The best books on the importance of empathy

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a philosopher who has spent much of the past 30 years writing about Adam Smith—widely considered one of the first theorists of empathy. One consequence of spending all that time on Smith is that I came to see how much empathy infused even his work on economics (he is for one thing the first theorist ever to write empathetically about the lives of the poor). I’ve become as a result something of a crusader on behalf of the importance of bringing empathy into social science and policy-making today. Understanding people’s perspectives from within is essential to figuring out who they are and what they need.


I wrote...

Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy

By Samuel Fleischacker,

Book cover of Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy

What is my book about?

Many of us say that empathy is crucial to caring about other people and bridging divides between hostile groups. But others accuse it of reinforcing xenophobia: leading us to help only individuals we know. Who is right? Being Me Being You argues that the answer to that question depends on what we think empathy is, and recommends the conception of it introduced by the philosopher and economist Adam Smith. Smith developed a conception of empathy by which it is a key component of what it is to be human. For Smith, however, empathy is also crucial to our having distinctive perspectives—to what today we call “diversity.” In a variety of ways, the book argues, Smithian empathy enables our differences and our shared humanity to come together. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Empathy Exams: Essays

Samuel Fleischacker Why did I love this book?

I don’t read a lot of creative non-fiction, but I loved this one. It’s a collection of essays that recalls the best of Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe. Minutely observed, crisply written, and suffused with a wry humor, it’s as much fun as a good novel. And the first essay, toggling between the author’s experience as a medical actor (item 31 on the checklist for how medical students handle her supposed conditions: “Voiced empathy for my situation/problem”) and two real medical problems she faced, is all about empathy. Much of the rest of the book deals with empathy too, at least indirectly: in James Agee’s photographs, and in the way Jamison herself enters into the worldviews of drug dealers, extreme marathoners, and participants in a medical cult. But the first essay is squarely on the topic, and it’s fabulous.

By Leslie Jamison,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Empathy Exams as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From personal loss to phantom diseases, The Empathy Exams is a bold and brilliant collection, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

A Publishers Weekly Top Ten Essay Collection of Spring 2014

Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison's visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another's pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade…


Book cover of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Samuel Fleischacker Why did I love this book?

Can a book be a frenemy? I have a love/hate relationship with this one. Bloom presents the sharpest critique of empathy I’ve seen: empathy is terrible for our moral lives, according to him. I think he is quite wrong – much of my own book is devoted to refuting his but his critique is important and he offers it up in a wonderfully clear and readable way.

By Paul Bloom,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Against Empathy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a divided world, empathy is not the solution, it is the problem; a source of prejudice, not kindness.

We think of empathy - the ability to feel the suffering of others for ourselves - as the ultimate source of all good behaviour. But while it inspires care and protection in personal relationships, it has the opposite effect in the wider world. As the latest research in psychology and neuroscience shows, we feel empathy most for those we find attractive and who seem similar to us and not at all for those who are different, distant or anonymous. Empathy therefore…


Book cover of Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past

Samuel Fleischacker Why did I love this book?

Yes, I know, this book has a long, very academic title. But it’s actually very short and clearly-written, explaining both to professionals and to laypeople why empathy is essential to writing good history. Kohut is a distinguished historian of modern Germany, who also has psychoanalytic training, and he makes a convincing case that we can properly understand even such horrific events as the Wannsee conference (which instituted the Nazis’ “final solution” to the problem of the Jews) only if we enter into the perspective of the people who attended it. This is an eye-opening book on an extremely important topic.

By Thomas A. Kohut,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past is a comprehensive consideration of the role of empathy in historical knowledge, informed by the literature on empathy in fields including history, psychoanalysis, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and sociology.

The book seeks to raise the consciousness of historians about empathy, by introducing them to the history of the concept and to its status in fields outside of history. It also seeks to raise the self-consciousness of historians about their use of empathy to know and understand past people. Defining empathy as thinking and feeling, as imagining, one's way inside the experience of…


Book cover of Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals

Samuel Fleischacker Why did I love this book?

I’m not much of an animal lover, but I found the insights into the lives of animals here really fascinating.  Lori Gruen is an animal welfare activist as well as a philosopher, and she brings these capacities together in a wonderful exploration of the degree to which animals have empathy, or something like it, as well as the ways in which our extending empathy to animals can improve our ethical relationships with them.  Gruen’s point is that empathy focuses us on others as distinctive individuals, with different perspectives and needs, rather than coming up with one-size-fits-all approaches to all members of a species. And she puts this point across in straightforward language and by way of many examples from her own experience.

By Lori Gruen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Entangled Empathy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Entangled Empathy, scholar and activist Lori Gruen argues that rather than focusing on animal “rights,” we ought to work to make our relationships with animals right by empathetically responding to their needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and unique perspectives. Pointing out that we are already entangled in complex and life-altering relationships with other animals, Gruen guides readers through a new way of thinking about—and practicing—animal ethics. Gruen describes entangled empathy as a type of caring perception focused on attending to another’s experience of well-being. It is an experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we…


Book cover of Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing

Samuel Fleischacker Why did I love this book?

This is one of the most imaginative, exciting, and accessible books of philosophy to appear in the past 25 years. Not all of it is about empathy, but one especially terrific chapter is. Fricker argues that we do people a “hermeneutical injustice” when our language and concepts leave no room for a ready way of understanding their experience (her example is how people responded to women who were sexually pressured in the workplace, before the phrase "sexual harrassment" was coined). And the cure for this problem, she says, is empathy:  opening ourselves to the person telling us about their experience, and trying to feel our way into how they understood it, even if we are initially baffled by it.

By Miranda Fricker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Epistemic Injustice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this exploration of new territory between ethics and epistemology, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in their capacity as a knower. Justice is one of the oldest and most central themes in philosophy, but in order to reveal the ethical dimension of our epistemic practices the focus must shift to injustice. Fricker adjusts the philosophical lens so that we see through to the
negative space that is epistemic injustice.

The book explores two different types of epistemic injustice, each driven by a form of prejudice, and from…


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Me and The Times: My wild ride from elevator operator to New York Times editor, columnist, and change agent (1967-97)

By Robert W. Stock,

Book cover of Me and The Times: My wild ride from elevator operator to New York Times editor, columnist, and change agent (1967-97)

Robert W. Stock Author Of Me and The Times: My wild ride from elevator operator to New York Times editor, columnist, and change agent (1967-97)

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Journalist Punster Family-phile Ex-jock Friend

Robert's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Me and The Times offers a fresh perspective on those pre-internet days when the Sunday sections of The New York Times shaped the country’s political and cultural conversation. Starting in 1967, Robert Stock edited seven of those sections over 30 years, innovating and troublemaking all the way.

His memoir is rich in anecdotes and admissions. At The Times, Jan Morris threw a manuscript at him, he shared an embarrassing moment with Jacqueline Kennedy, and he got the paper sued for $1 million. Along the way, Rod Laver challenged Stock to a tennis match, he played a clarinet duet with superstar Richard Stoltzman, and he shared a Mafia-spiced brunch with Jerry Orbach.

Me and The Times: My wild ride from elevator operator to New York Times editor, columnist, and change agent (1967-97)

By Robert W. Stock,

What is this book about?

An intimate, unvarnished look at the making of the Sunday sections of The New York Times in their pre-internet heyday, back when they shaped the country’s political and cultural conversation.

Over 30 years, Robert Stock edited seven of those sections, innovating, and troublemaking all the way – getting the paper sued for $1 million, locking horns with legendary editors Abe Rosenthal and Max Frankel, and publishing articles that sent the publisher Punch Sulzberger up the wall.

On one level, his memoir tracks Stock’s amazing career from his elevator job at Bonwit Teller to his accidental entry into journalism to his…


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Interested in empathy, compassion, and ethics?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about empathy, compassion, and ethics.

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