The problem is old as man himself. In our democratic societies (which calls for another debate) there ought to be a fundamental morality. Mills called it a judeo-christian consensus, a set of common values, beliefs and moral precepts acceptable to all good people around which our public policies could be formed and acted upon. Liberals have long argued that such a shared morality is required for the smooth running of a society. Unfortunately pluralism means that common morality isn’t a possibility, there are simply too many models of what is good and bad to be in an all inclusive morality. One mans meat is another’s poison. So many turn to empathy. Instead of having an inflexible list of values, ten commandments style, why not use empathy as a tool to create an understanding which will serve as a common morality.
It is not so simple, for lots of reasons. Firstly, can one be sure empathy is truly possible? Can you stand in another man’s shoes without actually being that man? All else being equal how do I know my reactions to a certain set of circumstances are truly empathetic? Additionally is empathy truly an ideologically neutral value around which we can organise public life. Isn’t it more likely that empathy can be fine tuned to represent any argument?
Warped empathy is a far more likely outcome, I fear true empathy takes us into the realm of fairy tales.