Monday, December 23, 2019

Samuel Fleischacker's "Being Me Being You"

Samuel Fleischacker is LAS Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of many books, including On Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”: A Philosophical Companion and The Good and the Good Book: Revelation as a Guide to Life.

Fleischacker applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy, and reported the following:
Page 99 is by no means the single page that best encapsulates what I am trying to say in Being Me Being You (that would be page 37, or maybe pages 35-37). But it does include the very first thoughts that led me to write this book.

I had been at a rally calling for empathy between Jews and Palestinians, just before the outbreak of the 2014 Gaza war, and the rabbi who had summoned me there whispered to me suddenly that she wanted me to speak. Racking my brains for something to say, I decided to make use of the conception of empathy in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. A much discussed feature of Smith’s theory of empathy is that it is biased — it goes out most strongly to our family and close friends, more weakly to our neighbors and ethnic groups, and only faintly to all of humankind. Many contemporary writers criticize empathy for this reason, urging us to do justice and act kindly on the basis of rational principles rather than sentiment.

But Smith brings out an advantage of the circular structure of empathy: that our close circles of empathy include the people we know best, and can therefore most effectively help. We can best translate our empathy into action within these close circles, and make sure that our action is directed to the needs of the people we are trying to help. So we should not feel bad about caring most for our close circles. Rather, if we want people to broaden their empathy, we should work through these circles: we should use the fact that people close to us are most likely to trust us in order to urge them to get beyond their biases. This is especially true in circumstances of hostility. Jews need to talk to fellow Jews about having greater empathy for Palestinians, and Palestinians need to talk to fellow Palestinians about having greater empathy for Jews.

I was surprised by the warm response that this point got from people in the crowd — it had seemed fairly obvious to me. But then it occurred to me that it seemed obvious only because I have been reading and thinking about Smith for so many years. That led me to think that using Smith to address contemporary moral issues might be a good idea. The result is this book. And on page 99, you can hear an echo of the comments that inspired me to write it: “A Smithian solution to [the] problem [of the circles of empathy] is to use the warm feelings our near and dear feel toward us as a framework in which we can effectively correct one another’s biases. The very love and security we feel for those in our close circles makes us more likely to listen to moral correction that comes from these circles than we are to admonitions from outsiders.”
Learn more about Being Me Being You at the University of Chicago Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Divine Teaching and the Way of the World.

--Marshal Zeringue