The Neoliberal Mobilization of Empathy in the Era of the Financial Crisis: A Case-Study

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This article analyzes the entanglement between the contemporary discourse of empathy and the neoliberal imaginary, arguing that it threatens the (already strained) relationship between empathy and justice. Joining current scholarly debates about the pro-social effects of empathy, the article focuses on a specific case study: the 2009 criminal trial of Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, two Wall Street executives charged with conspiracy and fraud after their hedge fund collapsed. Their criminal trial, which was one of the first prosecutions originating from the credit crunch, ended with a surprising acquittal. In this study, I analyze how the defense made skillful use of the discourse of empathy in order to affect the jury’s final decision. Their strategies, I argue, drew power from the broader cultural context of the neoliberal embrace of empathy – and the underlying beliefs, expectations, and confusions that accompany this embrace. Particularly, I show how the defense mobilized the neoliberal ethos of hard work, optimism and globalism in order to encourage the jurors to step into the shoes of the defendants. The counsels’ call to empathy involved a blurring between self-oriented perspective-taking and other-oriented perspective-taking, so that an imaginative stepping-into-the-shoes of the defendants was confused with a deep understanding of Cioffi and Tannin’s actual experience and genuine intentions. This distorted pseudo-empathy, I argue, played a decisive role in the final outcome of the trial – and perhaps helped contribute to the crises of empathy that we are currently undergoing.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalLaw, Culture and the Humanities
VolumeApril 2019
Issue number3
Early online date22 Apr 2019
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2019.


  • 2008 financial crisis
  • Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin
  • globalism
  • hard-work
  • jury decision-making
  • justice
  • neoliberalism
  • optimism
  • perspective-taking
  • sympathy


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