CC 300 B: Empathy & Compassion in Society

3 Credits 
MWF 2:30-3:20 pm – Professor Western

In 2016, after three days of racially charged violence, in a memorial service held in Dallas, Texas, former US President George W. Bush preached healing and reconciliation to a fraying nation, proposing to his people a common policy of empathy. “At times,” he intoned, “it seems the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together… [But] at our best we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.” In pluralist societies like the United States – where folks hold varying beliefs, lifestyles and political views, and often find deep tensions emerging across those axes – do the virtues of empathy and compassion have a real, substantial role to play in ensuring a good, harmonious society?

It’s commonplace to think of empathy and compassion as unalloyed goods, but they do have their critics. For some, empathy and compassion prove two forces too weak to have substantial impact on our social or political lives, and so appeals to these virtues are best kept in our private lives – amongst our friends and family. For others, empathy and compassion actually undercut justice, seeming like virtues on the surface but too often leading us to act contrary to how we should in a society that’s respectful and just.

Academic literature on empathy and compassion has ballooned over the past two decades, and this course will engage with just some of that literature – both in favour of these two virtues and against them – to ask the question: should we cultivate and employ more empathy and compassion in pluralistic societies, not just as good ways of being for our personal selves, but as values that, when engaged, actually help us live better lives together and make better societies?

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