Empathy: Vice or Virtue?

Gorilla-SuitLast Friday morning, KXJZ, our local National Public Radio outlet, aired Episode Three of Season Two of Radiolab, where—in their words—“the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”  I was half-listening, as I’m wont to do when also working, until something grabbed me.

First, a confession.  When it comes to NPR news, I’m decidedly old-school.  I’m still grieving the loss of Baw Bedwards, in whose body dwelt together the most sonorous radio voice and interview technique ever.  He was replaced by people who are less information conduits than performers; I hate that, because I identify banter, self-engagement, and forced humor with TV “infotainment.”  I get it, though; there are probably reams of market analysis data that support these style tweaks that mimic television.  They need new ears, and they can depend on me to stick around, out of habit—and because I have nowhere else to go.  Cynical bastards.

So, I brought that bias initially to Radiolab.  Their team may be flip, slick, and conversational, but—damn it—their programming choices are solid and almost always intriguing.

“Morality” is the title of this episode, which explores its origins and development in humans by positing two moral dilemmas:

  •  First, a random survey taken in Times Square interviews, where people were asked if they’d be willing to take the life of one human to save five, by either pushing her in front of an oncoming trolley, or merely pulling a lever with the same result.  Far fewer were willing to do the former than the latter.
  • Second, suppose you and your baby are hiding in a cellar with your fellow villagers to avoid being found and executed by enemy soldiers.  Your child is afflicted with an illness-related cough.  If her coughing will give you away, would you be willing to smother her to save your comrades and yourself?  About half responded in the affirmative, after painful deliberation.

Are we born moral, or do we learn it?  Four behavorial experts weigh in:

  • Frans de Waal, professor of psychology at Emory University with a Ph.D. in biology, directs the Living Links Center for primate study at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta.  Using berry-laden branches thrown into a troop of chimpanzees, he demonstrates how its leaders organize to assure that the berries are distributed equitably, with minimal conflict.  Drawing from fieldwork and laboratory research on chimps and other primates—as well as on dolphins and elephants—de Waal posits that his subjects are predisposed to take care of one another, come to one another’s aid, and, in some cases, take life-saving action.  (He offers the example of a female gorilla rescuing a boy who had fallen into her enclosure at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in August 1996 as “typical empathetic behavior.”)

In his latest book, The Age of Empathy, de Waal argues that human biology similarly offers a giant helping hand to those striving for a just society, and that every human is destined to be humane.

  • Harvard behavorial investigator Dr. Joshua Greene acknowledges that our basic moral sense is not handed from on high, but from down below.  That is, profound moral positions may be somehow imbedded in brain chemistry—a basic primate empathy he calls “our inner chimp.”  From brain scans of humans confronted with the “kill the baby, save the village” problem above, he’s mapped conflicting activity originating in two different frontal regions.  In these close contests, there are conflicting rational and emotional responses from these two areas.  Whenever those nodes are very, very active, the calculating section of the brain gets a bit of a boost, and the visceral, “inner chimp” section of the brain is somewhat muted.
  • Dr. Judi Smetana, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, and Larry Nucci, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledge the evidence for hard-wired primate empathy, and work to answer this question:  When do humans acquire a sense of right and wrong?  By interviewing preschoolers, they’ve learned that moral sense begins to develop in the second year of life.  Beginning at three, and more reliably at four, they develop a sense of things that are wrong—from three-year old Jack: “hitting, pushing, banging heads”—regardless of the presence of rules and authority figures.  This occurs from coordinating two experiences:
    • Being a “happy victimizer”—getting what you want at a peer’s expense; and
    • Acquiring a sense of empathy from being a victim of a “happy victimizer.”

This theory—that as primates we’re hard-wired to be empathetic, took me back to U.S. Senate confirmation proceedings in 2009 and 2010 for Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  In selecting them, President Obama suggested that empathy was a legitimate component of judicial temperament, likening it in decision-making to the last mile of a 26-mile marathon.  Republican Senators howled in protest, to the point where both nominees disagreed with their nominator, on the record.   Watching the fulminations of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), I remember thinking, Huh?!  Empathy in a judge is a bad thing?  Surely, even Old Testament Christians (!) have read the parable of Solomon as the baby-splitting judge.  Wasn’t that an exercise in wisdom, by understanding and recognizing empathy?  What was the desired result, then?  Actually splitting the baby, or throwing out both maternal petitioners for wasting his time?

I’ve mentioned before that I studied American History, Political Science, and the law in the grip of the Jesuits.  In college, I did a paper comparing the alleged philosophies of Ayn Rand and Hugh Hefner to more traditional road maps for mortal existence, from Aquinas through the Locke-Hobbes rivalry, to the blend of Jesus, Deism, Newtonian naturalism, and agnosticism that infatuated our Founding Fathers.  My conclusion: hedonism, or personal gratification—getting as much as you can, as fast as you can, or getting laid at every possible opportunity—no doubt feels great, but it’s hardly a sound basis for a belief system, let alone a working social contract.  “I am an ape; therefore, I am entitled to all the berries, right now.  Let the killing begin!”  I am also a devotee of Joseph Campbell, who as an anthropologist investigated all human myth, rite, and belief, and concluded that it all boils down to one principle: “Be kind; be kind; be kind.”  As a result, I can’t fathom how one can be both a follower of Christ and an acolyte of St. Ayn of Rand.  To me, Matthew 25:31-46 makes it pretty clear what the consequences are for turning a blind eye to human suffering and injustice.

Five years ago, I was prepared to support Senator Clinton for President, based on her experience, my experience with her, and her gender.  In 1974, she joined Burt Jenner’s special-minority staff team—defending Richard Nixon in the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment proceedings.  Yes, Republicans; she was raised a moderate in suburban Chicago by Hugh and Emma Howell Rodham.  I was a year out of law school and on the Committee’s general staff.  I sat in several meetings with her and was impressed by her bearing, her intellect, and her advocacy skills.  For the next 18 years, she came through the fire, both at the state and national levels.

I decided to support Senator Obama after reading his two books, Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope.  From them I took these impressions:

  • Rhetorically, he sounded more like Lincoln than any presidential aspirant in my memory, especially in his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention; and
  • His experience—not in politics per se but in life:
    • Racial.  A child of mixed-race parents, this was an issue confronting him from his earliest days.  He turned to illegal drugs in high school “to push questions of who I was out of my mind.”
    • Economic.  He was both nurtured and provided for by a single mother and her parents.
    • International. He lived and attended school for five years in Jakarta, Indonesia—not exactly one of Earth’s most free societies.  He returned there while a collegian and traveled also to India and Pakistan.
    • Education.  After attending Occidental College in L.A. he transferred to Columbia and studied with distinction, both there and at Harvard Law. He was elected the first Black Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review, by appealing to the conservative bloc of student voters, and graduated magna cum laude.  He paid for it through scholarships and student loans.
    • Community.  He’d spent four years in Chicago between college and law school directing an eight-parish, Catholic nonprofit dedicated to college preparation, job training, and tenant’s rights—while teaching and consulting in community organization.
    • Political.  After graduating Harvard, he returned to Chicago, where he married, started a family, and immersed himself and excelled as a player in the city’s legendary political system.

He explains in great detail how his own life experiences have shaped his moral sense and philosophy.  Some of my life and education experiences parallel his.  Growing up Catholic in a Mormon town introduced me to religious bias.  Dr. King taught me more about Christianity than any cleric, and living through the turmoil of three assassinations and Vietnam as a student put me in touch with lots of people who didn’t look or act like me.  I paid for my own postsecondary education in much the same way, but I wasn’t alone.  Both my father’s and mother’s families put in good words here and there to open doors, for which I should be, and am, grateful.  I understand what he means when he says, “We’re all in this together.”

I’ve never understood why being the chief executive officer of a private, for-profit entity in and of itself qualifies one to govern a nation.  I’ve studied and represented both public and private corporations.  They enjoy legal and tax advantages that individuals do not.  Their highest and necessary objective is short-term profit, so they are closed, homogenous organisms under comparatively authoritarian rule.  Other than their shareholders and boards of directors, their managers are accountable to governments and society only if they are discovered to have violated civil or criminal law—which they have the resources to shape.  Between turning a profit and promoting the health and welfare of their workers and communities, by default the business model dictates which is always the higher priority.  It’s possible to achieve both—managers from Henry Ford to Henry Kaiser have proved that.  For whatever reason, It’s gone out of fashion.

I’m sorry.  If you were born wealthy, God bless you.  If you grew up, studied, and socialized only with others like you, okay.  If you’ve never actually confronted the risk of failing to feed, clothe, or  educate your loved ones, that’s not a crime.  If you’ve never been called to personal account for the lives and well-being of those affected by your decisions, so be it.  If you want my vote, though, show me your empathy for others not so fortunate, and the moral choices you’ve made to demonstrate your concern for them.


  1. Barbara T

    Good thinking.. A great read on a sunny Sacramento morning to put me in the mood to get out the vote. Thanks so much.

    1. E.G. Fabricant

      Just between us: that’s the desired result!

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