In Perception, Empathy, and Judgment Arne Johan Vetlesen focuses
on the indispensable role of emotion, especially the faculty of
empathy, in morality. He contends that moral conduct is severely
threatened once empathy is prevented from taking part in an
interplay with cognitive faculties (such as abstraction or
imagination) in acts of moral perception and judgment. Drawing on
developmental psychology, especially British "object relations"
theory, to illuminate the nature and functioning of empathy,
Vetlesen shows how moral performance is constituted by a sequence
involving perception, judgment, and action, with an interplay
between the agent's emotional (empathic) and cognitive faculties
occurring at each stage.
In the powerful tradition from Kant to present-day theorists
such as Kohlberg, Rawls, and Habermas, reason is privileged over
feeling and judgment over perception, in such a way that basic
philosophical questions remain unasked. Vetlesen focuses our
attention on these questions and challenges the long-standing
assertion that emotions are damaging to moral response. In the
final chapter he relates his argument to recent feminist critiques
that have also castigated moral theorists in the Kantian tradition
for their refusal to recognize a role for emotion in morality.
While the book's argument is philosophical, its method and scope
are interdisciplinary. In addition to critiques of such
philosophers as Arendt, MacIntyre, and Habermas, it contains
discussions of specific historical, ideological, and sociological
factors that may cause "numbing"--selective or broad-ranging,
pathological insensitivity--in humans. The Nazis' mass killing of
Jews is studied to illuminate these and other relevant empirical
aspects of large-scale immoral action.
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