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Event: Conference: Empathy for the Evil: Social Science and the Empathy Dilemma

Event date June 27, 2024 - June 28, 2024
Submission deadline February 10, 2024
Location Toulouse, France
Host(s) Toulouse University – University of Provence
Event website/information For more info, send an email to

Empathy for the Evil: Social Science and the Empathy Dilemma

Conference, Toulouse June 27-28, 2024, in person only

Organized by Raphaël Künstler, Michel Le Du and David Romand

Toulouse University – University of Provence


Confirmed Keynote Speakers:

Laurent Jaffro

Laurie Paul

Paul Roth

Karsten Stueber

Unfortunately, the atrocities of current events compel us anew with the greatest urgency to confront the problem of evil. The conference intends to focus on the epistemic and moral difficulties that social scientists encounter in attempting to understand the behavior of people causing such evil, behavior that clearly seems to contradict our deepest moral commitments. Does understanding such behavior imply that we empathize with the perpetrators in a way that also undermines our moral commitments? Or asked differently, do our moral commitments stand in the way of properly understanding them?

In the context of studying the behavior of Holocaust perpetrators, Christopher Browning in his book, Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 in the Final Solution in Poland, articulates the problem in the following way

“Another possible objection to this kind of study concerns the degree of empathy for the perpetrators that is inherent in trying to understand them. Clearly, the writing of such a history requires the rejection of demonization. The policemen in the battalion who carried out the massacres and deportations, like the much smaller number who refused or evaded, were human beings. I must recognize that in the same situation, I could have been either a killer or an evader—both were human—if I want to understand and explain the behavior of both as best I can.”

Here Browning seems to presuppose that some kind of identification or empathy is necessary for understanding others.

The usual problem raised by Browning’s stance, for instance by Golghagen, is that one might refuse to acknowledge the possibility to identify oneself with the perpetrators. The debate at stake is not new: as early as the beginning of the 20th century, within the framework of his aesthetics, ethics, and sociology, Theodor Lippsproposed to distinguish between a “positive” and a “negative” empathy (positive/negative Einfühlung), according to whether the individual feels either in accordance or in discordance with what he or she empathizes with (Lipps, 1906,  1907). Recently, some authors such as Paul Bloom (2016) and Heidi Maibom (2023) have discussed what Laurie Paul (2021) calls “the paradox of empathy”, “which arises with the possibility of mental corruption through transformative change”. As she explains:

“Opening your mind to the experiences of others, even through artistic representation or virtual immersion, carries a risk. Becoming acquainted with the lived experience and cognitive point of view of another person can be powerful. Some corrupt ways of making sense of the world that others employ might be so seductive, so compelling, that they could draw you in.” (Paul 2021, 10)

We can therefore wonder whether empathy/ identification with perpetrators could make social scientist, as moral agents and citizens, eviler.

This raises a new problem for the methodological uses of empathy in the social sciences and, more generally, in our endeavor to understand others: before investigating whether to investigate a phenomenon, social scientists should consider whether their inquiry will not harm them morally, turning their self into a self that they do not want to become. Moreover, the question of whether and to what extent one is able to empathize with the evil echoes the polysemousness inherent to the term “empathy”, in particular the two chief approaches to empathy that are encountered concurrently in the literature: on the on hand, “narrow empathy” – the fact of “putting oneself in the shoes” of somebody else in order to subjectively share his or her emotional states  – and, on the other hand, “broad empathy” – the fact of subjectively projecting oneself onto others in order to have access to their inwardness in general (Matravers, 2017).

We call for papers addressing these and related questions. The papers could several aspects of this problem:

–       Should social scientist renounce to investigate behaviors, that, as moral persons, they regard as evil?

–       If political and social polarization, oppression, objectification results from a lack of empathy (either symmetrical or asymmetrical) between subjects, an empathical understanding of these phenomena implies to empathize with people devoid of empathy. Does this amount to a performative contradiction?

–       How exactly should we then think about the relation between a more identificatory first-personal approach in making sense of others and the theoretical third-personal explanatory stance within a social scientific approach to evil?

–       In the comprehensive approach to social sciences, artistic experience can be seen as a methodology to “put oneself in someone else’s shoe”. One can therefore wonder how we, as subjects of aesthetic experiments, could face the paradox of empathy; and what lessons could be drawn for the social sciences from our narrative confrontations with evil. Here suffice it to recall Martha Nussbaum’s views on  the educational value of fiction as a driving force behind one’s power of empathization (Nussbaum, 1997).

–       Can the empathy paradox account for the imaginative resistance phenomenon (as might be suggested in Stueber (2011))? And how can the imaginative resistance phenomenon hinder the social scientific inquiry?

We certainly welcome papers dealing directly with the issue of the Holocaust but think of the problem of evil more broadly as concerning the topic of extremism, terrorism, radicalization, and fanaticism, structural evils (such as gender, race, class oppression), to mention a few examples.

Submit abstracts, 300-500 words, prepared for anonymous review, by January 10th, 2024. The presentation at the conference should be 30 minutes. Notifications will be sent by February 10th, 2024.


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