Open for Debate

Empathetic Understanding in Politics

What is the goal of political conversation? Why should we deliberate with others about politics?

Democratic deliberation is said to benefit people in many ways. For example, it has been touted as a way to produce civic engagement, increase faith in democratic institutions, encourage a willingness to compromise, and make people better citizens overall.

According to John Stuart Mill, deliberating in public about politics is also good for a democracy because it affords citizens “the opportunity of exchanging error for truth” (1859: 21). For Mill, deliberation is a vital mechanism through which individuals improve and develop their political ideas, without which their “mental development is cramped” (ibid: 39). Many political theorists agree; they believe that deliberation is an essential way to make people more informed, more rational, and alter their preferences in truth-conducive ways.

Yet real life political debates in liberal democracies are often mired in controversy and grounded in non-rational considerations. The evidential basis for policies is frequently thin, expert opinions are often ignored, and policies can be downright irrational. In addition, a lot of empirical work indicates that people become epistemically worse when they deliberate about political issues. When we talk about politics, we are especially prone to exhibit a host of biases and imperfections like motivated reasoning, selective recall, and identity protection. There is also a sizeable literature, nicely reviewed by Cass Sunstein, indicating that group deliberation leads to polarization. When the typical citizen enters the political field, it seems their mental performance significantly drops. All this goes against Mill’s optimistic claim that getting us involved in politics would make us smarter and nobler.

In light of this, a rather obvious question is: should we deliberate with others about politics? I want to suggest that an important goal of democratic deliberation ought to be the empathetic understanding of others.

The role of empathy is largely neglected in studies of deliberation. But in today’s political climate, empathetic understanding is perhaps more vital than ever. We often hear people say things like “I can’t understand why anyone would even think about voting for Brexit” or “I don’t understand ‘Black Lives Matter’. Don’t all lives matter?” Citizens are increasingly polarized and political opponents hold highly unfavorable views of each other; indeed, they often regard each other as immoral, stupid, lazy, and even threats to each other’s way of life. We characterize others simplistically, without any appreciation for the nuance or depth of their views, and others do the same to us.

A consequence is that we are unable to cooperate and work towards common goals. It is for this reason that mutual understanding is deeply important. Too often political opponents do not even try to understand each other, instead opting for cynicism and contempt. But this lack of understanding makes it difficult for us to pursue collective goods. We cannot accomplish anything if we despise each other, refuse to listen, are too overconfident, and lose our willingness to reach a compromise. We must change our basic attitudes towards each other in order to find the common ground on which collective flourishing depends.

To understand others, we need to empathize with their thinking. This requires, for a start, that we be willing to listen to each other. More than this, however, it requires the ability to “take up” another person’s perspective—to see the world from his or her point of view. For example, we might wonder why Harris voted for Trump. To understand why he voted for Trump, we need to identify what Harris took to be desirable or choiceworthy about his goal. In addition, empathetic understanding requires the ability to recognize Harris’s goal as a good (from his point of view). Failing that, his actions may be unintelligible to us. As Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”.

The classical Aristotelian definition of deliberation is: “an exchange of arguments for or against something” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 2). It involves weighing the available data, arguing about relevance and worthiness, and then choosing the best policy or person. But too much focus on rational argument may actually prevent us from achieving a deep understanding of each other. When political discourse aims to persuade others, we often become further entrenched in our views and are epistemically worse off as a result. If we start by trying to understand each other, rather than to convince one another, then we are more likely to appreciate various conceptions of the good life. As Catherine Elgin nicely puts it, “Rather than seeing those who disagree with us as opponents, we should see them as potential allies who, by envisioning things differently, extend our epistemic range”.

This is not to say that empathetic understanding requires us to change our opinions or to stop disagreeing with those we seek to understand. We might continue to disagree, but at least we would understand each other better; and this may help us work together. In contrast, misunderstanding can lead to cynicism and contempt for others, which is part of what causes polarization. We must overcome our feelings of moral condemnation and moral superiority—to understand others rather than just deplore them. The democratic attitude requires this imaginative capacity.

Picture source: Jonathan Sharp on Unsplash


  • AB

    Unfortunately, a lot of politicians across the world set bad examples by resorting to silly word-wars and contempt for opponents. Those are also the things that the media feeds on, and so an endless cycle of giving fuel to such harmful forms of public deliberation is set in motion. But I like to believe this is a phase in human history and we will, through people like you who are articulating such problems so wonderfully and providing alternatives, get past it.

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