Empathy and Polarization

“You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost an entire life they built together when the storm came to town.”

-Barack Obama,  2006

Empathy and Polarization

What is it?  

In today’s sociopolitical environment, we seem to be standing at a crossroads: Deeply divisive political discourse on the one hand, and technological advancements that shield us from interacting with anyone we choose not to on the other. There is little need to extend empathy or understanding to those with whom we disagree or feel are not on our side. And it is all too easy to find ourselves deeply polarized from, and dangerously hostile toward, one another.

Polarization is a complex phenomenon, often characterized by a deep ideological divide and significant conflict in attitudes between people. The most important aspects of polarization for this project, however, are what Sinnott-Armstrong (forthcoming) calls “antagonism” and “incivility” (11). According to Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘antagonism’ designates a slew of feelings including “hatred, disdain, fear, or other negative emotions” (11). And as he puts it, “[a]ntagonism is about how people feel, but these feelings often get expressed in public speech” (11). This expression is characterized by incivility, or “[n]egative speech” directed at others from whom one is polarized. Incivility generates more negative feelings, which in turn generate more uncivil speech, which fuels the original negative feelings. In this way, “[a]ntagonism and incivility reinforce each other in a vicious circle” (11). The practical consequences of these negative feelings and speech can be devastating. It may be practically impossible for people to cooperate with one another toward common goals, or even simply to have productive and polite engagements and discussions with one another.

The question naturally arises: What could help to undermine antagonism and other hostile feelings associated with polarization, and thereby promote more productive and respectful engagements between polarized people? The primary aim of this project is to determine the extent to which empathy (of some kind) may serve this function.


Empathy is often invoked as a reliable route to bringing people together across various ideological, political, social, and cultural divides. Obama’s famous call for a fix to the “empathy deficit” in the U.S. is a good example of such an invocation. Unlike Obama’s call for empathy for victims, however, we are interested in the role that empathy for opponents may play in undermining polarization.

Our hypothesis is that empathy (of some kind) may contribute to undermining antagonism and incivility, and as a result, polarization. It is motivated by the idea that empathy may provide one with a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the target’s perspective and experience. When people are polarized from one another they plausibly lack such understanding and appreciation. They may assume that the other is irrationally attached to her position or that she is otherwise mistaken with respect to the “fact” or issue in question. Empathy may therefore help to bridge the gap in understanding and appreciation that exists between polarized people. And in so doing, it may facilitate more productive and respectful interactions regarding difficult issues, such as those that arise in political contexts.


For this project, we conduct a literature review of extant philosophical and psychological literature on empathy and polarization. Again, the aspects of polarization that we are most interested in are antagonism and incivility. The goal of this literature review is thus to provide a map of extant research that bears on this question regarding empathy’s role, or potential role, in undermining antagonism and other hostile feelings associated with polarization.

Importantly, there is little consensus amongst philosophers and psychologists about what empathy is, or what phenomenon the term ‘empathy’ designates. There are different types of empathy and each type may have different benefits or shortcomings with respect to undermining feelings of antagonism and incivility associated with polarization. Empathy may be roughly differentiated into three different types: (1) affective – i.e. sharing the target’s emotions, or experiencing some relevantly similar emotions to those of the target; (2) cognitive – i.e. understanding another person’s state of mind or point of view; and (3) combination empathy – i.e. empathy with affective and/or cognitive components; and (4) motivational empathy — i.e. combination empathy with a care or concern component that motivates helping or otherwise appropriate behavior toward the target. We will not attempt to argue for the superiority of one understanding of empathy over any other. Instead, and in an effort to determine which type of empathy is most useful for the purposes of this project, we consider literature that bears on each type of empathy and its potential role in undermining feelings of antagonism and incivility associated with polarization separately.

Questions we aim to address include: (1) is it true that empathy of some kind is useful for undermining antagonism and other hostile feelings associated with polarization as well as increasing understanding across boundaries (political, ideological, social, cultural, etc.)? (2) What kind of empathy, if any, is most useful for this purpose, or what kinds of empathy are most useful for what purposes when it comes to undermining negative and hostile feelings associated with polarization? (3) If empathy of some kind(s) is useful for undermining negative and hostile feelings associated with polarization, what gets in the way of people’s empathizing with one another in these cases?


Hannah Read is a student in the Philosophy PhD program at Duke. She works primarily in the areas of metaethics and moral psychology. She is particularly interested in moral disagreement and the way that strong emotions associated with moral issues often make it difficult (sometimes even practically impossible) to resolve such disagreements. Her current work focuses on empathy as a tool for bringing people together across political, social, cultural, or ideological divides by helping them relate to one another.

Kyra Exterovich-Rubin is a third-year undergraduate student studying public policy and philosophy. She hails from Wisconsin, where she first became concerned with empathetic political dialogue. Her interest in empathy and polarization extend into her interest in conflict resolution. She explored this issue in the summer of 2017 through fieldwork in both the Balkans and in Israel-Palestine. Through the work of this sub-project, she is excited to better understand the sociological forces that stoke political polarization and prevent bipartisan cooperation.

Sarah Sculco is an undergraduate majoring in philosophy at Duke. Her primary interests are moral and political philosophy. She is very glad to be working with Hannah Read on the empathy and polarization sub-project. Questions about empathy and its limits have always been interesting to her, and she is excited to contribute to work in this field. Previously, she has worked as an Advocate for Children at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. The educational curriculum (informed by philosophical and psychological literature) we hope to develop falls directly in line with Sarah’s goals; in the future, she would like to work at the intersection of philosophy and public policy.