Searching for the role empathy plays in our history

Professor Gerard Aching encouraged students to think of the ways that empathy (or the lack of it) has impacted people’s actions throughout history and affects our individual actions toward others during a Bethe Ansatz talk Nov. 1.

“Empathy is different from sympathy, which is compassion and pity toward another,” said Aching, professor of Africana and Romance studies. Rather than feel sorry for another person, people often describe empathy as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Aching says, but that can also be problematic. “How do you position yourself in that situation? Do you need to feel what the victims of a disaster are feeling in order to understand their plight?”

Aching examined the role of Richard Robert Madden, an Irish abolitionist who played an active role in carrying out emancipation laws in Jamaica and in taking charge of liberated slaves in Havana on behalf of the British government.

“Did Madden have to feel what the slaves felt or see their suffering in order to know about the cruelty of slavery?” Aching asked the audience. “In his position as someone whose family owned a plantation and slaves, was it even possible for him to empathize with a slave?”

While giving an account of how Madden carried out his abolitionist activism, Aching also stressed the dangers of the absence of empathy.

“Richard Robert Madden wrote of getting so accustomed to cruelty,” Aching said, “that he had to struggle against what the abolitionst called a ‘numbness,’ a de-sensitizing that came over him that reduced his capacity for empathy.”

Aching’s more recent research on empathy has focused on the works of scholars such as Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University and Michael Morell, associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, who have different approaches to empathy.

“Bloom argues against empathy,” Aching said, holding a copy of Bloom’s book “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.” “Bloom instead calls for reasoned compassion in which one uses logic and reasoning to figure out how to help other people.”

“On the other hand, Morrell argues that in order to make democracy work well, we need empathy,” Aching said about Morrell’s book “Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking and Deliberation.” “In a deliberative democracy, according to Morrell, empathy is needed to engage in debate that is inclusive and communicative.”

Aching specializes in 19th-and 20th-century Caribbean literatures and intellectual histories, theories of modernism and modernity in Latin America and 19th century colonial literatures in the Caribbean, with a specific focus on relations between slavery and philosophy. Aching’s current research projects include just war theory, sovereignty and the invention of the “Indian”; and witnessing and empathy in abolitionist philanthropic humanitarianism.

“It is impossible to teach empathy. We may try to, as Morrell argues, through more investment in the arts and empathy education, but I cannot dictate to you about how you should empathize with others,” Aching said. “Here at Cornell, we present you with some of the world’s biggest problems and expect you to go out in the world and do something about them. Students need to form their own understanding of empathy to do so.”

The Bethe Ansatz discussions are weekly after-dinner conversations that allow guests, who are often Cornell faculty, to talk about topics or ideas that are dear to them. They are held in the apartment of Julia Thom-Levy, associate professor of physics and the Dale R. Corson House Professor of Hans Bethe House.

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a communications assistant for the College of Arts & Sciences.


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		 Professor Gerard Aching with student