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/ Institute of Philosophy, Citizenship and Youth

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Empathic engagement

Being able to take other people’s perspectives and circumstances seriously by actively extending oneself in their experiences with sensibility and judgment.



For the IPCY, empathic engagement presupposes a willingness to grasp the key characteristics of a given situation or person in order to represent and evaluate them more fairly, without losing one’s sense of self or impartiality. From the IPCY’s standpoint, responsible citizens who show empathic engagement can:

  • Acknowledge limited perspectives, by being aware of the ways they may be excluding relevant viewpoints; by calling to mind a different set of possible vantage points to diversify and problematize their own; by transcending the familiar and seeking alternative readings and interpretations of history, religion, culture and science; etc.

  • Broaden the criteria for empathy, by identifying more candidates with whom to empathize; by enlarging the sphere of their moral concern to include more people and situations; by willingly considering new possibilities for what may be worth valuing and believing; by recognizing the dignity of the person with whom they empathize, etc.

  • Enact their commitments to others, by being attuned to the host of particulars affecting the other; by avoiding caricatured portrayals by discerning the other in all their complexity; by striving to understand the other’s situation without reducing it to their own worldview; by involving themselves in initiatives that support the other, etc.



Several approaches guide the IPCY’s conception of empathic engagement: interdisciplinary studies on empathy (De Waal, Rogers, Decety & Jackson), sympathic feeling (Nussbaum), deliberate moral imagining (Fletcher), and prosociality (Baumard, Dunfield).

  • Empathy: In his extensive studies of the evolutionary origins of cooperation and mirror neurons, Dutch ethologist Frans De Waal suggests that empathy affords access to the foreign self. He argues that though “we cannot feel anything that happens outside merging self and other, the other’s experiences echo within us” (2009: 65). For psychologist Carl Rogers, founder of the humanistic approach to therapy, the empathic process requires a certain sensibility of “entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it...being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person...temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgements” but also “without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition” (1975: 3). Additionally, according to neurobiologists Jean Decety and Philip Jackson, the empathetic agent maintains a sense of discernment; her empathic process does not have to turn into sympathetic concern since she can remain as impartial as humanly feasible. They define empathy as “the capacity to understand and respond to the unique affective experiences of another person” though this understanding “does not necessarily imply that one will act or even feel impelled to act in a supportive or sympathetic way” (2006: 54).

  • Sympathetic feeling: In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum bemoans the current silent crisis in education caused by an overemphasis on profit-oriented pursuits and resulting in flawed reasoning, parochialism and egoism, arguing instead for an education model rooted in the arts and humanities that promotes democracy by nurturing the sympathetic feeling required for individuals to “see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy” (2010: 143). Significantly, a number of studies highlight the important relationship between empathy and citizenship (Lee & Leung, 2006; Reysen & Katzarska-Miller, 2013; Schonert-Reichl & Hymel, 2007; Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman-Zait & Hertzman, 2012).

  • Deliberate moral imagining: Deliberate moral imagining is understood as the purposeful envisioning of a given context from multiple frames of reference in response to a real-world encounter, with the goal of bringing to light possibilities for what seems reasonable to value in an effort to broaden the moral lens through which lived experiences are approached and assessed (Fletcher, 2018). Such purposeful envisioning may assist youth in confronting some important challenges to their responsible citizenship, notably “narrow empathic scope,” or the tendency to empathise to an insufficient degree due to a limited mental landscape that oversimplifies or misconstrues the circumstances of others and thus risks jeopardizing how they may view and treat them. According to preliminary data, morally imaginative children, even at a young age, may be more motivated than their unimaginative peers to empathically engage with others because they are better positioned, through deliberate moral imagining, to envision contexts they have not yet had the opportunity to encounter in their lived experience (Recchia and Fletcher, 2019).

  • Prosociality : Psychological studies on the concept of prosociality and on the development of prosocial behaviour are also relevant to the IPCY’s conceptual framework. Taken together, these studies demonstrate that helping, sharing and giving behaviours emerge very early in childhood (Dunfield & Kuhlmeier, 2013 ; Dunfield, Kuhlmeier, O’Connell, & Kelley, 2011) and across cultures (Aknin et al., 2013 ; Henrich et al., 2005). For many psychologists, this suggests that prosociality is rooted in the evolution of our species (Baumard, 2010; Chudek & Henrich, 2011). Other work has explored the educational approaches that promote prosocial behaviour, notably character education, citizenship education, moral education, and service learning (Brown, Corrigan & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2012).

See references.