Philosophy 290-4

Spring 2024

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
290-4 Graduate Seminar: Forms of Fellow Feeling: Empathy and Its Kin Bailey Tu 4-6 Philosophy 234

Here is a thought with broad and enduring appeal: when we burrow down to the very core of our moral lives, we will find there some form of fellow feeling. Philosophers and psychologists have made some ambitious claims about the moral significance of empathy, sympathy, compassion, and their kin. Empathy, for instance, has variously been cast as the primary driver of altruistic behavior, a key mechanism of moral judgment, the means by which we recognize others as worthy of respect or concern, and a bulwark against both ordinary cruelty and the dangerous excesses to which moral theorizing is prone. Fellow feeling forms a crucial bridge or bridges between oneself and others. And not only that: on some views, it is essential to our own constitution as temporally extended, practically rational selves. While many of these claims seem intuitively attractive, they have also been met with important challenges. Skeptics charge that forms of fellow feeling are not reasonable, impartial, or powerful enough to play the many roles ascribed to them. This graduate seminar explores the question: what is fellow feeling, and what roles does fellow feeling play in our lives as agents, as reasoners, and as the subjects and objects of moral concern?

We will begin with some taxonomies of fellow feeling, and with a brief consideration of two important historical examples of sympathy-centered moral psychological theory. Then, we will turn to the question of what the feeling in fellow feeling amounts consists in. We will consider competing contemporary theories concerning emotions’ nature and import. With that general background in place, we will finally proceed to the moral and practical significance of fellow feeling in particular. Questions we will take up include: what is the relationship between empathy and moral concern? Is sympathy essential to (or even helpful for) moral judgment, or is it actually an obscuring force? To what extent is fellow feeling possible across differences in history, values, or other character-defining features? What role (if any) should empathy play in our political engagement? And: are there moral limits on the extent of our fellow feeling?

This is a course in moral psychology, but readings range across philosophy of mind, epistemology, moral philosophy, and social and political philosophy. Most but not all materials are of recent vintage. Requirements include regular seminar participation, the weekly posting of questions, an in-seminar presentation, and a term paper. No prior background in moral psychology is expected. Enrollment for graduate students is open. Enrollment for undergraduates by special permission only.