“Inverted Sympathy”

Empathy and Mediation in Literary Transactions of Human Rights

Authored by: Sarah Winter

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights

Print publication date:  August  2015
Online publication date:  July  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415736411
eBook ISBN: 9781315778372
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696285


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Does empathy lead to altruism in the face of human rights violations? (See Keen 2007: 16–26.) Understood as a fundamental form of compassionate response to pain, suffering, and injustice, empathy has come into increasing currency among historians, literature scholars, and theorists focusing on human rights. Positioned at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, the moral sentiments, and the theory of aesthetic response, empathy can be defined in affective terms as happening when “we feel what we believe to be the emotions of others” (Keen 2007: 5) or, in more cognitive terms, as “trying to imagine a view of the world that one does not share” (Cameron 2011: 7). Political philosopher Johannes Morsink seems to imply that empathy supports what he defines as the “moral inherence” and “epistemic universality” of human rights: “every normally healthy human individual has the epistemic equipment to discover that we all have human rights” when confronted with atrocities (2009: 58–59). Referencing an Enlightenment-era genealogy, Morsink explains that “[s]ince it is through their moral sentiments that people discover the metaphysical universality of human rights, these other theorists [who view rights as historically constructed] end up denying the real presence of human rights in the human person” (2009: 59). Empathy would form part of such “epistemic equipment” underlying the recognition of the inherency and “real presence” of human rights.

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