Empathy, Exchange, and the Dangers of Demonization

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

June 1, 2020

Can you talk me out of my despondency today?
Part 3 of a three-part #ReadWithMe series

Sam Fleischacker’s new books, Being Me Being You is an excellent read for anyone interested in Smith and in how we live and get along with others. It makes important contributions to the literature of moral philosophy, and deftly answers several modern direct and indirect challenges to Smithian empathy. As should no doubt be obvious by now, I am not a philosopher, and you’ll see me gloss over much of the more technical aspects of the last third of the book. In the end, I was struck by two different elements in this section- one immediately, and one more and more so over the past few days. 

The most fundamental point I take from the entire book is that Smithian empathy is the core of our shared humanity. Our very sense of self and the unique perspective through which each of us experiences our lives is a result of the imaginative process of empathy. That perspective is what both makes us unique and enables us to empathize with others. And without this ability to empathize, we would be somehow less than human. (The notion of perspective was also a theme of my previous posts on Fleischacker’s book.)

This fundamental point is related to the two themes I will speak to in this post. The first is the role of empathy in Smith’s Wealth of Nations (WN) and Fleischacker’s discussion of demonization.

The first is the one that struck me right away. There are of course many examples in Smith scholarship denouncing “das Adam Smith problem” and insisting upon a link between the Theory of Moral Sentiments and WN. Similarly, the concept of self-love and self-interest in each have been often taken up. But discussions of empathy tend to center only on TMS. In this book Fleischacker makes a convincing case that empathy plays a pivotal role in WN, too. Throughout, Fleischacker insists that more than empathy is needed for moral guidance. In this respect, we should see WN (and LJ) as a “model for how to supplement empathy with general moral and legal rules, and a detailed attention to institution building.” (page 111) Smith’s proposals with regard to the poor offer the best examples- such as Smith’s criticism of liquor and sumptuary laws. Fleischacker argues the reason Smith makes such arguments  is because he “thinks himself into their position.” Hence a linen shirt for a laborer can no longer be regarded as luxurious, but only what a man needs in order to be properly integrated into society. As such, to tax it would be inhumane. The result are policies that “...do not treat them as mere objects of policy, but as fellow agents with their own legitimate needs and interests.” (page 112) And these needs and interests are both unique and unknowable to the policy-maker. Thes best that be done is to “think oneself” into the subject’s position. 

  • What would be some similar examples of social policies today that treat their subjects with humanity? What are some social welfare policies that do not employ Smithian empathy as such?
  • How might we ensure more empathetic policies with regard to the poor? Other marginalized groups? How might our democratic institutions need to be altered to achieve this? Is this call for empathy among policy-makers a pipe dream since the era of public choice theory?
  • Fleischacker also tells us, “…the most important role empathy plays in the Wealth of Nations is the implicit one of underwriting Smith’s entire view of economic activity...The point of this line [about the butcher, the brewer, and the baker]...is that we know how to appeal to others’ self-love, not that they or we are self-loving.” (page 113) How might we view empathy as derived from exchange rather than as a precondition of exchange? How might that change the way you answer the previous question with regard to public choice theory?

When I started writing this post last week, I intended to be somewhat critical of Fleischacker’s extended discussion of Immanuel Kant in the last chapter. This isn’t necessary for his Smithian case, I thought. And while in a more technical sense, I still think that’s true, in the meantime there was this weekend. And now I wish everyone would read just this one chapter on demonization.

Fleischacker rightly calls demonization “a great and growing plague in public life today,” (page 151) and one which had certainly become more apparent to me throughout the course of this pandemic. Everything seems suddenly binary. You’re team mask or team no-mask. Team lockdown or team re-open the economy. I think you get my drift. And whatever the “other” team is, it’s members are fundamentally bad- maybe even demonic, which is one of the ways we deny the humanity of others, according to Fleischacker. And then there was this weekend.

Demonization is a refusal to empathize with the object. Refusing to demonize others is a critical part of Fleischacker’s humanism. To demonize another is to deny their humanity and “lift all moral barriers against inhumane ways of treating him.” (page 159) Does that statement strike anyone else as especially prescient this week? By demonizing, “We also cut ourselves off from examining our own conduct and seeing how we may have contributed to the evil of others.” 
  • Am I right to see demonization as Fleischacker describes it everywhere today? Could the unrest so many cities have been experiencing be explained absent demonization? In other words, have we lost our ability to empathize without fellow humans? And more importantly, how can we get it back?
  • Perhaps the most dangerous effect of demonization is that“...we remove the need to even consider how we may have harmed them. That is conducive to arrogant self-congratulation on our part.” (p 159) Where is this consideration absent from our situation today? 
  • “The rule of thumb in avoiding demonization is that we attribute evil actions as much as possible to motives we could see ourselves sharing.” (page 164) I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean you can just throw up your hands say, nope, can’t share that feeling. Carry on. Fleischacker advises, “we should seek...to understand the perpetrators as fellow human beings.” (page 164) Can you talk me out of my despondency today?