Check out Balkinization’s Why is Empathy Controversial? or Liberal, an excellent analysis of empathic wisdom (and blind spots) on the Bench in the wake of a noted Republican’s vow to filibuster any Supreme Court nominee who might commit the (liberal?) sin of empathizing from the Bench.
Emotion terms are notoriously slippery. But if we understand empathy as the ability to take the perspective of another, it ought to be uncontroversial that empathy is an important component of judicial judgment. Empathy, so understood, is a basic and necessary tool for making sense of the intentions and actions of others.
So, as Mark Graber asks, who could be against empathy? And more particularly, why is empathy liberal, if we all use it? Perhaps because empathy goes by another name when it comes easily—for example, when Supreme Court justices take the perspective of those from similar backgrounds or with similar worldviews. This sort of empathy looks neutral and natural, not ideological or partial. It tends to be portrayed as garden-variety judicial reasoning.
We all use empathy, and despite our best intentions, it is always selective and riddled with blind spots. We can try to correct for this partiality if we are self-aware. But those who study cognitive psychology and decision-making find that we aren’t all that good at identifying and critiquing our own background assumptions. A better way to encourage this sort of correction is through debate with others who hold differing viewpoints. Judges, like the rest of us, make better decisions when forced to examine and articulate their premises.
According to a recent article in the New Yorker (voice of the effete empathizing liberal east-coast establishment) we owe our conscious mind — that which makes us human — to the mirror neurons that give rise to to empathy (because we could “feel” the mind of another, at some point we turned that thought back against ourselves and consciousness was born).
And let’s not forget that some brain researchers believe it is impossible to make any choices whatsoever in the absence of emotion (the “pure” logical mind will make endless pro and con lists absent the “gut” response that finally permits us to decide).
What does this have to do with negotiation? Anyone who continues to believe that decisions are (or could potentially be) the product of a solely rational process are losing the benefit of the emotional sway every great negotiator exercises over his or her bargaining partner.
1/ Perhaps Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show described coverage of the pairing best. The show aired a clip of The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol saying of the back-to-back speeches, “Just going to be fun, don’t you think? Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, you know? And I want to say that I was always on Darth Vader’s side.” Stewart retorted, “Now you tell us. You know, as one of the main intellectual forces behind the Iraq war, that’s kind of a weird thing to admit. You might have wanted to mention, ‘Oh, quick caveat to my plan on a new American century: I’m on the Darth Vader side.’ ”
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