The empathy dilemma: democratic deliberation, epistemic injustice and the problem of empathetic imagination

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One of the challenges facing complex democratic societies marked by deep normative disagreements and differences along lines of race, gender, sexuality, culture and religion is how the perspectives of diverse individuals and social groups can be made effectively present in the deliberative process. In response to this challenge, a number of political theorists have argued that empathetic perspective-taking is critical for just democratic deliberation, and that a well-functioning democracy requires the cultivation in citizens of empathic skills and virtues. In this paper, we begin by distinguishing several kinds of imaginative projection and corresponding kinds of empathy. On the basis of this analysis, we suggest that genuine empathetic perspective-taking, especially across gendered, racial and embodied differences, is more challenging than is often assumed in the literature. This poses a dilemma for theorists who place great store on the role of empathetic imagination to overcome the challenges of democratic deliberation. On the one hand, placing responsibilities for empathetic perspective-taking primarily on the socially privileged raises risks of inaccurate and inappropriate projection. On the other hand, mitigating the risks of projection by calling on the socially marginalised to articulate their experiences and feelings in a way that can engage the imagination of the socially privileged, risks perpetuating epistemic injustice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)365-389
Number of pages25
JournalRes Publica
Issue number2
Early online date9 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


  • Deliberative democracy
  • Empathy
  • Epistemic injustice


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