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International Journal of Philosophical Studies
ISSN: 0967-2559 (Print) 1466-4542 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/riph20
Empathy, Respect, and Vulnerability
To cite this article: Elisa Magrì (2019): Empathy, Respect, and Vulnerability, International Journal
of Philosophical Studies, DOI: 10.1080/09672559.2019.1587260
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09672559.2019.1587260
Published online: 01 Apr 2019.
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Empathy, Respect, and Vulnerability
School of Philosophy, UCD School of Philosophy, Dublin, Ireland
This paper reconsiders Heather Battaly’s argument that empathy is not
a virtue. Like Battaly, I argue that empathy is a disposition that includes
elements of virtue acquisition, but is not in itself a virtue in the Aristotelian
sense. Unlike Battaly, however, I propose a distinction between care and
respect. Drawing on Darwall’s view of recognition respect as well as on
phenomenologically inspired views of empathy, I argue that respect can be
regarded as the moral feeling that is distinctive of empathy. In my view, the
feeling of respect towards another’s situated experience grants epistemic
dignity, which is the recognition of the intrinsic signiﬁcance of subjective
experience. By way of conclusion, I suggest that the relation between
empathy and respect can be relevant for an account of vulnerability that
is not opposed to autonomy.
KEYWORDS Empathy; respect; epistemic dignity; vulnerability
Over the last decade, a large body of research has interrogated the
relation between empathy and morality. Even though deﬁnitions of
empathy are not congruous, empathy can prima facie be understood as
a form of interpersonal and aﬀective understanding. In this respect,
some have argued that empathy is morally neutral (Prinz 2011), whereas
others have linked empathy to care (Simmons 2014), altruism (Batson
2014), and moral deliberation (Svenaeus 2014). The problem as to
looksatdescriptionsofempathyoﬀered by clinicians and philosophers
of psychiatry, which show that empathy can play a crucial role in help-
ing patients to regain personal meaning (Halpern 2001;Ratcliﬀe2015).
Thus, it appears that an important aspect of empathy concerns its
relation to moral motivation. If being empathetic implies attending
and responding to another’s situation, what type of motives drive empa-
thy? If we assume that such motives have a moral quality, does it mean
that empathy is a virtue?
CONTACT Elisa Magrì firstname.lastname@example.org
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
With regard to this problem, I would like to go back to Heather
(2014) and Svenaeus (2014) to raise the concern that such a claim would
deprive empathy of its moral relevance. In order to avoid this, Simmons
(2014) has proposed to reconsider empathy as exclusive concern for the
well-being of others, whereas Svenaeus (2014) has provided a very help-
ful comparison between empathy and phronesis that values empathy as
an essential condition and source of moral knowledge. Interestingly,
both Battaly and her critics move from the unquestioned assumption
that the moral signiﬁcance of empathy consists in caring for the other or
for the good. By contrast, I wish to suggest that while empathy is not
a virtue in the Aristotelian sense, its moral signiﬁcance does not consist
in the caring impulse. In this sense, I agree with Battaly that empathy
may be a component of virtue acquisition, but it is not in itself a virtue
(in the Aristotelian sense). Yet empathy can be morally relevant even
when it is not driven by caring, as I intend to clarify in the second part
of my paper by introducing the dimension of respect.
I will proceed by ﬁrst examining Heather Battaly’s argument concerning
empathy and virtue, before tackling respect as the moral feeling at stake in
empathy. In relation to this claim, I will draw a distinction between respect
and care that is inspired by Stephen Darwall’s account of recognition
respect. Finally, I will consider why the relation between empathy and
respect is relevant from a moral point of view in that it grants epistemic
dignity, which is the recognition of the intrinsic signiﬁcance of subjective
experience, particularly of its aﬀective and emotional background, which is
captured by the phenomenological investigation of the horizon conscious-
ness. In turn, I show that the relation between empathy and respect points
to a further problematisation of empathy as a disposition to attend to
another’s distinctive horizon. Such a disposition is informed by a feeling
of respect for the autonomy of another’s subjective standpoint. This view
bears important consequence for the appraisal of vulnerability, particularly
when it comes to reconciling vulnerability with the concept of autonomy.
I will sketch a solution to this problem in the last part of this article by
oﬀering a concrete example, that of OCD symptoms, where personal agency
appears inhibited when in fact it is in need of further explication of its
dispositional background. In my view, such explication is made possible by
empathy when this is understood as an attitude that seeks to uncover the
signiﬁcance of another experience in light of their individual and aﬀective
background. As such, empathy can build up to other forms of moral
behaviour, including care and love, and yet, while there can be empathy
without care, there cannot be empathic dispositions without respect, which
I consider the fundamental moral feeling that characterises empathy.
Reconsidering Battaly’s Argument
My point of departure is Battaly’s argument that empathy is not a virtue, as
it must be either a skill or a capacity in the Aristotelian sense. Battaly
proceeds by identifying four diﬀerent views of empathy:
(1) Empathy as caring and/or sharing, and/or knowing
(2) Empathy as sharing by multiple means
(3) Empathy as sharing and knowing
(4) Empathy as knowing by multiple means
All four deﬁnitions of empathy revolve around broad deﬁnitions of caring,
knowing, sharing or a combination of these. Battaly regards caring as
a form of concern for the other’s sake or for the truth, while she considers
sharing a vicarious response, as in contagion, motor mimicry, or perspec-
tive-taking (i.e. perceiving a situation from an alternative point of view).
Finally, she describes knowing as the ascription of a mental state to others
regardless of whether the process underlying such an ascription is the result
of cognitive grasp, inference, simulation or folk psychology. From this point
of view, as Battaly points out, deﬁnition (1) is the vaguest, since it does not
exactly specify what is required for caring, sharing and knowing. Examples
of (1) are best friends and therapists, who often care about their friends/
patients, and often share their emotions, and typically know about them
too. However, there is no deﬁnite answer as to which of these combinations
are necessary and/or suﬃcient. In some cases, there might be a prevalence
of care, in others of knowing, etc.
By contrast, deﬁnitions (2), (3) and (4) consist of speciﬁc combina-
tions of sharing and/or knowing. Deﬁnitions (2) and (3) assume that
empathy must involve some shared mental states. However, sharing is
necessary and suﬃcient in deﬁnition (2), whereas it is necessarily
accompanied by knowing in deﬁnition (3), which arguably requires
sharing the mental state of others and knowing or cognitively grasping
their states without caring. Finally, deﬁnition (4) maintains that empa-
thy is the ascription of a mental state to others as in mind-reading or
folk psychology (Figure 1).
DEFINITIONS CARING SHARING KNOWING
Figure 1. Battaly's four deﬁnitions of empathy.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 3
The second part of Battaly’s argument consists in examining whether
any of these deﬁnitions of empathy can be considered in terms of
virtue. In doing so, she considers virtues in an Aristotelian sense as
‘dispositions of appropriate action, emotion, perception, and motiva-
tion’which ‘are not automatic, involuntary capacities; they are volun-
tary –we exert some control over their acquisition and operation’
(Battaly 2011, 288). From this view, it follows that forms of sharing,
such as motor mimicry, are involuntary capacities, hence they are not
suﬃcient for virtues. Capacities are either innate or acquired in the
standard course of development, but we lack control over their acqui-
sition and operation. By contrast, Battaly argues, virtues require
rational choice, hence deliberation.
According to Battaly, perspective-taking does not qualify as a virtue
because, even though it is voluntary and we may have some control
over it, an agent may forego opportunities to engage in imaginative
perspective-taking. This is the case for those that Battaly calls
‘empathic underachievers’, who fail to perform imaginative position-
taking to the best of their abilities for various reasons, for example
because they fail ‘to care about her clients or the truth’(Battaly 2011,
296). By the same token, Battaly (2011, 297) suggests that agents may
fail to activate their relevant knowledge of folk psychology, because
they lack ‘suﬃcient concern for the truth, not because one fails to be
good at mindreading via the theory theory’. Thus, there might be good
perspective-takers, who are not however motivated by the good, there-
fore they are not practising any virtue. This is the case of ‘skilled
doctors, scientists, and generals –they may be motivated by appetites
for wealth, fame or power, rather than by rational desires’(Battaly
2011, 299). From this, Battaly draws the conclusion that perspective-
taking and mindreading are not virtues but abilities (Figure 2).
It appears that deﬁnitions (2), (3) and (4) do not suﬃce to make
empathy a virtue, although they certainly include capacities and abilities
that are necessary for the acquisition of virtue. Indeed, we cannot possess
virtues without possessing some capacities, as the latter underlie all of our
voluntary dispositions and abilities (Battaly 2011, 291). According to
Battaly (2011, 301), if one wishes to pursue further the relation between
empathy and virtue, then one should reconsider deﬁnition (1), developing
DEFINITIONS VIRTUES CAPACITIES ABILITIES
Figure 2. The relation between empathy and virtue in Battaly's argument.
a new theoretical concept which should include ‘the dispositions to care
about others and about the truth for their own sake’.
Despite the vagueness of the deﬁnitions employed by Battaly to distin-
guish between several types of empathy in social cognition and philosophy
of mind, her overall argument is compelling in that it shows that empathy is
a disposition that involves appropriate emotions, perception, motivation
and understanding. Yet an important element of her argument deserves
further attention and explication. Battaly’s thesis that empathy is not
a virtue essentially revolves around the implicit assumption that empathy
has to be characterised as a form of rational choice that is driven by caring.
While Battaly does not expand on care, it is evident from her argument that
she regards caring (either for the sake of the other or for the truth) as the
only form of moral motivation. As a result, abilities such as perspective-
taking and knowing are easily ruled out as long as they do not constitute
forms of deliberation or moral discernment.
However, the implicit assumption that empathy is a form of care is
problematic in that it is not clear whether caring for the good entails caring
for the welfare of the others, even when this conﬂicts with the others’out-
looks and standpoints. For example, a good doctor does not fail to care for
her patients’welfare when she examines whether her treatment will succeed
in alleviating the patient’s symptoms, and whether the cure is compatible
with the patient’s diet and clinical history. In this scenario, the doctor seeks to
act for sake of her patient, which is compatible with a non-empathic beha-
viour. Indeed, the doctor may not take into account whether the cure she is
proposing will aﬀect the personal life of the patient or whether the treatment
could be perceived by the patient as traumatic. Quite diﬀerently, the doctor
might in addition consider if her cure will have an impact on the ﬁrst-
personal experience of the patient, and she will prepare the patient accord-
ingly. In both cases, the doctor takes to heart the patient’s welfare. Yet in the
ﬁrst case the doctor is exclusively disposed towards addressing the welfare of
the patient, whereas in the second case the doctor relates to her patient’s
emotional and aﬀective background. Thus, it appears that care is not only
ambiguous with respect to what kind of good is at stake in diﬀerent situa-
tions. It is also problematic when it comes to clarifying the speciﬁc directed-
ness of empathy to another’saﬀective and emotional situation, for the
concern about the welfare of the patient may potentially hinder the under-
standing of the other’saﬀective experience.
Furthermore, Battaly is not explicit about the relation between virtue and
moral deliberation. In one sense, all the deﬁnitions of empathy she provides
fail to show how empathy engages in moral deliberation about the means of
achieving the good. However, it is questionable whether empathy would
always need to engage in this type of deliberation. Indeed, in empathy we
address another’s situation without necessarily deliberating about the good,
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 5
as in practical wisdom. The friend to whom I conﬁde my personal struggles
does not have to deliberate about the best means of helping me out in order
to empathically related to my situation. In fact, he will manifest empathy by
attending to my disposition in the present situation, and by further under-
standing how my experience might shape my aﬀective and personal world-
view. In another sense, however, it could be argued that empathy rests on
the cultivation of moral feelings, hence deliberation is crucial for developing
moral character as well as sensitivity to others’experiences. If this is the
case, the problem consists in identifying the type of disposition at stake in
empathy, and how such a disposition incorporates a speciﬁc form of
sensitivity to others that might not necessarily develop into a caring
impulse and yet involves responsibility. With regard to this, I suggest that
the concept we need to look at is respect, which is the feeling that lends
a normative character to the dignity to which every individual is intrinsi-
cally entitled. Empathy is indeed compatible with a disposition to respect
others, which provides a fundamental ground for our relation to others.
It is important to notice that looking at empathy from this perspective is
neither a commitment to moral neutrality, nor does it amount to depriving
empathy of moral value. The question is rather whether empathy is driven
by moral motivations other than caring, notwithstanding that empathy
might as well be accompanied by other feelings and dispositions, including
love, friendship and care. Yet these feelings are not necessary for empathy,
for there can be empathy even when the caring impulse is not predominant.
By contrast, introducing respect may help to better understand the form of
disposition involved in empathy, as I shall now illustrate.
Empathy and Respect
Recall Stephen Darwall's (2010, 156) example of the diﬀerence between
respect and care in his defence of recognition respect:
Suppose that your daughter, aged twenty-something, has decided to take up
something you consider bad for her, say, smoking cigarettes. Although she
knows the health risks, smoking is nonetheless something she wants to do
[. . .] You have her welfare at heart, and you correctly think that stopping
would be better for her. Despite this, you think that it is her life to live and
that it is not your place to try to get her to stop. Respect for her and her
autonomy, that is, for her authority to lead her own life, leads you to restrain
any benevolent impulses you might have in that direction.
According to Darwall, respect inspires a speciﬁc attitude towards others
which is not informed by benevolence or care but rather by the recognition
of the dignity or authority that each person has to make claims or demands
of us. Darwall (1977) distinguishes between appraisal respect and recogni-
tion respect, arguing that the object of the former is merit or excellence,
whereas the object of the latter is dignity. Appraisal respect appears when
we hold someone in esteem for their character, merit and virtues. However,
one’s appraisal of a person may be higher than someone else’s. Recognition
respect, by contrast, involves no evaluation or appraisal of excellence,
because it entails valuing someone intrinsically as a being with a dignity.
Darwall appeals to the Kantian notion of dignity, which values rational
nature as an end in itself, and demands mutual accountability. However,
Kant does not distinguish between appraisal and recognition, and it is
Darwall who has framed the problem of respect in terms of second-
person normative authority. As he puts it: ‘To be a person just is to have
the competence and standing to address demands as persons to other
persons, and to be addressed by them, within a community of mutually
accountable equals’(Darwall 2006, 126).
Second-personal normativity amounts to reciprocal accountability. It
means there cannot be any neutral or third-person point of view, for the
authority that each individual demands of us equals the demands that we
also make of others. As Darwall’s example of the smoker suggests, respect
for the autonomy of the other poses a question of responsibility. In
demanding to be acknowledged, the daughter is simultaneously addressing
her parents as being accountable for her claims, namely as standing to
address her reasons. The relational model that takes place includes the
awareness of belonging to a community of moral agents, where individuals
are mutually accountable. Thus, respect cannot do without individuals who
address each other within concrete situations and contexts.
As noted by Stern (2014, 322),
although Darwall’s picture departs from the Kantian picture of self-legislation
in moving to legislation through and by others, nonetheless he manages to
retain and capture a number of fundamental Kantian notions, particularly
those of equal dignity and respect, in a way that contrasts with the more
hierarchical divine command view, where God alone has the authority to
legislate the moral law.
However, Stern has also objected that Darwall’s view of second-person
authority may fall prey to the diﬃculties of the Levinasian paradigm,
according to which ‘obligation is a matter of being “summoned”or “com-
manded”by the other, who thereby exercises authority in a manner that
was once (and still may be) associated with the divine, but now becomes
a second-personal relation between individuals’(Stern 2018). The problem
of the moral imperative is a recurrent issue in Kant studies as well as in
Kantian inspired philosophy, and Stern is certainly right in pointing out
that obligation needs to rely on relationality rather than command.
However, when it comes to respect, an important diﬀerence needs to be
drawn between the sheer obligation to respect others (without any settled
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 7
inclination to do so) and the feeling that is inspired by the dignity of
humanity as an end in itself. It is remarkable that for Kant respect is not
an external command, but the feeling by means of which the representation
of the imperative is practically eﬀected (Kant 2015, 63), predisposing
individuals to the cultivation of inclinations as well as to the formation of
moral personality (Kant 1999, 52). To feel respect entails the capacity of
respecting humanity in oneself just as much as in other beings. In doing so,
‘we become less self-absorbed, we grow more attentive, perceptive of, and
sensitive to the claims that others have on us’(Bagnoli 2003, 507). In this
sense, respect is fundamentally relational, and it is not an exclusive pre-
rogative of formed personality either, for it addresses the sphere of sensi-
bility and aﬀectivity.
The cultivation of respect and its relation to
sensibility is not accounted for by Darwall, who nonetheless identiﬁes
personhood with ‘the competence and standing’to addressing and being
addressed by others in relations of mutual accountability. To have such
a competence means that one needs to cultivate respect, for it does not
come from without. In doing so, the agent comes to develop epistemic
awareness of the value of respect as a form of mutual responsibility. Thus,
respect does not manifest itself as a humanised form of divine command,
because it is a feeling for which one needs to develop appropriate standing.
Ultimately, respect amounts to cultivate sensitivity to what others are
equally entitled, just as we are as well.
Furthermore, while the Levinasian summon is a call to inﬁnite respon-
sibility for the other (an obligation to make oneself present to the neediness
of the other) (Levinas 1969, 244), Darwall’s view of respect binds us to
a mutual form of non-interference in others’lives. This, however, does not
make respect a negative form of behaviour, whereby we just refrain from
doing or acting for the sake of others for fear of imposing our authority
Respect is actually crucial for an ethics of care in order to
discern and discriminate between appropriate forms of actions. To put it
diﬀerently, respect represents the feeling that alerts us of the autonomy of
the another’s standpoint, even when this conﬂicts with our notion of the
good. The crucial point is that, while respect informs care as well as of other
forms of moral feeling and behaviour (e.g. caring, love, compassion),
respect cannot be reduced to any of them in that it primarily provides
a ground for acknowledging another autonomous standpoint. In this sense,
I suggest that there is room for exploring respect as the moral feeling that
characterises empathy once the former is no longer reduced to a secularised
form of moral obligation. This is not to say that empathy and respect are
the same phenomenon, but that empathy requires respect if it is
a disposition that is directed to another’s situated standpoint.
To be sure, both empathy and respect originate in the mutual relation-
ality of self and other, and they both involve an attitude towards
individuals. However, while Darwall’s view of respect binds us to normative
relations of mutual accountability, the same does not hold for empathy. If
I empathise with my friend’s joy about the exam she successfully passed, my
friend is not making a demand of me. It is important to notice that, while
I do not owe empathy to my friend, my friend’s experience appeals to the
possibility that I can, in principle, respond to her situation.
rests, for Darwall, on the exchange of reasons being made and claimed, but
as I have noticed, respect presupposes a more fundamental disposition that
is grounded on aﬀectivity and sensitivity. Accordingly, empathy allows the
decoupling of respect from mutual obligation, for respect is primarily
enacted in interpersonal encounters when we seek to respond appropriately
to others’aﬀective and emotional states. In this sense, the relation between
empathy and respect brings to light the dignity of subjective experience,
namely the fact that another situated experience is worthy of attention and
discernment for its own sake. Empathy binds the other in a relation of
mutual addressing which has the potential to be actualised and taken up in
more elaborated and conscious forms of acquaintance and relationality.
While I can choose to not respond empathically to another’s experience
(as it is also the case in the second-personal relations described by Darwall),
empathy presupposes the ability of responding to another’s experience
as worthy of attention and discernment.
It is precisely at this level that it is important to distinguish between
recognition respect and appraisal respect. In one case (appraisal respect)
empathy would depend on the appraisal of another’s character, whereas in
the other (recognition respect) empathy would address another’s experience
as worthy of attention in itself regardless of merit or character. In both
scenarios, however, empathy needs to be understood within a concrete and
situated relation. In relation to this problem, Drummond (2006) has argued
in favour of appraisal respect within a phenomenological inspired view of
empathy. On Drummond’s account, the empathic experience of the other is
the foundation for more complex experiences of them, such as sympathy
and care. For example, attending to others’feelings, positions and bodily
movements represents an empathetic encounter in that it allows us to
recognise others as having bodily and emotional experiences, which aﬀect
us because of their characteristic and independent quality. While noticing
my friend’s sluggishness, I attend not just to her expression and movements
but to the whole ﬁeld of experience that her bodily appearance and char-
acter make available to me. Indeed, from a phenomenological point of view,
empathy implies that we attend not just to features of perception but also to
element of the aﬀective world of the other subject.
In this regard, an important aspect of empathy is the capacity of dis-
cerning how another person is situated in her own aﬀective and motiva-
tional context. To clarify this, it is helpful to recall the phenomenological
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 9
concept of horizon. A horizon represents the backdrop that accompanies
each experience, and it refers to the idea that experience can be explicated
step by step, drawing on one’s‘stock of sense’or reservoir of meaning
(Husserl 1973,31–39) A horizon is not objectiﬁable or determinable, and
yet it works as a realm of possibilities that helps to situate another lived
experience. In a sense, empathising with others implies the ability to be
directed to another horizon, bringing to light and making sense of the
aﬀective quality of their experience. This means that empathy is not
restricted to the perceptual grasp of another’s expression, but it is best
understood as a way to make sense of another’s disposition towards her
surrounding world. This is a process that occurs gradually, as it is always in
need of further explication, for the speciﬁc quality of the other’s situated
experience solicits us to develop a more focused and attentive orientation.
This is why empathy does not preclude but rather enables acquaintance and
familiarity with others not just as embodied subjects but also as persons
with their own character. Empathy consists in the process of further
explicating another’s nucleus of experience precisely as the centre of irra-
diation of a personal world, which has her autonomous form of position-
taking. In this respect, phenomenologists like Husserl and Stein stressed
that, while empathy brings to light the intersubjective nature of our experi-
ence, empathising with others also brings us to appreciate the alterity of the
subjects we relate to. Empathy bridges the gap between self and other while
disclosing, at the same time, the other’s autonomous, yet interdependent,
Following Stein (1964), empathising can be understood as an experience
whereby perception is embedded with emotional understanding. In seeing
my friend unable to concentrate, slow and distracted, I become attuned to
adiﬀerent situated experience than my own, one in which the usual sources
of motivation that would matter for me are not at stake. In turn, this solicits
me to further explicate my friend’s experience by means of talking, asking
questions, or sharing something together. This is why Stein stresses that
empathy awakens what is sleeping in us, facilitating a stance of self-
reﬂexion and self-knowledge. ‘By empathy with diﬀerently composed per-
sonal structures we become clear on what we are not, what we are more or
less than others. Thus, together with self-knowledge, we also have an
important aid to self-evaluation’(Stein 1964, 106). For Stein, empathy is
very close to a form of moral attention that discloses the salient elements of
another’saﬀective experience, and it can build up to other forms of moral
experience, including sympathy and compassion. As Drummond (2006, 17)
writes, ‘sympathy and compassion are not necessary for the respectful
encounter of another, but the underlying empathic structure is necessary
since that is the condition for recognizing another free, conscious agency’.
Such underlying empathic structure is not in itself devoid of moral
10 E. MAGRÌ
character, and it is precisely at this level that Drummond introduces the
dimension of respect: ‘the recognition of the irreducibility of the other –
a conscious, free being in her own right –creates the moral space in which
we can locate respect’(Drummond 2006, 17). For Drummond, appraisal
respect presupposes our empathic encounter with other persons as objects
of moral perception. On his view, recognition respect is phenomenologi-
cally grounded in respect for meritorious persons: ‘We do not –even in the
encounter of the stranger –originally encounter persons as such, as merely
possessing these capacities; we encounter only persons with particular
characteristics and acting in particular ways on the basis of particular
conceptions of the good’(Drummond 2006, 21).
Drummond’s view rests on the idea that empathy is a way to relate to
persons as having essential moral qualities. In this sense, empathy represents
the aﬀective and epistemological ground for appraising others’merits. By
contrast, for Drummond (2006, 22), recognition respect can fail in those
situations ‘where particular manifestations of rational capacities are not
empathically recognized as such, as, for example, when those speaking
a foreign language or adopting diﬀerent social practices are judged irrational
and not worthy of respect’. For Drummond, recognition respect appears too
abstract to do justice to actual encounters where the particularities of indi-
vidual experiences call for a distinctive, cultivated form of moral attention,
which for Drummond is provided by the appraisal of others’qualities. The
problem with this view is that it equates individuality with personhood and
character tout court, thereby downplaying the fact that empathy is primarily
rooted in the disposition to apperceive others and to be aﬀected by them at
the level of sensitivity. While empathy can develop into an attitude that is
directed to the other’s character and personality (Stein 1964,83ﬀ.), such a
capacity rests on a basic form of sensitivity that is open to all forms of
experiences regardless of their worth or character. This type of social sensi-
tivity is embedded with the feeling of recognition respect that makes attend-
ing to another's experience an inclination to respond and to comprehend it.
Within such a disposition, attention becomes a form of apprehension that
facilitates more developed and conscious responses to others.
Attention is oriented to the salient features of another’s world-horizon,
in which I can partake by talking, asking questions, imagining their con-
texts and so forth. Waldenfels (2004) has famously argued that attention
can be practised as a form of moral attentiveness, which makes the latter
similar to an act of discernment. The notion of discernment goes back to
Aristotle’s concept of sunesis (Aristotle 2004,Nic. Ethics, VI, 1142b34–
1143a18), which is often translated as the faculty of quick comprehension,
although it is normally employed as a form of comprehension, where the
emphasis is on the dialogical and communicative component of under-
standing (e.g. ‘hearing or comprehending what someone says’). Sunesis is
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 11
not the possession of practical wisdom but the capacity to acquire it. It is
indeed very close to the phenomenological view of attention proposed by
Waldenfels. Thanks to sunesis, we can grasp and discern the ethically
relevant constituents of a situation, but we are not in the process of forming
a choice; we do not prescribe and command an action, i.e. we do not
deliberate in the full sense of the concept (Simon 2017).
Apprehending another’s experience as the experience of a subject situ-
ated in her distinctive world-horizon and as capable of taking a position
towards that very situation, is the standpoint of recognition respect. It is
important to notice that recognition respect does not abstract individuals
from their speciﬁc contexts and characters but recognises them as worthy of
respect within reciprocal relations whereby their characters and choices are
primarily valued as free and equal. Dignity and authority do not supervene
on these encounters, rather they become actual in practical situations, when
demands and claims are felt and apprehended at the level of aﬀectivity and
sensitivity. From this point of view, respect is an attitude of response that
shares signiﬁcant similarities with empathy. They are not driven by self-
interest, in that they are concerned with the alterity of another’s standpoint.
They both aim to make another’s experiential standpoint meaningful and
worthy of attention. They are not primarily directed to the welfare of
others, but rather to the explication of the particularity of another’s experi-
ence in order to grant it dignity. They also involve the right, claim or
authority that persons have to demand that they be allowed to have their
This provides an important normative claim for empathy, because it
suggests that there can be empathy even in case of moral disagreement. The
doctor who advises her patient not to smoke can still be empathic towards
the patient’s struggle to quit smoking. In empathising with her patient, the
doctor is able to discern the impact that quitting smoking has on her
patient in terms, for example, of the patient’s habit of using smoke as
a coping strategy. Such an empathic approach can foster an attitude of
care as well, where the doctor suggests to the patient alternative ways of
gradually quitting smoking. However, the empathic directedness of the
doctor to the patient is primarily driven by an attitude of recognition
respect for the patient’s individuality. This is what I would like to call
epistemic dignity, which is the dignity to which subjects are entitled to in
virtue of the intrinsic salience and value of their aﬀective experiences.
Epistemic dignity is the recognition that individuals’aﬀective experiences
are worthy of attention and discernment in themselves, even when such
experiences are characterised by irrational beliefs or do not inspire attitudes
of care. As I shall illustrate in the following, introducing respect at the level
of empathy would allow a reconsideration of the concept of vulnerability.
12 E. MAGRÌ
Epistemic Dignity and Vulnerability
Vulnerability has become a prominent concept in contemporary discus-
sions of ethics as a condition that characterises human and non-human
beings in virtue of their ontological individuation, but also, as Gilson (2018,
231) puts it, as ‘a fundamental quality of openness, an openness to being
aﬀected and aﬀect in turn’. For Gilson (2018), a comprehensive account of
vulnerability is deﬁned by four features: ﬁrst, it is a shared fundamental
condition. Second, it is a condition of potential, whereby to be vulnerable
means to be open to an alterity that can only be determined in concrete
circumstances. Third, vulnerability is diﬀerentially experienced by those
who are diﬀerently situated, hence it is, fourth, ambivalent and ambiguous
in both how it is experienced and its value. Accordingly, Gilson (2018, 231)
argues that this characterisation of vulnerability ‘is necessarily connected to
relationality, the capacity to and necessity of being in relation with others. If
vulnerability is of ethical and political import it is because it is the condition
The speciﬁc dimension of vulnerability I wish to draw attention to here
is linked to what Gilson calls the radical diﬀerence and ambiguity of
vulnerability. If vulnerability confronts us with a situated and yet ambiva-
lent experience, and if interdependency starts with the recognition of the
precariousness of our lives, what guarantees the acknowledgment of such
intrinsic alterity as well as of its relational ground? It appears that vulner-
ability must entail the acknowledgement of the dignity of another’saﬀec-
tive and situated experience in the ﬁrstplace.Thismeans,however,that
vulnerability can be potentially reconciled with a view of autonomy that is
centred on the intrinsic signiﬁcance of subjective experience. With regard
to autonomy, however, Gilson tends to assimilate it to the notion of
independence, arguing that such a concept cannot do justice to the com-
plexity of vulnerability, which rather requires ‘the ability to enter into
formative relations’(Gilson 2018, 240), hence to partake in a range of
relations that comprise ﬂourishing. However, in my view, to reconcile
vulnerability and autonomy does not mean to defend the concept of an
invulnerable subject that is independent from others. Quite the contrary,
the problem consists in examining whether vulnerability depends on the
recognition that another experiential standpoint is meaningful and worthy
of respect in itself. If this is the case, vulnerability calls for an attitude of
empathy and respect that centres on the dignity to which individuals are
entitled to for their own sake. This view can be fundamental to challenge
forms of epistemic injustice characterised by misrepresentation and mis-
recognition of vulnerable experiences, for example, when individuals are
stereotyped and misrecognised because of the apparent irrationality of
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 13
To illustrate this, I would like to examine a speciﬁc situation where
individual agency seems inhibited, as in the OCD spectrum, which is
normally described as a behavioural symptom whereby ‘the individual
feels driven to perform repetitive behaviours in response to an obsession
or according to rules that must be applied rigidly’(DSM-5 2013, 80). OCD
used to be classiﬁed as a form of anxiety, although it is currently listed in
the DSM 5 as a ‘neurodevelopmental disorder’, including forms of beha-
viour as diﬀerent as hoarding, skin picking and hair pulling. Standard
deﬁnitions assume that OCD displays a vicious cycle between obsessionality
(the occurrence of obsessive thoughts) and compulsivity (the urge to repeat
a course of action despite repeated eﬀorts not to do it). From this point of
view, OCD represents a compelling case for philosophers, for it raises
questions related to free will and responsibility.
To be sure, one of the well-established features of the phenomenology of
OCD is a heightened sense of responsibility. Compulsive agents usually
perceive themselves as facing a threat, which they do not have the power to
avert, unless they engage in certain repetitive actions that can restore
a sense of normality (e.g. if they do not check the lock again and again,
they will be robbed; if they do not wash their hands over and over, they will
get sick etc.). Another well-documented aspect is the sense of not getting
the action ‘just right’(e.g. not closing the door well enough), which is often
considered a symptom of perfectionism or control. A well-known miscon-
ception about OCD is that it is just a form of ill-weakness, or that it
involves a deﬁciency of choice in acting. In this regard, many philosophical
accounts of OCD have drawn attention to the type of thoughts and patterns
of thought that accompany obsessive-compulsive behaviour in an attempt
to show that the lack of agency perceived by OCD patients is actually
compatible with free will. In this regard, Szalai has provided an interesting
argument, according to which:
The agent takes this threat as a reason to act: she strives to eliminate the
threat and, though that, the overwhelming thought itself. The agent is aware
of acting for these reasons: if asked why she performed the compulsive act,
she will reply something like ‘So that my mother does not die’or ‘Because
those thoughts drive me crazy, I have to get rid of them’. (Szalai 2016, 52)
The problem with this view is that it fails to take into consideration that
feeling of being unable to do otherwise that is distinctive of OCD patients.
Szalai’s hypothesis rests on the assumption that OCD patients are able to
acknowledge the irrationality of their beliefs. This would indicate that
patients are responsive to evidence, namely they are capable of gauging
the likelihood of their perceived threats and adjust their beliefs accordingly.
Szalai is certainly right in arguing that OCD patients are responsive and
sensitive to reasons, but this does not mean there is a causal relation
14 E. MAGRÌ
between the fact that they are in principle able to acknowledge the irration-
ality of their beliefs and their capacity to take actions against those very
beliefs. Indeed, the missing element in Szalai’s analysis is the threat per-
ceived by the patient, which remains irrational despite its being deﬁned as
a reason to act. While Szalai’s approach is helpful in uncovering the
dimension of agency in the OCD spectrum, the motivational and disposi-
tional aspects of OCD would deserve further attention. In this regard,
adiﬀerent approach to the problem can be found in von Gebsattel’s
phenomenological account of compulsive behaviour.
Von Gebsattel was a senior member of that circle of phenomenological
psychopathologists that included Ludwig Binswanger, Eugène Minkowski,
and Erwin Straus.
He got his doctorate in Philosophy with a dissertation
on the irradiation of feelings under the supervision of Theodor Lipps,
before receiving psychoanalytic training and earning a doctorate in medi-
cine. While von Gebsattel’s approach to psychotherapy is scientiﬁcin
nature, he also maintained that the patient–doctor relationship requires
a humanitarian foundation. In particular, he proposed a dialectical model
that centres on the recognition that patient and doctor need to engage in
a communicative partnership where they are both equal, despite the asym-
metry of their roles (‘a community of partners between irreplaceable per-
sons’, as in Welie 1995, 71).
Von Gebsattel’s seminal paper dedicated to the world of the anankastic
(namely, compulsive behaviour, from the Greek ‘ananke’, meaning neces-
sity) provides fundamental insights into the life-world of OCD patients. For
a start, von Gebsattel does not consider emotional states as reasons to act,
but as emotional spaces that can be described in terms of the salient
features perceived by the patient within her world-horizon. In doing so,
Von Gebsattel (1958, 176) draws attention to the fact that the compulsive
‘suﬀers from a disturbance in the capacity to act, which is revealed espe-
cially as an impediment to beginning something new and completing
something’. The crucial element concerns the diﬀerence between complete
and incomplete actions. ‘We see that an action can be completely executed,
in the sense that it has served to implement a purpose, without being
completed –or indeed, having occurred at all –in terms of its life-
historical meaning’(Von Gebsattel 1958, 177).
The compulsive patient spends signiﬁcant amounts of time washing her
hands or checking the lock but fails to perceive that her course of action is
complete despite having executed it accurately. The aspect highlighted by
von Gebsattel can be recast in terms of the Aristotelian distinction between
telic and atelic actions. Atelic actions do not have a terminal point: walking,
playing an instrument, listening to music are all examples of activities that
are actualised as soon as they begin. This is not true of telic actions, which
can be described as events that occur at a speciﬁc time, e.g. eating an apple
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 15
or washing hands. Compulsive symptoms can be understood in terms of
a fundamental diﬃculty to deal with those actions that, despite being telic,
are constitutive of atelic processes. While the non-compulsive person goes
through her daily routine of going to the toilet, having breakfast and going
out without experiencing these actions as repetitions, the anankastic person
feels that she can never accomplish the sorts of actions she is engaging in
because they occur within activities that are not complete. By repeating the
same course of action, the compulsive individual conjures up a ritual in the
eﬀort to achieve a sense of completion that she cannot obtain from the
mere execution of daily actions. She ﬁxates on irrelevant parts or particulars
of the sequence to the point that her actions become devoid of any goal:
‘accuracy does not enter for the sake of attaining some purpose that
matters, but has become an end in itself and has the characteristic features
of the unmotivated, the reﬂexive, the formal, the sterile, and the rigid’(Von
Gebsattel 1958, 180).
This suggests that, even when compulsive patients are able to self-ascribe
their reasons to act and to take responsibility for their actions and beliefs,
they are not yet addressing the processes and activities that threaten them,
and that they perceive as unsafe and unstable. The rigidity experienced by
compulsive patients is a symptom of a more fundamental lack of trust in
the everyday world. As De Haan, Rietveld, and Denys (2013, 12) put it: ‘The
problem with patients with OCD is that they want to attain absolute
certainty whereas the experience of certainty can never be absolute, but
will always depend on basic trust’. It appears that the aﬀective world of the
compulsive exhibits the four aspects of vulnerability described by Gilson.
Most notably, the aﬀective horizon of the compulsive manifests an irredu-
cible alterity, which is characterised by the diﬃculty to integrate everyday
actions within a broader picture of one’s own existence. This provides
adiﬀerent starting point for the understanding of OCD: before interrogat-
ing whether compulsive agents can take responsibility for their actions and
whether they can divert a course of action by changing their beliefs, it is
essential to ascertain why those very beliefs cannot be trusted by the patient
in the ﬁrst place, and how this phenomenon crucially aﬀects their disposi-
tion to the world.
Von Gebsattel’s approach provides a signiﬁcant example of what it
means to practise empathy in a way that is informed by respect for
another’s experiential and vulnerable standpoint. Establishing an empa-
thetic relation to others means to be directed to another’s situated experi-
ence as a nucleus of experience that is worthy of discernment even when it
conﬂicts radically with our own worldview. By appreciating the alterity of
the other's experience, we do not however refrain from comprehending it,
but rather we respect the intrinsic quality of their aﬀective dispositions. In
empathising with others, one is primarily oriented to apperceive their
16 E. MAGRÌ
world-directedness, thereby developing hermeneutic abilities that seek to
explicate the others’aﬀects and emotions. While such abilities develop over
time, they are primarily inspired by an attitude of recognition respect. This
means that empathy is not driven by any presumptions regarding the
other’s condition or their agency. On the contrary, by means of empathy,
we seek to explicate another’saﬀective horizon by engaging with them
responsibly. Von Gebsattel’s analysis of the compulsive sheds light on
what it takes to apperceive the other’s autonomous position-taking within
their aﬀective dimension, thereby contributing to a positive account of the
relation between autonomy and vulnerability. His investigation shows that
empathy provides the ground to reconcile the autonomy of the individual
standpoint with the vulnerability that is intrinsic to aﬀective experiences.
This brings forth an attitude of response that involves attentiveness, sensi-
tivity, and comprehension. Such a view appears particularly relevant when
it comes to articulating the phenomenology of interdependency put for-
ward by vulnerability, for it shows that epistemic dignity is paramount for
any account of intersubjective relationality.
I have argued that the moral signiﬁcance of empathy lies in the feeling of
respect that makes another’s experiential standpoint worthy of attention and
discernment. While I agree with Battaly that empathy is not a virtue but
a capacity that is fundamental for moral behaviour, I suggest that the moral
motivation that characterises empathy is not the caring impulse, but respect.
As such, empathy is a form of second-person relation that opens up the realm
of interpersonal relatedness. Empathy originates in the appraisal of another’s
experience as worthy of attention in itself, whether or not I intend to act for the
other’s good. Accordingly, I suggested that Darwall’s account of recognition
respect is compatible with a phenomenological approach to empathy in that
recognition respect can be considered as the feeling that ascribes epistemic
dignity to another’s experiential standpoint. In my view, empathy and respect
share a common ground, for their both address another’s experiential stand-
point for its own sake while being rooted in the sphere of aﬀectivity. Using
Darwall’s model of second-person authority, I have shown that empathy is not
something that we owe to others regardless of the circumstances, but rather
a dispositional dimension that holds others capable of engaging in the
empathic response in concrete encounters. In this sense, I maintain that
recognition respect, rather than appraisal respect, is fundamental for empathy
to grow and further develop into more developed forms of moral behaviour.
Finally, I suggested that this view of empathy and respect provides
a fertile terrain to reconcile vulnerability and autonomy. Most notably,
my view is that vulnerability can be understood as a relational disposition
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 17
that is, however, tied to the recognition that other aﬀective experiences are
worthy of attention and discernment in themselves, even when personal
agency seems inhibited, as it appears prima facie in OCD symptoms.
Drawing on von Gebsattel’s analysis of OCD cases, I have shown in what
sense empathy primarily consists in the disposition to uncover another’s
world-directedness as a meaningful and autonomous standpoint without
any presumptions regarding the other’s life, values or agency. In this sense,
empathy provides a response to vulnerability that does not oppose or
preclude the appraisal of autonomy. Admittedly, I have only sketched
here a reconciliation of vulnerability and autonomy, which represents a
direct consequence of the account of empathy and respect I defended. On
my view, the relation between empathy and respect suggests that it is
possible to vindicate the autonomy of subjective experience within the
context of vulnerability without reducing the former to the quest for
independency or the latter to a form of frailty and neediness.
1. For the relation between respect and inclinations, see also Crowther 1992.
Clearly, this perspective posits signiﬁcant issues I cannot here expand upon.
For example, must individuals always be respected? For some, individuals
forfeit respect by committing crimes such as murders and genocides. For
others –myself included –murderers, rapists and torturers deserve condem-
nation and punishment, but they still ought to be treated with respect. It goes
without saying that this problem is linked to pressing social and political
issues related to the law and punishment I cannot address here. Another
signiﬁcant issue concerns what we mean by ‘others’and whether the Kantian
view of ‘persons’is suﬃcient to account for non-human beings (for
a discussion see Korsgaard 2004).
2. For a diﬀerent view, see Kriegel 2017.
3. Interestingly, Darwall diﬀerentiates between empathy, sympathy and care,
but he does not explore the relation between empathy and respect. One
reason for that is that Darwall’s view of empathy is quite broad, including
a range of diﬀerent experiences (contagion, simulation, projection, proto-
sympathetic empathy), which make empathy’s contribution to ethics less
relevant than that of sympathy, which Darwall considers a primitive concern
for oneself and for others. Ultimately, for Darwall, empathy involves sharing
another’s mental state from their standpoint, and it is compatible with several
forms of simulation as well as with lack of concern (Darwall 1998).
4. A second-personal reason rests, as Darwall (2006,8) has it, ‘on the possibility
of the reason’s being addressed person-to-person’. Reasons addressed or
presupposed are not agent-neutral and they would not exist without a -
situated second-personal relation. Still, mutual accountability is a claim that
allows discretionary authority. It follows that respect, like empathy, is
a possibility whose enactment depends on the individual capacity to develop
a stance to others’situation.
5. For a historical account, see Spiegelberg 1972.
18 E. MAGRÌ
The completion of this paper was supported by the Centre for Ethics in Public Life
(CEPL) at UCD and the Irish Research Council. I wish to thank all the participants
in the workshop ‘Empathy, Vulnerability, and Illness’, hosted by CEPL in
November 2018, for a very constructive and stimulating conversation. Many thanks
to Rowland Stout, Danielle Petherbridge and Ian Kidd for making that event
possible in the ﬁrst place, and to two anonymous referees for further comments
on a previous draft of this article. I am also very thankful to Niall Keane for his
corrections and helpful feedback.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
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