Agency and Surprise: Learning at the Limits of Empathic-Imagination and Liberal Egalitarian Political Philosophy

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    Liberal egalitarians have been wary of being orientated by the empathetic understanding of others lest it offends the separateness of persons. This worry can be overcome by embracing second-order as well as first-order empathetic imagination, while doing so strengthens liberal-egalitarian claims to treat all with equal concern and respect. 'First-order' empathic-imagination, which accesses objective knowledge about a person's experience, is a necessary but not sufficient part of relating to others as agents. 'Second-order' empathic-imagination, encompassing a 'disposition of surprise' at an agent's ability to have a valued life contrary to what is normally and reasonably expected, should also be encouraged. This disposition accepts that making fundamental mistakes in empathic imagination is inevitable, but by being disposed to recognize these as mistakes a person is more open to understanding and identifying with 'disadvantaged others' who are agents. As a result, policy-makers and practitioners must recognize a potential tension between promoting social systems that redistribute resources and the image those defined as 'worse-off' hold of themselves. Such interventions need to be sensitive to the positive image those they view as disadvantaged may hold of themselves, while nevertheless recognizing their entitlement to resources to improve their condition.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)25 - 40
    Number of pages15
    JournalCritical review of international social and political philosophy
    Issue number1
    Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Mar 2008


    • political philosophy
    • social policy
    • agency
    • liberal egalitarianism
    • empathic imagination
    • disadvantage
    • rawls
    • separateness of persons


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