The article aims to demonstrate that the impact of fiction on adult learning could be illuminated by a deeper engagement with research into empathy. It recognises that the lifelong learning literature acknowledges the importance of empathy in adult learning and that discussions of the role of fiction in adult learning often refer to fiction’s capacity to promote empathy. There is limited adult education literature exploring how fiction generates empathic feelings or how such feelings might lead to sustained changes in perceptions or actions. This article analyses an example of Hoffman’s work on empathy to illustrate the benefits of engagement with empathy research. This analysis leads to a consideration of fiction’s capacity to promote an involuntary empathy that can help adult learners develop deeper understandings of difference and of excluded groups. It also shows that an understanding of the factors that inhibit the development of empathy and enable individuals to justify the sufferings of others could be of value to educators. Finally it suggests that Hoffman’s examination of conditions that lead to empathic anger is helpful for educators wanting to use the potential of fiction to encourage and promote action in the cause of social justice.