Thursday, October 27, 2011

Empathy: A Friend Of Democracy

Society & Politics

There are many respects in which America, if it can bring itself to act with the magnanimity and the empathy appropriate to its size and power, can be an intelligent example to the world. 
J. William Fulbright

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us "universe", a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Albert Einstein

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination. 
Percy Bysshe Shelley

When you bring up the idea of empathy, you usually get one of two reactions or responses from people. "I think it's important, and I wish I were more empathetic" or "Empathy is unnecessary for humans to act morally." It's interesting to note that persons who have sociopathic tendencies or, more important, who have been diagnosed as sociopaths all, without exception, lack empathy. That is to say, they could not relate to their fellow human beings as persons, and as such were able to commit horrific crimes without any remorse. 

Many scientists consider such humans as suffering from a genetic anomaly or mutation; others as conditioned by their environment. Most, however, would agree that both genetics and environmental factors have come into play, the only argument being in what proportion. Evolutionists focus on genetics; social scientists on social conditions.

This is not to say the opposite is true, that if you lack empathy, you will become a criminal or develop sociopathic behaviour. This is obviously not the case. You can do very well in society today without displaying any level of empathy. In fact, a lack of real empathy might make you a good leader today, whether in business or politics or as a political commentator. I suspect many business CEOs and politicians and hard-boiled political pundits truly lack empathy, thus giving them the appearance of confidence and certainty in their views. The same goes for many religious leaders.

But who knows what lies beneath that veneer of sophistication? What might appear as moral certitude and earnestness might be little more than a hidden lack of empathy combined with hubris. It might be better if our leaders had more empathy, an ability to connect with persons who think in a different way. Disagree? Most certainly. Ignore and disregard? Of course not. 

Yet, we have gone further into the abyss of uncivil discourse. We don't ignore our political and business adversaries; we mock and try to destroy "opponents," using the symbolism of sport and the "need" for victory at all costs to achieve some justifiable end. We have allowed our baser emotions to come to the forefront, using the guise of honesty as our reason, our excuse, but something far more noxious is at work. At times we frame our hardness in moral terms of right and wrong, but do so in a crude way without much thought or understanding. Also lacking in today's discourse is compassion, a cousin of empathy. But that's another topic for another time.

Empathy & Character

Such is the way things are, having come to this point through poor understanding of ourselves. For many, compassion and empathy are signs of weakness, bad for future advancement. Which naturally leads to the question of why bother showing genuine empathy if it doesn't improve my career prospects? The short answer is that empathy forms one of the fundamental building blocks of a healthy and well-operating democracy, its importance undeniable (see here, here and here).

On a personal level, empathy makes you more of a human being who has a greater ability to connect with others. Yes, it's often important to view yourself in another person's shoes, if only to understand their actions. Such a response does not necessarily mean you condone immoral or unethical behaviour, an argument used by the hard-edged and thoughtless to avoid any sign of empathy. Rather, it is a sign of humanity and democracy in action, where the individual is important.

Is it wishy-washy if you think, for example, it is bad government policy to cut off benefits for working single mothers or for the poorest of the poor while billions are spent on the war industry?  Or to feel sad when millions of American children are living in shelters? Or to think it bad policy for corporations to reduce health or pension benefits for its employees while enriching its chief shareholders? No, such shows empathy, a valid emotion in response to bad policy decision. Empathy is a democratic emotion that often leads to policy change, bettering the lives of millions of individuals.

After all, one of the chief reasons for being human is to connect with other humans. It's also better for civil society if humans act more civilly to each other, a characteristic that we are losing. If we desire a better society, we might consider the need for empathy.

It's interesting to look at what Gustav M. Gilbert found out. Gilbert was a German-speaking American prison psychologist and a military intelligence officer who was assigned to Nuremberg prison in Berlin, where 23 Nazi war crimes defendants were being held. Afterward, he wrote an account of what took place, Nuremberg Diary (1947), which includes a professional opinion on what he learned: 
I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I've come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It's the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.


  1. Empathy is extremely important, but it can be undone by blind faith. The people who sentenced witches and heretics to death in the Middle Ages probably looked upon themselves as merciful and just people who were doing what they could in order to defend society from black magic and damnation.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    Then it was not empathy that they were showing, but fear of heresy, in accordance with their strict religious beliefs. In that regard, I like Arthur Miller's 1952 play "The Crucible."


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