Stephen Carter has lost his mind

Stephen Carter has lost his mind July 23, 2009

Fairness, in this case, requires us to note that Stephen Carter has often proven himself to be an intelligent and insightful commentator and also to note that it can be frighteningly easy for anyone to be caught off guard in the spontaneous give-and-take of a live interview and thus to find oneself saying something fairly stupid and ridiculous.

But fairness in this case also requires us to note that what Stephen Carter says here, in this interview with a former Christianity Today editor, is extravagantly stupid and veering past ridiculous into that murky realm where stupidity becomes indistinguishable from evil. This may be, in fact, the dumbest thing ever said by an otherwise intelligent person:

I respectfully disagree with President Obama that "empathy" is an
important characteristic in a judge. Had the President said what I
think he probably meant — "patience" or "a willingness to listen and
learn" — I would have agreed. Judge Sotomayor has both in spades. But
"empathy" is an empty standard. For example, a judge who always rules
in favor of investment banks might have empathy for Wall Streeters;
and, during the civil rights era, there were plenty of Southern
apologists who described the working-class whites of the South as the
truly oppressed in America.

It's not clear why Carter thinks Obama said "empathy" when he "probably meant … patience or a willingness to listen and learn." Those are also Good Things –  virtues that can arise from empathy, but neither of those is the same thing as empathy, so it's a bit odd for Carter to assume that Obama "probably meant" something other than what he actually said.

Odder still is the second part of Carter's comment, in which he argues that "empathy is an empty standard," because some people might interpret that as meaning empathy for one group but not for others, which is to say partial or fragmented empathy, which is to say selective empathy, which is to say sympathy for me, but not for thee, which is to say not having empathy at all but, rather, it's opposite.

And thus, because people like investment bankers or Southern apologists or deliberately obtuse Yale Law professors might misinterpret empathy to mean its opposite — to mean, instead, an utter lack of empathy for anyone not just like them, a universal antipathy — the word becomes an "empty standard" and the concept itself is apparently a bad idea that ought to be discarded.

Or something. Really I don't know if that's what Carter is trying to say here or not. I only know what he actually said, and what he actually said doesn't make a bit of sense.

To illustrate that, simply substitute the word "justice" or "fairness" into Carter's babble:

I respectfully disagree with President Obama that "[fairness]" is an
important characteristic in a judge. Had the President said what I
think he probably meant — "patience" or "a willingness to listen and
learn" — I would have agreed. Judge Sotomayor has both in spades. But
"[fairness]" is an empty standard. For example, a judge who always rules
in favor of investment banks might [think he's being fair toward] Wall Streeters;
and, during the civil rights era, there were plenty of Southern
apologists who described the working-class whites of the South as the
truly oppressed in America.

The meaning of Carter's comment is unchanged. Or, rather, the lack of meaning is unchanged from Carter's original.

Or, rather, the lack of meaning coupled with a violent hostility toward the possibility of meaning, in this passage or anywhere else in a universe described by anything like language, is unchanged from Carter's original.

Look, the core virtue for a Supreme Court justice isn't that difficult to discern. It's right there in the name: justice. And the foundation of justice — the utterly necessary, irreplaceable prerequisite for justice — is empathy. Without empathy there can be no such thing as justice. The word justice itself — not to mention the role of a justice on a court — would be meaningless without empathy.

The opposite of empathy is antipathy — a quality not inclined to seek justice. A person devoid of empathy is sociopathic — and thus not inclined to do or to abide by the demands of justice.

This is nothing new or complicated or controversial. This is simply what we humans mean when we talk about justice. It is what we have always meant when we talk about justice. Whether we arrive at our conception of justice through some religious formulation of the Golden Rule or whether we get there through the secular logic of a Kant or a Rawls we're all making the same basic appeal to empathy. There is no other model of justice, no other meaning of justice, apart from what we derive, and defend, and comprehend, on the basis of empathy.

If empathy is "an empty standard," then so is justice.

Is that really what they're teaching at Yale Law?

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