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Why Empathy is not the Best Basis for Humanitarianism

by Fritz Breithaupt

Global Cooperation Research Papers 9, Duisburg 2015

With commentaries by Frank Adloff and Christine Unrau

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Abstract
The paper challenges the assumption that empathy is the key source of humanitarianism. It begins by asking what underlies the perception of empathy as one of the chief motors of humanitarian aid. This leads to an examination of the ‘scene of empathy’—which in turn sheds light on some of the more problematic aspects of empathy. Three of these problematic aspects and their importance for humanitarian aid are discussed, namely (temporary) self-loss, a tendency to radicalize conflicts and the danger of sadism. In conclusion, the author asks in how far humanitarianism can be decoupled from empathy and proposes an alternative approach. This alternative approach revolves around the development of a common we-identity which does not depend on empathy.

Keywords: Humanitarianism, empathy, narrative, self-loss, conflict, sadism, we-identity

The Author
Fritz Breithaupt is professor of Germanic Studies, adjunct professor in Comparative Literature, and affiliated professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University. At Indiana University, he has served as the director of the West European Studies Institute, was a co-founder of an official EU-Center of Excellence, and served as acting director of several other institutes. He received many honors and distinctions for his work, including an Alexander-von-Humboldt Fellowship. By training, he is a comparatist. His latest books provide humanities responses to work in cognitive science, addressing issues of empathy, narrative thinking, and moral reasoning.

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