Empathy is the degree to which a person can place oneself in another’s shoes. Anyone can feel pain when someone steps on their toe, but what if you see someone else wincing in pain, grasping their own toe? The question is related to what you experience when you determine, perceptually, that someone else is suffering in some way. Empathy is a key driver of moral goodness, I believe. Another way to describe this phenomenon is, acting right is about empathizing with the other. What follows is my rationale.
Five things were swirling in my head when I sat down at 10:45 p.m. (instead of going to bed) to write this out. Such is life for a writer.
One, I have kept the interesting phrase “A Lannister always pays his debts” somewhere in my grey matter. You may recognize it from Game of Thrones. It is the motto of the House Lannister, basically, the bad guys, in the show/book. It isn’t a claim that “If you loan us money, we will be sure to pay you back” as much as it means “If you fuck with us, we’re coming for you; we do not forget, and we do not forgive.” All the Lannisters are menacing and foul creatures, but distilled down, for me, it refers in a way to morality. More on that later.
Two, I just watched the movie Us, written by the estimable director/actor/producer/writer, Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele). It is a fascinating look at the real world when it collides with the nether-world, if you will – the shadow realm, in which humans have dopplegangers who are intent on harming us. It’s a great horror flick.
The comments Peele makes in the bonus material really sunk in for me. He referenced the fact that there is a supreme balance in the world; good and bad are in opposition, and so is privilege and privation; suffering and solace. The context is that of America; we are so privileged and well-off (well, 75% of us are, and 10% of us are living the life of luxury, and 1% of us are privileged and pampered beyond all reason). The point he makes is that to the degree that we have it easy here (again, not the poor, homeless, etc., but the upper middle class, the rich–even the lower middle-class that goes to live football games, has six beers in one sitting, shops for new shoes twice a year, gets vaccines, etc.). Let me start that sentence over: To the degree that we have it easy here, others must proportionally suffer. In other words, who makes the clothes we wear? Where does the plastic go that we cast aside? What of the meat-packers who, as of this writing, not only have to deal with dead cows and pigs all day, five days a week, but now they are dying from poor working conditions during the pandemic? Strawberry-pickers? Trash collectors? Those who mine cadmium for our cell phones? You get the picture.
Three, I am always arguing with my friend about moral goodness, moral desert, privilege, social justice, economic justice, right and wrong, race, poverty and the like. Spoiler alert: I’m the liberal and he’s the libertarian; I might evince some white guilt or an over-developed sense of responsibility for the other, and he is less inclined toward that feeling (though that is not to say he’s not a good person, or that he isn’t raising good kids or anything). He is just not wired the way I am and we always conflict on news of the day. Point is, this idea of moral goodness, moral desert, privilege, and some of the things Peele referenced in the movie are often in the front, or the back, of my mind.
Four, I am thinking of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called Journey’s End. In this gripping scene, the usually-wise Jean-Luc Picard gets schooled by a Native American Indian. This term is used by the “chief” of a “tribe” of resettled Earth-born Indians: “a very old stain of blood.” The elder references the Pueblo Revolt, a real or fictional event in which Spanish settlers (overlords) were “savage” to native slaves. This is a debt that, he believes, has never been paid; a wrong that has not sufficiently been righted; a stain that is rightfully borne by all succeeding generations of Picards, due to the horiffic behavior by Spaniard Javier Maribona Picard, 700 years ago, at the Pueblo Revolt. The two-minute scene is really a wonderful one, especially if you like Star Trek.
Fifth, I have a painting on my wall that grabbed me one day when I saw it. Unusual for me, I had to buy it (it was original, but it was like $225 or something, so it just screamed out to me. In it, a black male, dressed as a sports guy, with a nice haircut, cool shoes, modern watch, etc. is sitting there just kind of reflecting. He is colored normal shades (like, full-color representation of a black man in a basketball jersey). However, in the background, black and white (colorless), is a scene of unspeakable horror–below deck on a slave ship carrying human beings bought by Americans sometime in the 1660s-1820 (basically, before slave importation was banned). They are laying about, trying to sleep, faced with torturous day after day, urinating and defecating on the men in the lower bunk; the fights and brutality; the utter hopelessness; the disease and the depression.
The point is: The black youth is actually reflecting on what kind of history America has. Combined with the essence of the Native American genocide, it bodes very poorly for America if there is a sense of cosmic justice. To the degree that Americans just don’t sense their entitlement, their grace, their privilege, we never did erase that blood stain that goes back four hundred years. We are a nation that mistreated the natives, mistreated Africans, mistreated immigrants, mistreated children, mistreated the poor, mistreated women, mistreated fellow Americans over and over and over again.
Thomas Jefferson, famously–notoriously–said:
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
To me, that means he–as a fucking slaveholder–and an aristocrat, more or less, knew full-well that we Americans were incurring a debt. Think: A Lannister always pays their debts. Think: a very old stain of blood.
The 14th Dalai Lama lobs this bomb into the camp of the libertarians:
“If we accept that others have a right to peace and happiness equal to our own, do we not have a responsibility to help those in need?”
So, these five things were swirling around in my head and I just felt compelled to note that to me, I sometimes must seem like a “bleeding-heart liberal”, a quintessential Jew, a guy suffering from “liberal guilt” or “white privilege” or the like. I know my friend the libertarian sometimes views me that way.
Moral goodness, as I often think of it, is based largely on empathy. Think of it this way: If I don’t perceive any kind of I-Thou relationship with others in the world–if I only look out for “Number One” or my closest kin–then the chance of me behaving with a sense of character, honor, self-restraint, and justice is greatly lessened. However, if I care about people out there in the wide world, I feel a sense of debt to the degree that I am well-off, comfortable, privileged, lucky.
To reflect on theologian Martin Buber’s concept of the “I-Thou Relationship”, skip to the second paragraph and read (LINK).
I can think of no better summation of using empathy to gain insight and to take the perspective of the other than Eric Shrody’s amazing song, What It’s Like. If you don’t know the song, a more apt description would be “what it’s like to be the downtrodden, the lonely man, the low person, if you are privileged and obtuse.”
Is this not one of the main messages we ought to take from the life of Jesus?
“We speak much of tolerance as if it were the great virtue, but it does not go far enough. Who wants to be tolerated, just to be put up with? Jesus did not say, Tolerate your neighbor, but instead he said, Love your neighbor.”
Carrying the liberal banner, historian Eric Alterman points out:
“Liberal evangelical Jim Wallis correctly points out that the issue the Bible raises most often is not abortion or gay marriage but, “how you treat the poorest and most vulnerable in your society. That’s the issue the prophets raise again and again, and Jesus talks about it more than any other topic, more than heaven or hell, more than sex or morality. So how did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?”
Think of the audacity of Strom Thurmond’s attitude as expressed by writer Michael Parenti:
“I heard South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond impatiently exclaim, ‘No one’s made more progress in this country than the Nigra people.’ He was not really praising African Americans for the way they had struggled upward against all odds. If anything, he was voicing his annoyance at their not being grateful for all the improvements they already enjoyed. His message was: count your blessings, you’ve come a long way, stop being ingrates and stop griping.”
I guess Thurmond never had a painting of Africans being transported across tumultuous seas for three weeks, hungry and cold and afraid and incredulous.
This is what drives a lot of my moral thinking. To me, moral goodness is based on a nexus where empathy and a sense of justice and an acknowledgement of a debt that I owe to the world for the privilege I have received and the luck I possess.
Morality can also be more “rational”, centering around fairness and propriety and a pre-determined and rigid sense of duty. But empathy and altruism and love go a long way to engender in human beings the sense that it’s not just me, or my tribe, I am part of a larger universe of beings, and what I do matters greatly.
If you’re a religious person, how can you not think of this as a high principle of your faith? “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” (Luke 12:48)
As the late theologian Michael Toms points out, “From my early childhood I have heard the United States of America, my country, being referred to as a ‘Christian’ nation. Jesus preached, Love your neighbor and, Turn the other cheek and, You’re your enemies. The U.S. government has not been behaving as if it represents a ‘Christian’ nation.”
Clearly, the 14th Dalai Lama speaks of compassion often. What does that really mean? He says:
“The wish that all sentient beings who lack happiness be endowed with happiness is the state of mind called universal love, and the wish that sentient beings be free of suffering is called compassion.”
Humans are chimpanzees with clothes. Actually, we are far worse than any other animal. We are even more brutal, jealous, lazy, greedy, and violent, but we have tools and weapons and all manner of un-Godly inventions.
Think of bees though–how they cooperate and act in what could be perceived as selfless. Indeed, they have no individualistic ambition, no self at all. The Dalai Lama points out:
“Nature’s law dictates that, in order to survive, bees must work together. As a result, they instinctively possess a sense of social responsibility. They have no constitution, no law, no police, no religion or moral training but, because of their nature, the whole colony survives. We humans have a constitution and a police force. We have religion, remarkable intelligence, and hearts with a great capacity to love. We have many extraordinary qualities, but, in actual practice, I think we are behind those small insects. In some ways, I feel that we are poorer than the bees.”
Stephen S. Hall, a writer on the subject of wisdom–which this blog is turning out be really be about–writes:
“Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but many of the writers we traditionally consult about wisdom, like Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and Emerson – not to mention sociobiologists – always seem to reference bees, and it’s even spread to the social sciences. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt now speaks of ‘hive psychology’ to describe the positive aspects of human ‘ultrasocial’ cooperation.”
He was riffing on psychologist Vivian Clayton’s views, expressed elegantly here:
“You know, bees have been around for three hundred fifty million years, at least as living creatures. And when you work a hive, and you’re there with that hive alone, and you hear how contented the bees are, you just have the sense that they have the pulse of the universe encoded in their genes. And I really feel that the concept of wisdom is like that, too. Somehow, like the bees, we are programmed to understand when someone has been wise. But what wisdom is, and how one learns to be wise, is still somewhat of a mystery.”
Put very succinctly, the humanitarian/humanist/physician, Albert Schweitzer:
“Ethics…is nothing but reverence for life. This is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil.”
Philosopher Tom Morris makes it even simpler: “Moral goodness is the quality of facilitating genuine happiness, fulfillment, and the deepest flourishing in human life.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, this 25-year-old quote from Samuel and Pearl Oliner, psychologists who studied individuals who performed altruistic acts toward Jews during the Holocaust, is apt:
“The heroes we need to celebrate should be men and women, but particularly men, who root themselves in connection rather than separation, and who measure their achievement by standards of care as much as individual accomplishment.”
Argh, it is now 1:10 a.m. and I am exhausted and can flesh this out no further. Here is my take-away:
I want to live in a deeper, wiser, more responsible way. I would like to cultivate more moral goodness in my life, and I think empathy, love, and compassion are the keys. Ω
SUGGESTED VIDEO: Rush’s Time Stand Still covered by Mike Masse and Brenda Andrus (LINK)
I let my skin get too thin
I’d like to pause,
No matter what I pretend
Like some pilgrim
Who learns to transcend
Learns to live
As if each step was the end…
Now, some quotes about empathy, compassion, love, moral goodness, responsibility, justice, and care:
“We’ve been conditioned to think of ourselves as individual consumers first and as interconnected members of society second. But [the coronavirus] pandemic marks an inflection point, and we will emerge from this ordeal either even more atomized and callous or realizing that we’re all small parts of a bigger organism.” ~ Sarah Jones
“Compassion is the basis for morality.”
“In a society where [the pain and suffering of others] no longer existed, there could be a human happiness more complete, more infused with imagination and knowledge and sympathy, than anything that is possible to those condemned to live in our present gloomy epoch.”
“No one knows where another’s shoe pinches.”
“Short of genius, a rich man cannot imagine poverty.”
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each man’s life a sorrow and a suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
“We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice.”
“In accepting that ethical judgments must be made from a universal point of view, I am accepting that my own interests cannot, simply because they are my interests, count more than the interests of anyone else.”
“I know of no country…where the love of money has taken a stronger hold on the affections of men and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.”
“If the person you call Jesus was around during the Jim Crow days in Alabama, at a restaurant that segregated against black people…would he have been served…or would he have been asked to leave the restaurant? He would have been kicked out of the restaurant because of his color.”
“A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.”
“You become a true caring physician when you’re able to share the pain.”
“Our American values are not luxuries but necessities—not the salt in our bread but the bread itself. Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad—greater even than the bounty of our material blessings.”
“We all think we know how we’re using our time. But we’re usually wrong. We think we work more than we do (studies show most people top out somewhere around three hours of actual work per day, the rest is just fu*king around). We think we spend more time with our friends and loved ones than we do. We think we’re more present than we are, that we’re better listeners than we are, that we’re more thoughtful and intelligent than we are. But the truth is, we’re all pretty bad at this.” ~ Mark Manson
“The issues of poverty, global warming, species extinction—all the things related to human and natural capital—will never be solved by our talking, our coursework, our panels and commissions. They are emotional issues and solutions will never occur to us until we open our emotions and feel their impact—until we are struck by a grace that helps us see the real meaning behind what you do for the least of them, you do for me.”
“Primates, elephants, dogs, rats, and even mice display empathy, indicating that the building blocks of altruism predate humanity. Chimpanzees will choose a token that gives both themselves and another chimp a food treat over a token that gratifies only themselves (Horner et al., 2011).”
“With compassion, we see benevolently our own human condition and the condition of our fellow beings. We drop prejudice. We withhold judgment.”
“In Judaism, prayer is primarily used either for thanksgiving or to praise. … What is the purpose of these prayers? They are not meant for God’s benefit, but to help the person who is praying. These prayers are designed to help us appreciate the works of God, this beautiful world we have inherited, and to notice and be thankful for the blessings we continually receive.”
“Although empathy may sound mysterious, remember that there is much that sounds mysterious in the universe, only you have got used to it; and perhaps you will get used to empathy.”
“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, What are you going through?”
“I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.”
“The individual isn’t quite an individual, he is a branch of a plant. Jesus uses this image when he says, I am the vine and you are the branches.”
“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.”
“The way of Jesus involves not just any kind of death, but specifically ‘taking up the cross,’ the path of confrontation with the domination system and its injustice and violence.”
“It is sometimes difficult for progressives to understand just how inherently threatening our message can be to those whose sense of identity depends on clinging to their position in the collapsing hierarchy of power and privilege.”
“Posterity who are to reap the blessings will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings of their ancestors.”
“All creatures have the same source as we have. Like us, they derive the life of thought, love, and will from the Creator. Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them; but to stop there is a complete misunderstanding of the intentions of Providence. We have a higher mission. God wishes that we should succor them whenever they require it.”
“Time and again in American history, the definition of freedom has been transformed by the demands of those denied its blessings–racial minorities, women, workers, and others.”
“Most of all, we have to acknowledge the all-important role each of us who live in relative privilege can play in making the world a “good” one, a world with less suffering, where as few senseless tragedies as possible come to pass.”
“The beliefs and customs we were brought up with may exercise great influence on us, but once we start to reflect upon them we can decide whether to act in accordance with them, or to go against them.”
“That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is negated by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but it is preached incessantly by every American television set.”
“Our individualistic heritage taught us that there is no such thing as the common good but only the sum of individual goods. But in our complex, interdependent world, the sum of individual goods , organized only under the tyranny of the market, often produces a common bad that eventually erodes our personal satisfaction as well.”
keywords: moral goodness, morality, ethics, character, love, compassion, empathy, care, responsibility, justice