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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 387-409

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The Changing Place of Empathy
in Welfare Economics

Philippe Fontaine

It is somewhat puzzling that economists, so fond of Adam Smith and aware of his notion of sympathy—taken as concern for the welfare of others—have not bothered much with the sister concept of empathy—here, the capacity to imagine oneself in the position of someone else—which, together with repeated social interactions, forms the basis of sympathy in Smith's analysis of moral sentiments (Fontaine 2000). The main reason for such neglect is that economists have long conflated the two notions and used the terms associated with them in an ambiguous way. For instance, Kenneth Arrow (1974, 25) defined sympathy as “feeling oneself to be in the other one's place.” Harvey Leibenstein (1976, 192), on the other hand, mentioned the notion of “empathy utility” to refer to the “satisfaction received from an income transfer spent on someone else.” More recently, however, Ken Binmore (1994, 56) has proposed that economists use empathy instead of sympathy when referring to the imagined change of positions.1 Yet, he blurs the distinction between the [End Page 387] two notions when he contrasts “sympathetic identification,” the process whereby “one individual so successfully imagines himself into the shoes of another that he no longer fully distinguishes his interests from the person with whom he identifies” (55), and “empathetic identification,” which “stops short of the point where we supposedly cease to separate our interests from those with whom we identify” (56). It is not so much two modes of identification that Binmore actually describes as two distinct uses of empathy.

In an earlier paper (Fontaine 1997) I have argued that a distinction should be made between two forms of empathy: (1) the imagined change of objective circumstances with another—partial empathetic identification; and (2) the imagined change of objective circumstances and subjective features with another—complete empathetic identification. Subsequently, this distinction was shown to shed light on the way economists regarded the role of identification in one's reading of another's intentions and acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since the twentieth century, however, economists have tended to leave aside the use of empathy for gathering information about another's intentions and acts, concentrating instead on its role as a mere instrument of interpersonal comparisons of utility. Here it is not my intention to discuss in any detail the much-debated question of the possibility of such comparisons (see Hausman 1995) or, more generally, that question's implications for normative economics (see Mongin and d'Aspremont 1998); instead, I would like to show, with the help of selected examples, how the debate over interpersonal comparisons since 1950 has led to the permeation of welfare economics by the empathy notion. An overview of the literature reveals two main viewpoints. In the first of these, the imagined change of positions is associated with partial empathetic identification. By restricting empathy to an imagined change of circumstances with another, where the empathizer keeps his or her personal preferences all along, some welfare economists have proposed theories of social choice that preserve preference-based personal identity but leave room for Pareto inferior results.2 In the second, the imagined change of [End Page 388] positions amounts to complete empathetic identification. By allowing for the extension of the empathy process to the empathizee's subjective features, other welfare economists have developed theories of social choice that produce stronger results but nonetheless rest on shakier grounds because they blur the empathizer's personal identity.3 The above complications testify to the real difficulty associated with the attempt to arrive at a social preference ordering on the basis of individual preference orderings.

Before explaining how the empathy concept has been used by welfare economists in the context of interpersonal comparisons, putting special emphasis on the periodic to-ings and fro-ings between partial empathetic identification and complete empathetic identification, it may be useful to comment briefly on the way psychologists describe empathy, since it is an essentially psychological concept and since...


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