The official directives needn’t be explicit to be well understood: Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.
The way we are educated and entertained keep us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others . . .
The nonprofit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world’s most eminent scientists, “What Are You Optimistic About? Why?” In response, the prominent neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, cites the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are “wired for empathy.”
Iacoboni’s optimism is grounded in his belief that as these recent findings in experimental cognitive science seep into public awareness, “. . . this explicit level of understanding our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.” (Iacoboni, 2007)
Only five years earlier,
While there are reasons to remain circumspect (see below) about the progressive political implications flowing from this work, a body of impressive empirical evidence reveals that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments like empathy, precede the evolution of culture. This work sustains Noam Chomsky’s visionary assertion that while the principles of our moral nature have been poorly understood, “we can hardly doubt their existence or their central role in our intellectual and moral lives.” (Chomsky, 1971, 1988; 2005)
The emerging field of the neuroscience of empathy parallels investigations being undertaken in cognate fields. Some forty years ago the celebrated primatologist, Jane Goodall, observed and wrote about chimpanzee emotions, social relationships, and “chimp culture” but experts remained highly skeptical. Even a decade ago, scientific consensus on this matter was elusive, but all that’s changed. According to famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal “You don’t hear any debate now.” In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of behavior from our closest evolutionary relatives. It’s now indisputable that we share moral faculties with other species. (de Waal, 2006; Kropotkin, 1902; Trivers, 1971; Katz, 2000; Gintis, 2005; Hauser, 2006)
If morality is rooted in biology, in the raw material or building blocks for the evolution of its expression, we now have a pending fortuitous marriage of hard science and secular morality in the most profound sense. The details of the social neuroscientific analysis supporting these assertions lie outside this paper but suffice it to note that it’s persuasive, proliferating, and exciting. (Jackson, 2004 and 2006; Lamm, 2007)
That said, one of the most vexing problems that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending this orientation to those outside certain in-group moral circles. That is, given a world rife with overt and structural violence, one is forced to explain why our moral intuition doesn’t produce a more ameliorating effect, a more peaceful world. Iacoboni suggests this disjuncture is explained by massive belief systems, including political and religious ones, operating on the reflective and deliberate level. These tend to override the automatic, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring people together.
Thus a few cautionary notes are warranted here. The first, then, is that social context and triggering conditions are everything because where there is conscious and massive elite manipulation, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get in touch with our moral faculties. As Albert cautions, circumstances may preclude and overwhelm our perceptions, rendering us incapable of recognizing and giving expression to moral sentiments (Albert, n.d.; and also, Pinker, 2002). For example, the fear-mongering of artificially created scarcity may attenuate the empathic response.
The second is Hauser’s (2006) observation that proximity was undoubtedly a factor in the expression of empathy. In our evolutionary past “there were no opportunities for altruism at a distance” and therefore the emotional intensity was/is lacking. This can’t be discounted but, given some of the positive dimensions of globalization, the potential for identifying with the “stranger” has never been more robust. For examples of help extended to strangers that wasn’t available in our evolutionary past, including blood donations, Holocaust rescuers, adoption, and filing honest tax returns, see Barber (2004).
The concept of empathy was first discussed by the German psychologist Theodore Lipps in the 1880s. He introduced the term “einfuhlung” (in-feeling) as a way of describing one person’s affective response to another person’s experience.
Empathy is not synonymous with compassion, shared suffering or sympathy with another’s pain. Limited to the former, one would be paralyzed by “over-identification” and the inability to distinguish oneself from the other’s distress. At a minimum, it requires being able to grasp another’s feeling state, to put oneself in the place of another. This necessitates making a distinction between self and others by employing the cognitive capacity for detachment in order to act on that perception. (Hardee, 2003)
We know from neuroscientific empathy experiments that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others. Through brain imaging, we also know that separate neural processing regions then free up the capacity to take action. As Decety notes, empathy then allows us to “forge connections with people whose lives seem utterly alien from us.” (Decety, 2007) Where comparable experience is lacking, this “cognitive empathy” builds on the neural basis and allows one to “actively projects oneself into the shoes of another person,” by trying to imagine the other person’s situation. (
Hauser, as I read his exposition of a “universal moral grammar,” posits a more neutral or benign process at work. Given a moral grammar hard wired into our neural circuit via evolution, this neural machinery precedes conscious decisions in life-and-death situations. However, we observe “nurture entering the picture to set the parameters and guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems.” At other points he suggests that environmental factors can push individuals toward defective moral reasoning, and the various outcomes for a given local culture are virtually limitless. (Hauser, 2006) For me, this discussion of cultural variation fails to give sufficient attention to the socioeconomic variables responsible for shaping the culture.
Cohen and Rogers, in parsing Chomsky’s critique of elites, note that “Once an unjust order exists, those benefiting from it have both an interest in maintaining it and, by virtue of their social advantages, the power to do so.” (For a concise but not uncritical treatment of Chomsky’s social and ethical views, see Cohen, 1991.)
Clearly, the vaunted human capacity for verbal communication cuts both ways. In the wrong hands, this capacity is often abused by consciously quelling the empathic response. When de Waal writes, “Animals are no moral philosophers,” I’m left to wonder if he isn’t favoring the former in this comparison. (de Waal, 2000)
One of the methods employed within capitalist democracies is Chomsky and Herman’s “manufacture of consent,” a form of highly sophisticated thought control. Potentially active citizens must be “distracted from their real interests and deliberately confused about the way the world works.” (Cohen, 1991; Chomsky, 1988)
For this essay and following Chomsky, I’m arguing that the human mind is the primary target of this perverse “nurture” or propaganda, in part because exposure to certain new truths about empathy—hard evidence about our innate moral nature—poses a direct threat to elite interests. That is, given the apparent universality of this biological predisposition toward empathy, we have a potent scientific baseline upon which to launch further critiques of this manipulation.
First, the insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature that claims we are motivated by greedy, dog-eat-dog “individual self-interest is all” is undermined. Stripped of yet another rationalization for empire, predatory behavior on behalf of the capitalist mode of production becomes ever more transparent.
Second, for many people, the basic incompatibility between global capitalism and the lived expression of moral sentiments may become obvious for the first time. (Olson, 2006, 2005) For example, the failure to engage this moral sentiment has radical implications, not the least being consequences for the planet. Researchers at
Third, learning about the conscious suppression of this essential core of our human nature begs additional troubling questions about the motives behind other elite-generated ideologies, from neo-liberalism and nationalism to xenophobia and the “war on terror.” Equally alarming for elites, awareness of this reality contains the potential to encourage “destabilizing” but humanity-affirming cosmopolitan attitudes toward the faceless “other,” both here and abroad. In de Waal’s apt words, “Empathy can override every rule about how to treat others.”
Finally, as de Waal admonishes, “If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon rather than going against our nature.” (de Waal, 2005) An ethos of empathy is an essential part of what it means to be human. We’ve been systematically denied a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with this moral sentiment. I would argue that, paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.
Is it too much to hope that we’re on the verge of discovering a scientifically based, Archimedean moral point from which to lever public discourse toward an appreciation of our true nature, which in turn might release powerful emancipatory forces?
Dana Dunn, Marco Iacoboni, Kathleen Kelly, Stephanie Preston and Joel Wingard provided helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Thanks, per usual, to Mickey Ortiz.
Gary Olson, Ph.D., chairs the Political Science Department at
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