More on that question of empathy and fiction we were talking about the other day, from a 2010 article by Joshua Leach on the ur-B&W.: Individual Rights and Collective Responsibility.
This is a truth commonly understood: that people fighting for human rights are not animated by self-interest or callous self-regard. In fact, human rights arise out of our most fundamental collective moral imperative: namely, to protect the weak and vulnerable from harm. Empathy is where they begin and end.
According to Lynn Hunt’s fantastic book, Inventing Human Rights, rights language grew up in tandem with eighteenth century epistolary novels, such as Richardson’s Clarissa and Rousseau’s Julie, which introduced empathy into fiction and extended human feeling across class boundaries. By presenting the lives and needs of servants and governesses (women at that!) these novels made possible a kind of affectionate identification that traditional literature could not provide. Even if modern readers have a hard time relating to these sentimental eighteenth century novels, we can see the same sort of effect at work in Charlotte Bronte and other later writers. The goal of the author is clearly to present the hero or heroine as an individual worthy of respect, dignity, and personhood. As Jane Eyre declares at one point to Mr. Rochester: “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings?… Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!” This is not a self-interested or individualistic ideal—precisely because it insists on the rights of individuals!
Individuals in the plural. Tories like to portray human rights as all about me me me, but they’re not, because it’s about every me, not just my personal me.