Cover image for Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation By Michael E. Morrell

Empathy and Democracy

Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation

Michael E. Morrell


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03659-5

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232 pages
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Empathy and Democracy

Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation

Michael E. Morrell

Empathy and Democracy challenges those who would exclude empathy from democracy—and even those who would include it as a ‘feeling.’ Bringing empirical studies and a highly developed understanding of empathy as a ‘process’ to bear on the theory of deliberative democracy, Michael Morrell moves beyond critique to offer a positive theory of how affect and reason combine in deliberation. This book is a significant contribution to democratic theory that will be useful not only to political theorists but also to anyone with an interest in deliberative democracy and empathy.”


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Democracy harbors within it fundamental tensions between the ideal of giving everyone equal consideration and the reality of having to make legitimate, binding collective decisions. Democracies have granted political rights to more groups of people, but formal rights have not always guaranteed equal consideration or democratic legitimacy.

It is Michael Morrell’s argument in this book that empathy plays a crucial role in enabling democratic deliberation to function the way it should. Drawing on empirical studies of empathy, including his own, Morrell offers a “process model of empathy” that incorporates both affect and cognition. He shows how this model can help democratic theorists who emphasize the importance of deliberation answer their critics.

Empathy and Democracy challenges those who would exclude empathy from democracy—and even those who would include it as a ‘feeling.’ Bringing empirical studies and a highly developed understanding of empathy as a ‘process’ to bear on the theory of deliberative democracy, Michael Morrell moves beyond critique to offer a positive theory of how affect and reason combine in deliberation. This book is a significant contribution to democratic theory that will be useful not only to political theorists but also to anyone with an interest in deliberative democracy and empathy.”
“Impressive for its close integration of political theory and research in political psychology, Morrell’s book sets a very high standard for analysis in a field of growing importance.”
Empathy and Democracy demonstrates the importance of empathy in the deliberative practices that make democratic government legitimate. Deftly interweaving empirical research on the role of empathy in deliberation with a normative theory of democratic legitimacy, Morrell delivers a thoroughly researched, carefully argued book that will significantly revise conventional notions of how democratic deliberation ought to be conducted. It is valuable not only for the conceptual clarification it provides, but also for the way that it ties normative theorizing about democratic deliberation and legitimacy to empirically verifiable facts about human psychology and patterns of social interaction.”
“How can democracy’s promise of equality for all be more fully realized? How can democratic citizens become more attentive to others? These are only some of the questions that Michael E. Morrell poses in his fascinating book Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation, a complex text worthy of close reading that intervenes to correct an oversight in deliberative theory and offers a ‘new theoretical statement.’”

Michael E. Morrell is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.

The Democratic Promise

There is a promise inherent in democracy: before a society makes decisions that it will use its collective power to enforce, it will give equal consideration to everyone in the community. The development of collective decision-making institutions that take into consideration a wider range of interests did not begin with the rise of modern democracies. Ancient Athens, the ancient republics of India (Thapar 1966, 50–54), the Roman Republic, the Norse ting, and the Iroquois Confederation, to name some examples, represent moments in history where the demarcation of those who could have a voice in collective decisions, and thus demand equal consideration, expanded beyond the limits that existed before, and in most cases, after these moments. Yet human history is also replete with examples of societies in which some members of the community counted more than others. A variety of factors—what religion one practices, who one’s parents are, what color one’s skin is, how one acts, what gender one is, the way one speaks, how effective one’s weapons are—have in different times and different places been the criteria by which societies have counted some and discounted others. This perhaps explains the absence of democratic societies through much of history; there have usually been those in human communities who, for various reasons, have been unable to accept the idea that all members of the community deserve equal consideration.

Yet while even many “democratic” societies have built themselves on foundations that excluded the consideration of some, the idea of democracy points to the possibility that society can, at the very least, minimize these exclusions. In the last several centuries, there has been a movement toward more equal consideration in democratic societies that has consisted primarily in the extension to ever larger proportions of the population of formal political rights such as the franchise, free speech, and the right to run for political office. While some countries still restrict the political rights of some citizens, the elimination of restrictions based upon race, ethnicity, economic standing, social status, religion, gender, and intelligence has brought about near universal suffrage in many democracies throughout the world. As John Stuart Mill explains, there is an inherent connection between the extension of the franchise and equal consideration:

Rulers and ruling classes are under a necessity of considering the interests and wishes of those who have the suffrage; but of those who are excluded, it is in their option whether they will do so or not; and however honestly disposed, they are in general too fully occupied with things which they must attend to, to have much room in their thoughts for anything which they can with impunity disregard. No arrangement of the suffrage, therefore, can be permanently satisfactory, in which any person or class is peremptorily excluded; in which the electoral privilege is not open to all persons of full age who desire to obtain it. ([1861] 1991, 329–30; emphasis in original)

Despite some of his elitist tendencies (see Mill [1861] 1991, 330–33, 336), Mill recognizes that rulers are unlikely to give equal consideration to all citizens unless there is nearly universal suffrage, and yet equal voting rights is not sufficient. Today’s democracies are still struggling to fulfill democracy’s promise of equal consideration, and the claim I will defend is that they can do so most fully by giving empathy a central role in democratic decision-making. Without empathy, large modern societies cannot give citizens the kind of equal consideration necessary to make democratic decisions legitimate. To demonstrate why this is the case, I draw upon a unique combination of theoretical positions regarding democracy and empathy and empirical research on the effects of empathy and the role of emotions in politics, including some of my own experimental studies. Before laying out these arguments, I want to place my contention in context by looking at how various theorists of democracy have tried to embody democracy’s promise to give equal consideration to all.

Equal Consideration and Collective Decision-Making: Responses in Democratic Theory

One of the recurrent themes in democratic theory has been the attempt to explain how a democracy can give citizens equal consideration while still allowing the community to make collective decisions that it then has the coercive power to enforce, even on those whose considerations the community has chosen to downplay or reject. Democracy promises that all citizens will the opportunity to voice to their opinions on issues of importance to the community, and yet, in the end, someone or some group must decide what to do regarding each issue. Only on rare occasions will all citizens, or even a large number of them, agree with the final decision. While the democratic process may grant all citizens equal consideration in some form, the final decision will inevitably discount or ignore some members of society. The tension between equal consideration and the need for collective decision-making is certainly not the only lens through which scholars have examined democracy, but I have chosen to focus on it because I believe that this approach will give us a distinctive perspective that will reveal the unique importance of empathy to democracy.

Theories of democracy developed before the late nineteenth century—republicanism, liberalism, and utilitarianism—deal with the tension between equal consideration and collective decision-making by linking individuals and the community in various ways. Republicans eliminate the tension by recasting equal consideration in terms of the common good. They delineate between private interests, the sum of which Jean-Jacques Rousseau calls the “will of all,” and the public interest, Rousseau’s “general will” ([1762] 1988, 95, 100–101). Each citizen has an equal voice, but if some disagree with the final decision, they have either misperceived the common good or followed their own private interest. As Marsilius of Padua expresses it, while some may disagree “with the common decision through singular malice or ignorance,” we should not allow such “unreasonable protest or opposition” to prevent the community from pursuing the common benefit ([1324] 1956). The community can legitimately enforce the decision because it is for the benefit of all, even those who disagree. Liberals eliminate the tension between equal consideration and collective decision-making by positing an original moment of unanimous consent to abide by majority rule in all subsequent decisions, and by circumscribing those decisions to a public sphere defined by law and a private sphere of individual rights. The political community comes into being only when all individuals consent to form it, and at this moment equal consideration and collective decision-making coincide because there is a consensus to give up some individual rights in order to gain the security afforded by joining together (Locke [1764] 1967, 348–49). For subsequent collective decisions, the political community “should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one Body, one Community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority” (348–49; emphasis in original). The majority has the power to enforce collective decisions without violating equal consideration because all unanimously agreed that it should have such power at the moment they formed the community. To further buttress equal consideration, liberals (1) guarantee formal political rights so that all citizens have equal avenues to influence the community’s decisions, and (2) limit collective decision-making to the public sphere defined by a constitution and the existence of individual natural rights. Utilitarians also circumscribe the proper scope of government action, but instead of basing this upon “natural” individual rights, they rely upon the principle of utility. They build equal consideration into democracy by requiring that all collective decisions follow the principle of utility by maximizing collective happiness defined in terms of all individuals’ pleasures and pains equally. Democracy is the form of collective decision-making most likely to result in legislation that will meet the utility principle, at least in the most advanced societies, because, as Mill argues in the passage I have just quoted, rulers will only take into consideration those who can vote. While this might appear to allow the rulers very broad powers as long as everyone is eligible to vote, utilitarians maintain that the principle of utility requires that rulers limit legislation only to those cases that will increase collective happiness. They define the very limits of majority rule by requiring that all decisions equally consider the happiness of all, even those who might be in the minority.

Despite their differences, republicanism, liberalism, and utilitarianism give a warrant for the argument that we ought to extend formal political rights to all citizens within a society. Yet the rise of mass democracies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, despite the increasing extension of formal political rights to ever larger numbers of citizens, led some thinkers to question previous theories of democracy. As social scientists began to examine the ways in which democratic countries actually functioned, elitist theorists began to argue that democracy could not solve the tension between equal consideration and collective decision-making in the ways put forth by the classical theories of democracy. Though they disagree on several points, writers such as Gaetano Mosca (1939), Robert Michels ([1911] 1962), Vilfredo Pareto ([1916] 1935), and Joseph Schumpeter ([1942] 1976) contend in various ways that societies, even those which are ostensibly democratic, will inevitably tend to serve the interests of the leaders or rulers rather than give equal consideration to all. As Mosca summarizes, even if citizens have the vote, the inescapable need to make collective decisions will overwhelm equal consideration and allow minorities to dominate: “If his vote is to have any efficacy at all, therefore, each voter is forced to limit his choice to a very narrow field, in other words to a choice among the two or three persons who have some chance of succeeding; and only the ones who have any chance of succeeding are those whose candidacies are championed by groups, by committees, by organized minorities” (1939, 154–55). Not only will the need to make collective decisions in large societies predictably lead to the concentration of power in small groups, democracies cannot function as previous theorists expected. Schumpeter ([1942] 1976) accuses the supporters of the classical theories of democracy of several errors: they often place great weight on the common good, which he believes does not really exist; they conceptualize democracy as involving the implementation of the will of the people, which also does not exist; and they are largely inaccurate in their characterization of democratic citizens, who tend to be ignorant and easily manipulated by political elites. Realistically, we must recognize that the best way to think of democracy is as a free competition among political elites for power by winning citizens’ free votes. From an elitist perspective, the democratic promise of equal consideration reduces to an equal and free choice of rulers from a limited number of groups of powerful political minorities. Democratic theory since the middle of the twentieth century has consisted largely in attempts to develop an explanation of democracy’s ability to allow both equal consideration and legitimate collective decisions that is less minimalist than that found in elitist theorists.

Robert Dahl (1956, 1961, 1989) developed a pluralist model of democracy that, while acknowledging that political elites are important to democracy, maintains that democracy consists of a constant interplay of various groups of interests all vying for attention from the government. The government mediates and adjudicates between the demands of these various groups in the hopes of appeasing enough of them to maintain political power, but this balancing act occurs within a consensus set by certain underlying values that provide the boundaries within which political life functions, resulting in what Dahl calls a “polyarchy.” Dahl’s conceptualization of polyarchy has evolved over time, but in his more recent work he specifically addresses the relationship between equal consideration and collective decision-making (1989, 295–308). Political equality and the democratic process are not intrinsically good but are important because they “are the most reliable means for protecting and advancing the good and interests of all the persons subject to collective decisions” (322). Yet the complexity of the modern nation-state precludes a return to a small assembly form of government such as Rousseau advocated. The only practical option is a democratic process that incorporates the institutions of polyarchy: control of government decisions by elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, right to run for office, freedom of expression, availability of alternative information, and associational autonomy (see 221). While Dahl recognizes that these institutions alone will not guarantee equal consideration, he argues that they provide the best foundation from which societies can build toward it. Democracies must still focus on reducing “remediable causes of gross political inequalities” that prevent equal consideration in collective decisions (323). Polyarchy resolves the tension between collective decision-making and equal consideration by relying upon political processes and associational institutions that allow groups of citizens to influence policy decisions made by elected political elites, while always looking for ways to reduce the inequalities that allow some to have a disproportionately greater influence than others.

In contrast to pluralist theories, participatory democrats such as Carol Pateman (1970), C. B. Macpherson (1977), and Benjamin Barber (1984) respond to the elitist challenge by returning to theorists such as Mill and Rousseau in order to argue that mass democracies are simply not democratic enough. Citizens are uninformed and uninterested because they only rarely get the opportunity to participate directly in making the decisions that affect their lives, so the cure for the ills of democracy is to give citizens more effective opportunities for direct participation. Whereas Dahl generally regards a small-assembly democratic model as implausible in a nation-state, participatory democrats envision opening up various avenues of more direct engagement by citizens in democratic processes, either through more localized decision-making or the use of technology. As citizens participate more directly, the political system will give more equal consideration to all and the democratic process will educate citizens in ways that will incline them to take into account interests beyond their own private sphere, increasing the likelihood that collective decisions will serve the public good and thus be more legitimate. The answer to the tension between collective decision-making and equal consideration is to allow citizens to participate directly in decisions in ways that are both quantitatively and qualitatively superior to those found under current democratic institutions. Participatory democrats reinvigorated the idea of a direct, democratic society, but they also faced the difficulties of how to implement the direct democracy they envisioned in large, heterogeneous polities. As the twentieth century came to a close, political theorists searched for a new response to the challenge of how a democratic society can make legitimate collective decisions while simultaneously fulfilling the promise of giving equal consideration to all. They also grappled with the realities of large, heterogeneous societies, and yet aimed at retaining the democratic spirit of the participatory theorists. This new strand of democratic theory arose from what many describe as the deliberative turn.

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