Does He Feel Our Pain?

Clifford Orwin | Posted on 06/22/10

The current calamitous gush of oil into the Gulf of Mexico must have posed a sore trial for any President.  It has proved particularly painful for Barack Obama.  For here he is, an activist President dogged by charges of inaction, confronting a situation in which there's not much that any President could do.  The mythic Obama would have donned his wetsuit and fixed the leak himself, but that Obama has been out of the news almost since the Inauguration.  Instead Americans have had to content themselves with the presidentially decisive Obama, who has gone so far as to threaten to kick the polluter's ass.

Anger, however, has never been Mr. Obama's strong suit.  He is too cool and reflective for it, too professorial.  (When were you last intimidated by the anger of a professor?)  Also hostage to the persuasiveness of his anger is his reputation for what he has cast as his signature virtue: empathy.  For empathy with others, as it is usually construed, implies anger at suffering needlessly inflicted on them, in sympathy with their own righteous indignation at what they have borne.  In the present case Mr. Obama's supposed lack of both empathy and anger has fed complaints of his aloofness.  To be aloof is to be above the political fray, but in a bad sense.  This is a grave sin for any democratic politician, potentially a mortal one.  "We didn't elect you to display indifference to our sufferings."

Lately Mr.Obama has faced criticism not only for his supposed aloofness but for his attempts to dispel this reputation, including the famous threat to kick ass.  (In fact Mr. Obama would go on to twist the polluter's arm for $20 billion dollars to be placed in escrow to meet damage claims.)  This has provoked Fareed Zakaria's complaint not about Mr. Obama but about the media's demands on Mr. Obama.[1]   For him the obsession with a President's displaying (or not) this or that emotion is entirely beside the point.  The relevant question is not how (or whether) Mr. Obama is emoting but whether he is displaying leadership.  The fixation on the former merely tempts him to showboat over the oil spill just to show he cares -- at the expense of his attention to other issues no less important.  As the President of all the people and for all the issues facing the people, Mr. Obama would only demean his office by becoming the Great Emoter.

There's a twofold irony in all this.  First because Mr. Obama did enter national politics on a platform founded on empathy, as set forth in his book The Audacity of Hope.  And second because, paradoxical as this may seem to his detractors, what Mr. Obama means by empathy has little if anything to do with emoting.

"What Would Barack Do?"

"What would Jesus do?"  Many Americans claim to ask themselves this question in whatever circumstances they find themselves.  They thus declare themselves for the venerable tradition of imitatio Christi. 

It's only with part of my tongue in cheek that I've presumed to rewrite the question.  Barack Obama, after all, is a role model to many.  (In fact, during the 2008 campaign, his staffers referred to him as "Black Jesus."[2])  More than any other recent President, he has consciously cultivated the part of role model.  This has much to do, of course, with his being the first African American President.  On the one hand, he has offered himself as an inspiration to his fellow blacks; on the other, his historic achievement has enhanced his moral stature among all Americans.  Mr. Obama has resembled his predecessor George W. Bush in taking with the utmost seriousness the exemplary character of the Presidency.  Gifted with an eloquence that eluded Mr. Bush, he has sought to edify not only with deeds but with his words both spoken and written.  His concern with morality has transcended politics and the political classes to extend to the everyday conduct of the members of a free society.  His personal life has been above reproach, and he has offered us advice in leading ours.  In his way, then, he has encouraged us to ask what Barack would do.      

The answer to the question, in brief:  Obama would act empathetically.  What Mr. Obama means by empathy is of concern to the readers of this journal, for it is very much a matter of everyday virtue.  He also presents it, however, as the guiding principle of his political activity as well as of his hopes for America.  It's a tribute to his treatment that consideration of it discloses not only the strengths but the problems of empathy as a moral and political norm.

From Compassion to Empathy

I'll be the first to admit my surprise at finding myself devoting weeks of my life to interpreting the thought of Mr. Obama.  I'm a professor of political philosophy by trade, habituated to the study of first rate thinkers.   No other President of my lifetime could have evoked such an effort from me.  True, I was led to him by my prior interest in aspects of the policies of the two preceding Presidents, those related to the role of compassion in politics.  First from Bill Clinton and then from George W. Bush, the American public had heard a lot of talk about compassion.  Mr. Clinton had felt our pain, and Mr. Bush had promoted "compassionate conservatism."  It hadn't changed the world, that talk.

But then America entered the Age of Obama.  No President since FDR has faced such grave crises, both domestic and foreign, and none has inspired such fervent hopes.  If anyone was looking to Mr. Obama to beat the drums for compassion, however, they were soon disappointed. It wasn't so much what Mr. Obama said about compassion, as that he said so little about it.  His two books, so expansive and eloquent, were unforthcoming on the subject.   Dreams from My Father[3] exposed Mr. Obama's conflicted soul, but modestly refrained from presenting compassion as one of its elements.  The Audacity of Hope[4], his later, politically programmatic volume, did blame George W. Bush for promising compassionate conservatism and failing to deliver it (37; cf. 147).  It also listed compassion as one of a "constellation of behaviors that express [Americans'] mutual regard for one another" (55).  Compassion wasn't, however, the "value" that Mr. Obama stressed in the book.  That honor fell to "empathy." 

At first, the differences between compassion and empathy might seem slight.  Even Mr. Obama conceded that empathy was easily misinterpreted as "a call to sympathy or charity" [Audacity, 66].)   Yet he thus underscored that this was a misinterpretation: "a call to sympathy or charity" was not what empathy was. 

Empathy and "Postpartisanship"

There was nothing arbitrary or accidental about Mr. Obama's choice of the discourse of empathy over that of compassion.  There were several reasons for it, the first of which was rhetorical/strategic.  Casting himself as his own man in relation to the Democratic Establishment, he needed to find his own voice and stake out his own terms.   Compassion was not such a term.  Its prime had fallen during the Clinton years, and the Clintons had retained custody of it.   It now belonged to Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama's principal Democratic rival.  She was the favorite of the party establishment, used to preaching compassion, and of older voters, used to hearing it preached. 

Empathy, by contrast, was new, like Mr. Obama himself.  It furnished his passport to a different place, still a Democratic place, but lying somewhere out beyond the party's traditional concerns.   It also proved crucial to his discourse of  "postpartisanship." 

"Postpartisanship" was apparently the coinage of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He applied it to his own policy of mixing and matching approaches to the governance of California drawn from the repertories of both major parties.  His circumstances, however, as a fluke Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state, were quite unlike Mr. Obama's.  When, therefore, journalists including myself took to applying to the candidate the term coined by the Governor, we changed the meaning accordingly.

Postpartisanship as Mr. Obama practiced it addressed a problem his awareness of which pervaded The Audacity of Hope.  This was that his most fervent supporters expected him to be as partisan as they were, just as the Democratic Party demanded of its freshman Senator unswerving loyalty to its agenda.  The broader public, by contrast, had had it with parties, partisanship and partisan agendas. 

Mr. Obama addressed this dilemma by pressing hard on the issues, thus gratifying partisans, while cultivating a rhetoric suitable for courting independents.  While remaining emphatically a Democrat he set out to establish himself as more than just a Democrat.  This was the project of the Audacity of Hope and of Mr. Obama's sojourn in the Senate generally.  His appropriation of Abraham Lincoln furthered it, and so did his appeal to empathy.

What Mr. Obama meant by empathy softened partisanship without negating it.   Yes, we can understand it as the mark of a New Age politician, but the New Age in question was an Era of Ill Feeling.  Relations between the parties had been deeply embittered by Monica Lewinsky and impeachment, by the "stolen" election of 2000, and by the divisiveness of the Iraq war and the war against terror.  Mr. Obama's politics may have been new, but they still had to be contemporary.  While he might contend with Mrs. Clinton for the title of Angry Democrat Best Suited to Reach Out to Republicans, he wasn't about to waffle on any of his core issues. 

From the outset Mr. Obama's career had drawn on deep wells of partisan anger.  This would later prove an unstated given of his Presidential campaign.  On Election Night 2008, having been tapped as a commentator by Canada's national broadcaster, I happened to call attention to it.  This infuriated an Obama supporter we were piping in from Philadelphia: how dare I suggest that Mr. Obama had appealed to any but Aquarian sentiments?  In truth the candidate hadn't stooped to whipping up rancor.  He hadn't had to.  These angry voters were already in his pocket.  They needed no reminders why they preferred him to both John McCain and Mrs. Clinton.  It was the Iraq war, stupid.

This anger was already in full bloom during Mr. Obama's sojourn in the Senate and his writing of Audacity.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans were inclined to give an inch to the other, and Mr. Obama did not ask his colleagues to do so.  He didn't demand that they moderate their views, but only that they learn to extend empathy to Republicans and others who rejected them.  Where they could not accept they would learn to understand; where they couldn't but oppose, they would strive to do so without rancor.  Continuing to reject the opinion, they would equally renounce hatred of the opiner.  Without overriding partisanship, empathy would lend it a human face.  

This explains why empathy was front and center in the argument of Audacity: it distilled the essence of Mr. Obama's "postpartisan" stance.  I don't mean to imply, however, that empathy was no more to him than a talking point.  There's every reason to credit his claim that he prized no virtue more highly.   On examination, however, empathy proves a complex or composite virtue.  On the one hand, as we've seen, it's meant to curb, if not partisanship as such, then the excesses associated with it.   On the other, Mr. Obama presented it as implying a partisanship or activism of its own. 

Empathy as Activism, I: Judicial Partisanship?

This "activist" aspect of empathy surfaced during the Presidential campaign with Mr. Obama's announcement that it would figure in his vetting of candidates for the Supreme Court.

You know, Justice (John) Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire. But the issues that come before the court are not sport. They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got the heart to recognize -- the empathy to recognize -- what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria (sic) by which I'm going to be selecting my judges. (Remarks to Planned Parenthood, July 17, 2007)

You might mistake empathy so conceived for a reiteration of the venerable expectation that a judge practice impartiality.  It wasn't.  For while impartiality strictly precludes the acceptance of persons, Mr. Obama's judicial empathy veered dangerously toward it.  Consider the classic Western statement of judicial impartiality, which is found in the Hebrew Bible, and the oath of office, inspired by it, required of Supreme Court Justices.

You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow.  (Leviticus 19.15)

I, [NAME], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [TITLE] under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God." United States Code, Title 28, Chapter I, Part 453 (with thanks to Professor Richard H. Cox for the reference)

Did "the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old" mean applying the law differently to these than to other parties in a case?  If so, it violated the scriptural injunction and the Justice's oath of office.  If not, then just what did it mean?

The example Mr. Obama himself offered of a case that would have been decided differently if adjudicated empathetically was Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (Supreme Court No. 05-1074; 550 U.S. 618 [2007]).  Mrs. Ledbetter had sued her employer alleging gender discrimination because over the years it had paid her less than male colleagues of the same rank.  Goodyear defended itself, citing her poor performance reviews.  In the end the merits of her suit proved moot, for the law under which she filed it -- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- contained a statute of limitations, and this was the issue on which the case was decided.  The Justices ruled 5-4 against her, with Justice Alito presenting the finding as inevitable: she had clearly failed to file her complaint within the permitted 180 days.

Still, the decision, like so many at the time, was only 5-4.  Justice Ginsburg, speaking for the minority, issued an oral dissent from the bench, an unusual and emphatic gesture.  She stressed the unfairness of the strict application of a statute of limitations to women given that their more fraught situation in the workplace left them less willing to sue than men.  That being the case, the majority's interpretation of Title VII had frustrated the act's intention of extending civil rights, and was therefore in error, and she called on Congress to revise the statute to preclude any such interpretation.

The case proved a prime political football.  Congressional Democrats, as if responding to Justice Ginsburg's call, promptly introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  It revised Title VII to permit suits on the basis of current acts of discrimination (e.g., lower paychecks) resulting from past decisions that fell outside the statute of limitations as the court had interpreted it.  The Senate's then Republican majority blocked the bill and John McCain opposed it then and again during the Presidential campaign.  Mrs. Ledbetter was active in the campaign, appearing in Obama ads and at the Democratic convention.  In January 2009, Congress passed the act and President Obama signed into law.  It was the first passed under the new administration, with much hoopla. 

But did this burst of Congressional empathy for aggrieved employees imply an endorsement of Mr. Obama's notion of judicial empathy?  Was it meant as encouragement to judges to apply the law differently to the disadvantaged than to the advantaged?  This seems doubtful.  Congress had amended Title VII so as to alter its statute of limitations for all.  While the law was now different, it continued to apply equally to all plaintiffs, including white, male, and wealthy ones.  (For these too can be victims of employment discrimination.)

So you could agree with changes to Title VII of the sort enacted in the Ledbetter Act while emphatically rejecting Mr. Obama's notion of judicial empathy.  You could, and I did.  And so, judging from her testimony at her confirmation hearing in the summer of 2009, did Mr. Obama's first appointee to the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sottomayor.  For all that he had touted her (and she had earlier touted herself) for the empathy she owed to her background as an Hispanic female who had risen from poverty to distinction, she rejected any notion of judicial favoritism on the basis of gender or class.

Whatever the merits of Justice Ginsburg's reasoning concerning the unfairness of applying a statute of limitations to women, conceived as a class bashful to sue, it clearly anticipated Mr. Obama's position.   Indeed, by a remarkable coincidence, the Washington Post, in reporting on the Ledbetter decision the day after it was handed down, described her dissent as "empathetic."  Might this have planted (or at least watered) the seeds of Mr. Obama's notion?[5]

Empathy as Activism, II: The Audacity of Hope

Whatever the problems with Mr. Obama's notion of judicial empathy, his exposition of empathy as such repays serious consideration.  To it he devotes several pages of The Audacity of Hope (66-69).  These occur at a crucial juncture, as the culmination of the chapter entitled "Values."  The only virtue to receive such schematic treatment, empathy emerges as central to Mr. Obama's vision of himself, of the Democratic Party, and of the promise of American life.  Not content to receive compassion as a hand-me-down from the Clintons, Mr. Obama not only renamed but rethought it. 

In the Audacity of Hope, as in the Planned Parenthood speech, Mr. Obama promotes empathy as a spur to political activism.  His presentation of it there, however, is more complex and equivocal.  It develops the ambiguity already implicit in Mr. Obama's postpartisan rhetoric.  Empathy figures as at the same time inspiring partisanship and moderating it. 

Mr. Obama's model empathetic is an earlier Democratic Senator from Illinois, the late Paul Simon.

People sensed that [Sen. Simon] lived out his values: that he was honest, and that he stood up for what he believed in, and perhaps most of all that he cared about them and what they were going through.

This last aspect of Paul's character -- a sense of empathy - is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older.  It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule - not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.

Throughout his book, Mr. Obama calls on Democrats to practice this virtue among themselves (especially for the more liberal ones like himself to stand in the shoes of the more conservative ones on issues such as abortion and gun control).  He also calls on them to display empathy toward Republicans.   He exhorts partisans of every stripe to recognize the patriotism and good faith of their opponents, to recognize that their own side of an issue isn't the only one, that reasonable people will differ on complex (and sometimes agonizing) issues of public policy.  Just as that nothing that he found as a freshman Senator so disturbed him as the poisonous partisanship prevailing in Washington, so he suggests that no more urgent task beckons Americans than to repudiate it.

In the passage that we've been discussing, however, Mr. Obama proceeds from his eulogy of Paul Simon to an earlier beneficial influence in his life, namely that of his mother.  At the same time he also proceeds from treating empathy as something desirable in political partisans to casting it as the crucial virtue for us all.

Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother.  She disdained any kind of cruelty or thoughtlessness or abuse of power, whether it expressed itself in the form of racial prejudice or bullying in the schoolyard or workers being underpaid.  Whenever she saw even a hint of such behavior in me she would look me square in the eyes and ask "how do you think that would make you feel?" (Audacity, 66)

At the heart of Mr. Obama's moral code, and his take on the Golden Rule: could he have offered a more emphatic statement?  These are fascinating paragraphs, not least for their suggestion that only his mother's intervention prevented the youthful Obama from indulging his natural "hints" of prejudice, bullying, and, yes, underpaying workers.  (Did he haggle over the price that his sister asked at her lemonade stand?  We'll leave it to historians to find the smoking gun.)

It's striking how quickly Mr. Obama moves from distinguishing empathy from "sympathy or charity" (which I'll amalgamate as compassion) to equating it with them/it.  The injunction to "stand in somebody's shoes and to see the world through their eyes" is at its core a call to grasp what they suffer from what we thoughtlessly or maliciously join others in doing.  How then does empathy differ from what liberals have traditionally understood as compassion?

First, as more differs from the same.  Empathy shines as a deeper, more genuine, more powerful version of "sympathy or charity."  Through it we enter into the feelings of the other as fully as humanly possible.  If we no longer use the term compassion, that's because we're describing something beyond what commonly passes for compassion.  Mr. Obama rightly discerned that this last term had faltered through overuse: by substituting a new one he hoped to recapture its original power.

Empathy so considered doesn't define a new moral and political program for liberals so much as it exhorts us to fulfill an old one. 

...I find myself returning again and again to my mother's simple principle -- "How would that make you feel?" - as a guidepost for my politics.

It's not a question we ask ourselves enough, I think; as a country we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit. We wouldn't tolerate schools that don't teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children.  It's hard to imagine the CEO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals.  And it's safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm's way.

Mr. Obama offers this as counsel not to other politicians like himself but to all Americans.  We would be better as both human beings and citizens if we undertook this simple intellectual exercise.  And an intellectual exercise is what it is.  Note the recurrence of the verb "think": what Mr. Obama means by empathy isn't a spontaneous sentiment but a rule based on mental discipline. Our collective lack is one of "envisioning." 

This too partly explains why Mr. Obama invokes empathy rather than compassion, that term so long in honor with his party.  True, compassion comes more readily to the tongue; we English speakers have been conversant with it for centuries.  Empathy, by contrast, entered the language only in 1904, and hasn't taken it by storm.  Even now it is seldom heard outside of psychology classes and an occasional talk show.  Compassion is a feeling, however, and Mr. Obama wants us to move beyond mere feelings.

Many have noted the contrasting public styles of Mr. Obama and Bill Clinton.  Mr. Obama is a cool character.  Not for him that instinctive response to others, that intemperate love of pressing the flesh that so defined Mr. Clinton.  Mr. Obama is neither touchy nor feely.  He is clear- (and dry-) eyed: the only tears to water the 2008 campaign trail were shed by Mrs. Clinton.  Mr. Obama appealed to hope, but without gushing sentiment.  While the avowed champion of ordinary people, he has never claimed to feel their pain. 

This is consistent with Mr. Obama's presentation of himself in Audacity.  He makes no claim of special sensitivity to the suffering of others.  Quite the opposite.  His mother, you'll recall, had tried to drum empathy into his pubescent brain, but without great success.  Only in his senior year of high school, in coping with another family member -- his maternal grandfather and surrogate father -- did he come to his own conclusion that the grief he was causing him outweighed any justification for it. 

I started to think about the struggles and disappointments he had seen in his life.  I started to appreciate his need to feel respected in his own home.  I realized that abiding by his rules would cost me a little, but to him it would mean a lot.  I recognized that sometimes he really did have a point, and that in insisting on getting my way all the time, without regard to his feelings and needs, I was in some way diminishing myself.

Warm and spontaneous this decision wasn't.  As Mr. Obama has presented society's empathy deficit as one of "envisioning," so he here casts his moral awakening as an intellectual one.  He turned thoughtful in the moral sense of the term only once he was so in its intellectual sense.  His confession should gladden all whose decent treatment of others is more a matter of the head than the heart. 

As empathy had worked a moral revolution in the adolescent Obama, so Obama the author looked to it for one in the life of the nation. 

I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society.  After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own.  If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves. (Audacity, 67-68)

While Mr. Obama leaves unstated the policy implications of this "tilt," it looms as an ongoing project.  As empathetic judges would render verdicts that favored the disadvantaged, empathetic lawmakers would pass laws that did so, and their empathetic constituents would support them. 

Empathy as Reciprocity

So far Audacity has divided the political landscape between the "struggling," the designated beneficiaries of empathy, and the rest of us, its designated providers.  Yet this isn't Mr. Obama's final word on the subject.  If empathy differs from compassion first of all in being more compassionate than compassion itself, and secondly in being more cerebral, the third difference is that unlike compassion empathy is a two way street. 

The compassion of the Clinton years had traveled de haut en bas. The compassionariate dispensed it, and those in need received it.  Mr. Clinton was quick to feel our pain, but only when scandal and impeachment laid him low had he implored us to condescend to his. 

Empathy, by contrast, is due to all.

But that does not mean that those who are struggling - or those of us who claim to speak for those who are struggling - are thereby freed from trying to understand the perspectives of those who are better off.  Black leaders need to appreciate the legitimate fears that may cause some whites to oppose affirmative action.  Union representatives can't afford not to understand the competitive pressures their employers may be under.  I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush's eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him.  That's what empathy does - it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor.  We are all shaken out of our complacency.  We are all forced beyond our limited vision. 

No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.

This blast against moral complacency offers the harshest reproof of Mr. Obama's fellow partisans to be found in Audacity.  Republicans enjoyed no monopoly on smugness, and it was high time for Democrats to shake off theirs. 

We can now sees another (and ultimately the most important) reason why Mr. Obama has adopted the term empathy rather than sticking with compassion.  Compassion implies many fine things, but reciprocity isn't among them.  We don't speak of the compassion of the weak for the strong, of the poor for the rich, or of the sick for the healer.  Nor should we.   Mr. Obama has evidently concluded, however, that for this very reason compassion is inadequate to the task of animating a society of free and equal citizens.  The rhetoric of compassion is generous to a fault, not just consoling the disadvantaged but indulging and patronizing them.  It encourages them to think of themselves as takers quit of any obligation to give in their turn.       

Empathy represents Mr. Obama's attempt to correct this defect, to lift us all above mere compassion by insisting that we conceive it as reciprocal.  Whereas compassion condescends to the struggling, empathy dignifies them.  By assuming the civic responsibility that empathy implies, they earn the right to pride themselves as the equals of any.  Where compassion has created clients, empathy would forge citizens.  

At the same time, and in a different realm of discourse, Mr. Obama's reinterpretation of empathy as reciprocity evokes the ghost of Immanuel Kant, not to mention John Rawls and other recent quasi-Kantians.  This confirms that what he means by empathy is a rational principle rather than a feeling.  For while there is a principle of reciprocity, there is no feeling of it.  For Kant reciprocity was of the essence of any morality of rational creatures as such: Mr. Obama would agree, although his stress lies on full and equal citizens. 

Consider also in this connection Mr. Obama's invocation of our aversion to self-diminution as the ultimate support of our practice of empathy.  As you'll recall, he mentions this twice, first in recounting his own adolescent moral reformation (Audacity, p. 67), then in his prescription of empathy to all (     ibid., p. 68).  This reflects the (quasi-Kantian) centrality of dignity to his understanding: if we are scrupulous in taking account of the viewpoints of others, that's because self-respect is the anchor of our own.  I would think less of myself if I did not make every effort to empathize with you, i.e. to think of you as my equal. 

This Kantian notion of morality as the true expression of human dignity further underscores the intellectualism of Mr. Obama's conception.  Again, not a spontaneous gush of feeling for the other but a strong sense of self and of the behavior worthy of a human self informs what he means by empathy.

Since I've mentioned Kant, this is perhaps a good place to defend empathy against the criticism that, with its emphasis on donning the perspectives of others, it encourages moral relativism.  Nothing could be further from Mr. Obama's intention.  If anything he understands empathy as an alternative to and check on any impulse toward relativism.  If you steep yourself in particular partial perspectives, it's to fuel your ascent toward an ever more general one, as your own perspective expands by absorbing these.  "You've seen the world from all sides now": that's the song of empathy.  This may be a quixotic vision, but it's not a relativistic one.  It recalls the "impartial  spectator" of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.[6]

Textbook Empathy

Mr. Obama's rhetoric of empathy has much to be said for it.  Above all, it expresses a serious concern for citizenship and civic virtue.  In this it represents real progress over the rhetoric of compassion.  But is his notion of empathy coherent?  Here it might be useful to compare it with that prevailing among psychologists and social scientists. 

After canvassing a number of definitions in essential agreement among themselves, I've decided to adopt that of Wikipedia, which, while otherwise unremarkable, includes a caution overlooked by Mr. Obama.

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another's emotions and feelings.  It is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes."  Empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context (sic) of compassionate or cruel behavior.

The first sentence of this paragraph states the element common to all standard definitions of empathy.  The second restates it colloquially.  The third states the caution I mentioned.  While empathy is the capacity of entering into the feelings of others, it implies no consequent sympathy with them, let alone an impulse to assist them.  Having entered empathetically into someone's world, we may well reject him as unworthy of assistance.  You can't grasp what it means to be a Nazi without an exercise of empathy: this doesn't imply that Nazis deserve our sympathy. 

From this it follows that, as the Wikipedist suggests, empathy is even compatible with an intention to harm.  We might reasonably wish harm to the Nazi.  Even beyond this, however -- far beyond it - is the man who delights in torture for its own sake.  He too displays a heightened empathy.   No-one is more keenly aware than he of just how much torture hurts. 

In popular speech, then, empathy often denotes a sentiment akin to compassion or sympathy; Mr. Obama, as we've seen, presents it as a principle.  As defined precisely or scientifically, however, it is neither of these, but merely a capacity.  So what Mr. Obama proposes as empathy is different not only from the popular view but from the scientific one.  His notion, while presupposing our capacity to enter into the feelings of others, develops this in a particular direction, a possible but by no means necessary direction.

There is a second difficulty with Mr. Obama's understanding.  This is his further assumption that empathy not only entails a desire to help but implies certain policies of helping.  In presenting himself as the empathy candidate, Mr. Obama implied that his were the empathy policies.  In fact, however, as empathy is one thing and the desire to help another, the question of the policies most likely to help is a third. 

No empathy with the poor, however deep, will even begin to resolve the question of whether the best responses to their plight are those promoted by Mr. Obama.   On this question reasonable (and equally empathetic) people will differ.  What distinguishes the convinced free market economist from Mr. Obama is not less empathy toward the poor (or even less sympathy for them).  It's disagreement about how the economy works, how wealth and opportunity are created, how people at the bottom can be helped to rise.  Neither "empathy" nor sympathy as such would effect the "tilt" in American politics intended by Mr. Obama: only his policies would. 

Was the Mr. Obama of The Audacity of Hope aware of these confusions?  Perhaps not.  In the warm afterglow of his adolescent moral awakening, he might have come to exaggerate how far empathy can carry us.   So too might he have concluded that to enter fully into the perspective of the poor was ipso facto to grasp the need for an expanded public sector in order to effectively address their problems. 

Then again, perhaps he was aware of these difficulties.  Shrewd politician that he was, he must have recognized the advantages of ascribing his social program entirely to empathy.  "Empathy President": that had a ring to it.  "Empathy (plus sympathy plus a debatable set of macroeconomic and social welfare policy assumptions) President:" that didn't.[7]

Subtle Vices of a Novel Virtue

Few things exert so powerful a charm as a squaring of the moral circle.  In combining an air of impartiality with an endorsement of liberal partisanship, Mr. Obama's empathy was bound to resonate with Democrats.  Still, since previous squarings of the circle (moral or otherwise) have somehow always failed, we're entitled to skepticism concerning this one. 

On the ground, whether in the corridors of power or the murky channels of media spin, it's been partisan business as usual.  Mr. Obama probably hoped to attract some Republican support for his ambitious plans including health insurance reform, but if so he's been disappointed.  The last thing they've been willing to do is to concede him partisan advantage by granting his nonpartisanship (or practicing any of their own). 

Then there are my hortatory e-mails from the Democratic National Committee (many of which arrive under the name of Mr. Obama himself).  These have not urged me to try to put myself in the shoes of Republicans to see the Presidents' programs as they do.  They haven't even sought to remind me that those Americans who disagree with the President do so patriotically and in good faith.

Now you might say that it's unreasonable (and even in a sense unfair) to hold Obama the President to the lofty standards announced by Obama the candidate (and even less fair to hold his hirelings at the DNC to them).  That's a point well taken, but irrelevant to the one that I'm making.  My claim isn't that Mr. Obama and his followers are to be blamed for having abandoned empathy for partisanship.  It's that despite his best intentions empathy as he sketches it is more likely to fan the flames of partisanship than to quench them.   

The problem, as I see it, is the inevitable link between empathy and self-righteousness.  Self-righteousness both inevitably attends partisanship and inevitably aggravates it; empathy, if it's to restrain the one, would have to temper the other.  Mr. Obama's version of empathy, however, seems less likely to moderate partisan self-righteousness than to encourage it.  Recall that he presents his partisan agenda -- the "tilting" of American society toward the interests of the "struggling" -- as itself the demand of empathy.  The empathy that Mr. Obama has urged on Democrats thus appears ambiguous and contradictory.  On the one hand it is empathy with Republicans, which as such is to mitigate partisanship toward them.  On the other, it is empathy toward the downtrodden, which is to goad good Democrats ever onward.  The Audacity of Hope promotes both these versions of empathy, and Mr. Obama has obviously set himself the task of exemplifying them.  In theory, there's no necessary conflict between the two.  In practice, it may prove a different story.

The historical evidence is not encouraging.  To cite the most instructive case (because the most nearly parallel), consider the Jacobins.  They presented themselves as champions of...what?  Precisely empathetic partisanship on behalf of the downtrodden.  In the bastardized version of Rousseau's thought preached by Robespierre and Saint-Just, compassion - the term "empathy" did not yet exist -- was the mark of the rare public man who truly served the poor and oppressed.  Given the vast gulf separating the political classes of whatever stripe from the impoverished Parisian masses, only compassion could forge the requisite bond between them. 

This proved to imply, however, that all who lacked this supposed compassion (i.e. all political opponents of the Jacobins) had placed themselves beyond the pale of receiving it.  To those who showed no mercy no mercy was to be shown.  This early and egregious version of the politics of empathy thus led directly to the Terror.  You can read about it in Hannah Arendt's On Revolution.

A terror is the last thing on Mr. Obama's mind.  Still, any such politics runs the risk of stigmatizing those who disagree with it as unempathetic, than which there is nothing worse to be.  Political partisanship being what is, this outcome is almost inevitable.  Consider leading Democratic Party intellectual George Lakoff, who, writing at the outset of the Obama era, simply equated "progressive" political notions with empathy.  He thus consigned dissenters to the outer darkness.   Clearly this version of empathy would prove little help in mitigating partisanship.  Just as clearly many Democrats subscribe to it -- and are encouraged to do by all that incitation from the DNC.

To which we must add that even the other aspect of Mr. Obama's empathy - empathy as practiced not toward the "struggling" but toward one's political opponents - may make its own paradoxical contribution toward harshness toward those opponents.  At the risk of trying the reader's patience, I'll note one last time that postpartisan isn't nonpartisan.  It follows from Mr. Obama's vision that having soared empathetically above partisan divides, you can return to the fray with a vengeance.  You have stood in your opponent's shoes and done your level best to comprehend his (profoundly misguided) world view.  No one can reasonably demand any more of you than that; self-congratulation is in order.  It's back to (partisan) business as usual -- buoyed by an added sense of righteousness for making such a commendable effort.  (And, it might be added, toward adversaries who have shown so little sign of reciprocating it.)  Nothing so inflames partisanship as the illusion of having transcended it.

So we couldn't necessarily look to Obamaites, even the most honorable and best intentioned, to treat their adversaries with more consideration than their predecessors had.  If then you were a Democrat with healthy partisan instincts, blue in tooth and claw, you could delight in Mr. Obama's empathy.  If you were a Republican, not so much.

Mr. Obama's meditation on empathy represents a rare and remarkable effort by a rising politician to justify his choice of a public life and the commitments that have shaped it.  It reads like a voyage of self-discovery, an attempt to lay bare, for his own sake no less than others', the moral bedrock of his political ambitions.  His discussion contains valuable insights and raises knotty questions.  In drawing double duty as the newly avowed basis of Democratic partisanship and the erstwhile basis for moderating it, empathy poses the venerable problem of whether it is ever given to us, in morality any more than in other spheres of life, to have our cake and eat it.



1. "The President needs to lead, not emote."  Newsweek, June 13, 2010  (  See also Matt Welch, "The Obama ‘narrative' narrative," Reason, March 18, 2010  ( and Jason Aronowitz, "The Obama ‘narrative' is overshadowing the presidency's real stories," Washington Post, June 20, 2010 (

2. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change. Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), front flap.           

3. Dreams from my Father.  A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York: Crown Publishers, 2004).

4. The Audacity of Hope. Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown Books, 2006).  I cite the paperback edition (London: Canongate Books, 2008).

5. The legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has argued that on balance Obama's views as to the role of the courts in a democratic society is, like that of many academic liberals today, relatively "conservative"; i.e., that he urges deference to the decisions of the elected branches.  Toobin, "Bench Press.  Are Obama's Judges Really Liberal?" The New Yorker, September 10, 2009, available at

6. I'm grateful to Susan Shell for this suggestion.  After I had completed this piece I learned from John T. Scott that in an e-mail to journalist Jon Meacham Mr. Obama had listed the Theory of Moral Sentiments as among his favorite books; cf. Meacham, "How to read like a President," New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2008.

7. For those who wish to pursue the question of empathy, there is a recent surge of growing popular and academic literature on the subject.  You might begin with Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy. Changing the World Child by Child (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2005), by a leading educational psychologist; Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy. Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Harmony Books, 2009), by a leading evolutionary biologist; Jeremy Rivkin, the Empathic Civilization.  The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (New York: J.P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009), by a prolific social critic whose tone is urgent; Michael Morrell, Empathy and Democracy. Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation (College Park: Penn State Press, 2010), by a political theorist. My thanks to Richard Dagger for bringing this last (very recent) book to my attention.


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