Being Me Being You

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

May 15, 2020

"...we are all creatures who are constantly trying to feel as other human beings do."
Part 1 of a #ReadWithMe series.

Philosopher Samuel Fleischacker starts his new book, Being Me Being You, with a helpful exploration of the variety of ways in which we use the term 'empathy' today. In the first two chapters, we explores what empathy is not, and ends with an explanation of why he believes when Adam Smith used the term sympathy, what he really meant was empathy.

Fleischacker also poses some probing questions for the reader right off the bat- such as, does empathy serve to bring us together or drive us apart? (One of the thinkers he cites frequently who claims the latter is Paul Bloom. More on him here.) For Fleishacker, empathy is essential to humanity. It is what allows us to be different, and even to appreciate our differences. Our humanity, our selves, and our moral sense (though not the subject of these first two chapters) are created and changed through a process in which our different perspectives are accessible to one another by empathy. Notably, this process does not ignore reason, that vaunted Enlightenment concept, but rather incorporates into this process of becoming and refining one's self.

Fleischaker's book is a dense and fascinating philosophical treatise. At this point, two chapters in, I have more questions that solid notions. (I suspect that will be equally true by the end of the book!) So I leave some of the questions I am struck with here, hoping that you will all join me in conversation to consider them.

1. Fleischacker spends a good deal of time illustrating the distinction between contagious and projective empathy, at least in part to explain how and where Smith differs from David Hume. Why is this such an important distinction for Fleischacker? Which kind of empathy do you think is the more prevalent today, and why? (And for the super serious Smithians, does Fleischacker successfully defend Smith against Hume's challenge [p.26]?)

2. Fleischacker tells us many times that projective empathy "requires work." What does this mean? How have you experienced such a process in your own life? Fleischacker also commends reading novels as part of said 'work.' Can you recommend any that you think would help your fellow in this important work?

3. The concept of "perspective" does a lot of heavy lifting, and indeed lends to the book's title. "To put the point starkly: There is no sharp line between being me and being you." (page 34) How do we develop perspective, and why is perspective a necessary condition for empathy? What role does Smith's impartial spectator play in cultivating perspective? Fleischacker implies that individuals naturally undertake this process (with perhaps exceptions such as sociopaths) but at least as yet has not commented on how one might be taught to adjust their perspective and thereby achieve greater empathy. Do you think this is possible? If so, how? If not, why not?

4- Fleischacker emphasizes that human equality arises from the achievement of mutual empathy, a point to which I am particularly partial. How successfully has he made this case (at least in the first two chapters)?