lens. The fruit is low-hanging, some obvious candidates for Republicans’ reduced-empathy categories come to mind: Muslims, illegal immigrants, law-breakers (or mere suspects) in general, sexual minorities, ethnic minorities. Republicans sometimes abandon espoused constitutional principles in order to contain or constrain some of these groups in one way or another. Before my Republican friends bury me, I’m only pointing this out because the Republican party leans very heavily on the Constitution as a source of authority, while the Democratic party makes little effort to.

Now I’m wondering: can/do intellectual principles effectually mimic empathy’s presence in policy choices (ex: “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it?”) Or is it the other way around completely: do people form principles to benefit those they feel empathy for, at the expense of those they do not, and then give ourselves a pat on the back for being “rational?” Or can principles force one to consider another’s perspective and thereby gain empathy that was not there previously? Or all of the above, and political philosophy is an Ouroboros between feelings and principles?


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