Zhu Xi on Self-Focused vs. Other-Focused Empathy

In Kai-Chiu Ng & Yong Huang (eds.), Dao Companion to Zhu Xi’s Philosophy. Springer. pp. 963-980 (2020)
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This chapter is about issues in ethics and moral psychology that have been little explored by contemporary philosophers, ones that concern the advantages and disadvantages of two different kinds of empathy. Roughly, first type is what is sometimes called “other-focused” empathy, in which one reconstructs the thoughts and feelings that someone else has or would have. The second type, “self-focused” empathy, is the sort of emotional attitude someone adopts when she imagines how she would think or feel were she in the other person’s place. Both are variants of empathy, for both have to do with having thoughts and feelings that are more apt, in the relevant senses, for someone else’s circumstances than one’s own. But they differ with respect to how much one makes substantial reference to oneself in order to elicit those thoughts and feelings. Some influential philosophers and psychologists have taken note of the distinction, but none have engaged the issues as thoroughly as did Zhu Xi and his students in twelfth century, largely in a series of commentaries and conversations that have yet to be translated into Western languages. The aim of this chapter is to explicate Zhu’s view about self- and other-focused empathy as he characterized them, reconstruct his arguments for his view, and then discuss some of the implications for ethics and moral psychology more generally. Zhu’s position in brief is that self-focused empathy is—for flawed moral agents like ourselves—a necessary and useful means by which we can better understand and care for others, but that ultimately it is the ladder we must kick away in favor of purely other-focused empathy.

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Justin Tiwald
University of Hong Kong


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