Mark Kingwell – What Am I Skating Towards? Democracy and Empathy

Here is Mark Kingwell's response to the question, What are you skating towards in 2012?

The Relationship Between Democracy and Empathy

I can't skate very well, at least by Canadian standards, so I think I'm more groping and staggering towards something this coming year. It is the relationship between democracy and empathy — the idea, actually at least as old as Adam Smith, that we can't feel an obligation to another unless and until we see that person as vulnerable, as open to ourselves to pain and suffering. This seeing in turn requires a special capacity of the mind: moral imagination.

Philosophers have long believed that cultivating the moral imagination is best done through instruction and argument, but I wonder. My own personal experience suggests that narrative fiction, in all its forms (novels, plays, films, even good television) is where this actually happens — where we take up the position of another and, as it were, share in that person's 'lover's argument with the world', to quote Robert Frost's epitaph.

My current worry is that this capacity to enrich political sensitivity through the exercise of narrative literacy is waning. That is, in the social-media era, where long-form narrative and sustained attention to the inwardness of an imagined person are no longer treasure, we may be headed towards an ‘empathy deficit’. (Some research by my University of Toronto colleague Keith Oatley, who is a novelist as well as a psychologist, indicates that this may indeed be occurring in younger people.)

Four hundred years ago Hobbes argued, somewhat notoriously, that there was only self-interest to be found in the human self. Even if he was right, we humans have always been able to temper that self-interest by noting its effects on others, the uneven distribution of happiness and comfort, and the value to everyone of cooperating. I hope, in our rush to embrace the pleasures of self-congratulation found in our recent round of gadgets, we do not damage that ability to mitigate self-interest with empathy.

In an age of instant validation of the self’s fleeting desires, at least for those blessed by luck with a home in the developed world, we need more awareness of suffering, not less. The moral imagination is the one and only thing that can create that awareness—and then, perhaps, a world of real democratic possibility.

Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto. He is the recipient of U of T's highest teaching honour, the 2011 President's Teaching Award.  His most recent book was on Glen Gould as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series.

Note: I am releasing individual essays from the collection, What are you skating towards in 2012?  Upcoming contributions are by Cairine MacDonald, Marcel Lauzière, Donna Thomson and Peter Block. You can access the accumulated essays here.

Related Posts:

Civility and Speaking Up 

Becoming Visible 2011 – Real Democracy

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One Comment

  1. Donna Thomson

    Wonderful post! Martha Nussbaum in her latest book, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” defends the value of a liberal arts education. She stacks up the evidence that threats against the study of the humanities in higher education (as technical, scientific and finance based areas of study are growing) result in poverty of the moral imagination. Interesting line of thinking and I agree with Kingwell and Nussbaum – we must defend the moral imagination in order to safeguard healthy democracies.

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