The University of Notre Dame Department of Philosophy Colloquium presents:
Professor Diana Tietjens Meyers
Loyola University – Chicago
The Role of Empathy in Human Rights Interpretation and Commitment
Friday, November 12, 2010
220 Malloy Hall
Empathy’s reputation as a moral power has come under attack in a number of recent discussions. After developing an account of empathy that blends helpful points from Peter Goldie’s account with conventions of ordinary usage, I argue that empathy can play a vital role in anchoring understanding of and commitment to human rights. Two important recent papers – one by Catriona Mackenzie and Jackie Leach Scully, the other by Sonia Kruks – argue that different embodiment is an obstacle to empathy and hence an obstacle to moral understanding. Against Mackenzie and Scully, I argue that they rely on an unacceptably narrow conception of empathy and that, properly understood, empathy enables you to glimpse values and disvalues as another person experiences them. My view gains support while also facing a challenge from Sonia Kruks’s account of sexed/gendered embodiment and visceral empathy. After raising some questions about the sources of Kruks’s differential responses to female and male suffering, I argue that well-wrought victims’ stories can mediate corporeal differences and enable differently embodied individuals to grasp alternative normative realities. To show how this works, I analyze passages from a German woman’s anonymously published diary of the Red Army’s mass rape campaign at the end of World War II. My aim is to explain how the author of this record discursively traverses the gaps between universal humanity, gendered subjectivity, and particular personhood. I acknowledge that no victim’s story is guaranteed to engage everyone’s empathetic capacities and that vast differences between people’s bodily experience complicate empathetic understanding. Still, I maintain that biologically and socially different bodies need not empathetically isolate people from one another and that empathy with differently embodied others can correct misguided interpretations of human rights and solidify opposition to human rights abuse.
(Please note that this paper contains some quotations from A Woman in Berlin that graphically depict sexual violence.)