Eirik Julius Risberg is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Education and Arts, Nord University, and the Falstad Centre, a museum and memorial from the Second World War, Norway. He is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH from 2021 to 2022.

Q: You recently joined CRASSH as a Visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?

I work at the intersection between moral philosophy and global education, with a particular emphasis on the notion of educating for global citizenship.

From a philosophical point of view, my main interest lies with the role emotions – and empathy in particular – play and ought to play in morality (e.g. in moral reasoning and moral judgement). This is an old question in philosophy that dates back to the Scottish Enlightenment, most prominently in the works of David Hume (1740) and Adam Smith (1759), and which has been a key topic in modern moral philosophy ever since. Those opposed to perceiving a role for the emotions in morality often think of emotions as leading us astray in our moral reasoning; an unruly force that must be controlled by the more cool and dispassionate reason. Those in favour point to emotions’ connection with human valuing and their role in supplying motives and reasons for moral action.

The debate has continued unabatedly throughout the centuries, but by the latter half of the twentieth-century emotions had largely fallen out of favour and most moral philosophers dismissed any role for the emotions in morality. The issue has come back into prominence again over the past three decades due, in part, to advances in neurology and moral psychology, which has allowed us new ways to study moral reasoning empirically.

The more specific question that I am pursuing while at CRASSH concerns the role empathy may be said to play in Global Citizenship Education (GCE), which is described by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a ‘framing paradigm which encapsulates how education can develop the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes learners need for securing a world which is more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable’ (UNESCO, 2014. Global Citizenship Education. Preparing learners for the challenges of the 21st century). One of the skills the UNESCO framing paradigm identifies as a key component of a global citizenship education is empathy (variously described as a non-cognitive skill, a value, and an attitude). Given the more fundamental question in moral philosophy and moral psychology about the role of empathy in morality, this raises some interesting questions about what role empathy ought to play in an education that aims to cultivate a form of global moral reasoning. While I think empathy does have a role to play, I believe this needs to be argued for rather than simply assumed – as is often the case in the literature on global citizenship.

Q: What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?

I am working (currently on leave) as a researcher at the Falstad Centre – a human rights centre, museum, and memorial from the Second World War located in a former SS prison camp – and was preparing material for a visit from a group of nursing students when I first began thinking about empathy. Empathy is a key concept in the professional ethics of nurses; it is supposed to mediate the closeness that is considered necessary for personal care, and the distance needed to remain a professional. Lack of empathy is sometimes considered to lead to an instrumental view of humans with potentially catastrophic moral consequences – and has been given as an explanation of why some people could partake in the atrocities committed during WWII.

Health-personnel were no exception to this, and sometimes played key roles in these atrocities. During WWII a large number of nurses took part in the so-called ‘euthanasia programme’, where people with mental and physical disabilities were systematically killed. After the war a number of these nurses were prosecuted for their complicity in murders. Asked what had prompted them to take part in the killings some of them gave empathy with the victims and the desire to end their ‘life-unworthy lives’ (lebensunwertes Leben) as a reason for their actions. While this may easily be said to result from a fundamental failure to empathise, it seemed to me to point to some complex moral questions about empathy and morality.

The debate on the role of empathy (and emotions more generally) in morality is very much alive. At the moment I am curious about the epistemological potential of empathy. Are there limits to what we can come to know through empathy? And what forms of perspective-taking can we possibly hope to achieve?

While the notion of a global citizenship education is widely endorsed, there has been some backlash against the concept. One objection has come from sociologists of education who perceive a neo-liberal ideology at the heart of global citizenship education. While there is some truth to the claim that the notion of the global citizen has been used to ‘whitewash’ commercial interests and initiatives (along the lines of what has happened to the concept of ‘sustainability’), I believe the wholesale rejection of the idea misses the transformative purpose (and potential) of global citizenship education.

Q. If you have, or are going to publish a paper, could you tell us about it?

I have a paper that is forthcoming in Educational Theory on the role of empathy in global citizenship education. While empathy is (mostly) invoked in the literature as a desirable skill or attitude to be cultivated as part of a global citizenship education, scholars working on the topic have so far not engaged critically with the concept. In the paper, I assess some of this literature and suggest a variant of empathy (a modest form of in-his-shoes perspective-shifting) informed by the work of Peter Goldie that I think holds potential in educating for global citizenship.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.



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