Thursday, 17 May 2012

On morality and empathy

This was originally intended as a comment on this blog post, as a response to a commenter who, if I understand him correctly, argues that the world would be a better place if people didn't hold on to concepts of objective morality. Instead, he believes that people should simply act out of empathy. This is a puzzling point of view to me as it seems inherently inconsistent, and seems to perhaps misunderstand both morality and empathy. But it is very possible that I've simply misunderstood him. For what it's worth, here is my response:

That empathy that is part of human nature is indeed a great thing. Not only do many philosophers and theologians claim that it's our highest form of humanity, but many psychologists and evolutionary scientists argue that it was instrumental in our development; without it, large-scale civilisation would have been impossible. No doubt we are still at the mercy of our ability to empathise - take empathy away and our societies will crumble soon after.

Our grip on empathy is tenuous, however, and each one of us can - and does - choose to ignore it all the time. When you go for a job interview or play sport, you supress any empathy you might have for your competitors (or at least, you keep it to a respectable minimum). If you eat meat, you've taught yourself to ignore any empathy you might feel for pigs, chickens and cows, even though you probably continue to show empathy to dogs and cats. In a traffic jam on a hot day, your empathy for fellow motorists likely flies out the window.

People are so good at learning to ignore the empathy that's inside their human nature that we can keep it up for entire lifetimes, or even centuries (eg. slavery, inter-ethnic fighting, persecution).

So, I believe the question comes down to this: Do those who choose to ignore their empathy have as much right to do so as those who choose to honour it?

It seems to me that if objectivism is so hard to stomach for you, then you need to answer "yes" to that question. That to me is an unsatisfactory and uncompelling answer. Firstly, because the consequences of such a worldview, if taken to their logical conclusion, are crap: open up the prisons; if a murderer is justified in ignoring empathy for his victim, then we aren't justified in locking him up.

Secondly, it ignores the fact that, at least on one level, one who places emphasis on acting upon empathy is a sort of objectivist himself.  Empathy, for all intents and purposes, is objective. Yes, it is felt subjectively by an individual, but it is not something that individual has created, or even chosen. It is hard-wired into our brain, and is thus felt by everyone (psychopaths aside). It is universal.

Empathy wasn't born of an ideaology or a mystical experience or a holy book. It's inside the human DNA. That makes it, for human intents and purposes, objective and absolute. It's always there: you can heed it or you can ignore it, but you cannot change it.

Empathy comes from that highly intelligent part of our brain that is able to grasp a more objective layer of truth. If you and I bump into one another and I dwell on the pain  I feel from the collision, I am being subjective and missing out on much of the picture. But if we bump into one another and I dwell on the pain I feel, but I also acquire an appreciation for the pain you must be feeling, then I am closer to the objective truth of the matter; my point of view is no longer as distorted by the blinkers of self-centredness. In this way, empathy is a tool that enables us to acquire a more objective view of the world (not completely objective, of course....but more objective).

So, while you (the commenter referenced above) might not be the same as someone who points to commandments in a sacred text and demands that we follow them, you are in fact preaching a type of objectivism, by insisting that people should listen to their empathy, which is so deeply ingrained in human nature that it is as absolute and non-negotiable as, say, our internal organs are.

In this way you are almost identical to the countless religious teachers across the ages who also stressed that we should listen to our empathy. The reason why almost all religions share the "Golden Rule" (do to others as you'd have them do to you), despite coming from different places and different ages, is that they didn't just pull their morality our of their arses: they didn't take it from an arbitrary idea or an imaginary deity...rather, they based it on something very real: the empathy that our DNA burns into our brains.

But where these religious teachers have perhaps differed to [the relativist commenter], is that they've recognised that although empathy is ingrained in us, it must be nurtured. That like any other human talent or ability, it needs to be taught and developed, or it will atrophy. Simply hoping that people will listen to their empathy more often than not is as naive, unproductive and callous as just hoping that a baby will learn to walk without offering some guidance, or hoping that a young adult will just 'get' physics without being taught it by a physics professor. Hence, people began codifying empathic behaviour into laws, proverbs, credos, religious tenets, and so on.

Just like humans learnt to hone and nurture the potential of plants to increase their food supply (via the vehicle of agriculture) they learnt to hone and nurture the potential of their human empathy to increase their social cohesion (via the vehicle of religion). Evolutionary scientists and psychologists claim that this is what enabled civilisations to grow and sustain themselves. For the most part, those civilisations that did not centre around empathy-based religions (eg. Romans, Carthagians, Aztecs, Vikings) did not survive.

For all their glaring imperfections, religions helped get us to where we are today, by their insistence on an empathy-based ethos. One might argue that, like training wheels, we don't need them anymore and can discard them. But one cannot credibly argue that they are irrelevant when it comes to social justice, for they laid much of the groundwork in the first place.

It is the very universality of empathy that encourages religious teachers to treat it as a sacred and absolute value from which to draw moral inspiration from. For if:

  1. all humans have been given this wonderful gift of empathy, and
  2. this gift has profound and demonstrable personal, emotional, psychological and social benefits (it does), and
  3. this gift is so easily squandered or ignored, which can have detrimental effects,

then isn't this gift too precious to waste? Don't we have a duty to encourage people to utilise this gift, for the good of all? And shouldn't we discourage the wilful supression of it?

It seems to me that when you get down to it and peel away the complexity, fluff, and dirt of world religions, you find this essence very close to the core of them all. And in this, I agree with all of them. The profound benefits and unchanging universality of empathy makes it something that is worth holding as a sacred measure and an unchanging, dependable, ideal.

As Hillel The Elder said 2000 years ago when asked to summarise the entire Torah: "That which is hateful to yourself, don't do to others. Everything else is just commentary".

So, when it comes to something like, for example, the persecution of gays, I believe that we absolutely have a right to call people out when they are refusing to act empathetically. We probably don't have the right to demand that someone adhere to some arbitrary moral code that we invented. But empathy is ingrained in all of us, and ignoring it ultimately hurts us all, since we're all connected. So unless someone has a physiological deficiency of empathy (ie. a psychopath), there is no excuse for wilfully refraining from behaving empathetically.

1 comment:

Edwin Rutsch said...

hi Volnaiksra

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.