Recipe for morality: Just add empathy.

April 28, 2011 | By | 8 Replies More

We often discussed empathy at this website, for instance here. And here.   Most of the time, we discuss the importance of empathy-based morality without invoking any supernatural beings, beliefs, or commandments. This is not to claim that religion is always irrelevant to such discussions.

For the past day, I have repeatedly thought about Rush Limbaugh’s recent invocation of Jesus. He claimed that Jesus would prefer that we lower the tax rates for rich people and that we dismantle the federal social safety net for those who are not rich.

This morning, coming out of a courthouse a poor-looking man smiled and said, “I hope you’re having a good day.” I thanked him and walked on, struck that an upbeat man of such modest means, a man I didn’t know, would take time to greet me. That reminded me of a recurring thought I have: If I were God, I would visit earth dressed as a poor person, and I would mingle with well-to-do people to see how they treated me.  If I were God and I did this, I would repeatedly be reminded that rich people avoided me. They would refuse to live in my neighborhood. They wouldn’t eat my kind of food or dress like me. They would make sure that their children went to schools different than my children’s school.  They would call me names when they are with each other. Many of them would push their legislatures to cut government benefits such that I wouldn’t have access to even the most basic  form of health care.

Image by Erich Vieth

While driving home from court, I passed a man who looked to be even poorer than the man who greeted me.  He was gathering trash with a shopping cart. That would be a great costume for God, I thought.

Mind you, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in any form of disembodied sentience.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to watch the God that who rich allegedly praise get dissed by the rich?  That brings to mind the following passage from the bible:

Matthew 25:40: And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Yep.  Wealthy Christians have a duty to treat each poor person as if he or she were God Himself. What a drastic contrast from the classist garbage spouted by Rush Limbaugh, purportedly in the name of Jesus.

If I were God, walking around on Earth incognito, I’d be keeping an especially close eye on powerful loud-mouthed people like Rush Limbaugh.


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Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Erich, thank you for drawing readers' attention to homelessness and poverty. It is shockingly easy to push the homeless and poor into the periphery of awareness. It is important to have frequent reminders of their existence, and frequent inspiration to consider what an impoverished life is like.

    Chicago has an (apparent) epidemic of homelessness, and over time it becomes woefully easy for a person to ignore the many sleeping on the train or standing on the street asking for money or food. The sheer glut of misfortune makes urban people(including me) disturbingly numb. Ignoring the problem is almost as bad as fleeing the neighborhood, sending one's kids to a private school, and sequestering oneself in a cul-de-sac. I suppose the 'ideal' would be a level of visibility that was not so disturbing as to shut people down. Yet nine times out of ten, I would probably ignore and rebuff 'God' if he took on such a disguise. Sad.

  2. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest a further resources 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.

    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

  3. Edgar Montrose says:

    "the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers":

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Edgar: I followed the link. This is a rather strong statement from the Washington Post:

      A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.

      Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon.

      As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.

  4. Edgar Montrose says:

    "As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought."

    The question is: "Which is the cause, and which is the effect?"

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Edgar Montrose, to the question of cause and effect.

    Maybe it;s a bit of both.

    Maybe being intelligent nurtures a sort of secular pragmatism that encourages atheism, or perhaps atheism encourages the individuals to seek their own answers and understandings instead of faithfully accepting what they are told, and the pursuit of knowledge raise intelligence.

  6. Erika Price says:

    It seems to me these findings are a clear example of a third variable problem: atheism and morality co-occur with high education levels. This could apply on both personal and national levels, accounting even for the apparent empathy of Japan and Sweden.

    Of course, the third variable could be 'intelligence' or 'cognitive ability' of a particular sort, as already posed, but I tend to think and hope that such differences are rooted in the society and upbringing of the person, and not in some latent underlying aptitude.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Stephanie Preston, professor of cognitive neuroscience reports in the April 28, 2011 edition of Nature that Simon Baron-Cohen does not fully account for "evil" as the product of a failure to empathize, "caused by the malfunction in an empathy network within the brain (e.g., due to psychopathic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or autism spectrum disorder). Baron-Cohen points to interruptions of the circuits that normally result in "an internal pot of gold" based on "secure attachment." Preston lauds the scientific rigor of these observations, but asserts that there is more to the lack of empathy than those cases involving these conditions. She prefers a more broadly interdisciplinary approach:

    Humiliation can be used to establish status, to signal collaboration with a dominant person or to respond to one's own perceived oppression. Additionally, dehumanization may arise when perpetrators have to side-step their intact empathy mechanisms in order to permit murder via indirect methods –such as henchmen, technology or by forcing victims to kill one another.

    I agree with Ms. Preston that we don't need to look for psychopathology to find brutish and widespread lack of empathy. The main occurrence arises from the unrelenting groupishness of our species. Being devoid of empathy for others is common wherever a person perceives others to be mere members of an outgroup.

    I would add to Preston's list, the ability we humans have perfected of refocusing a precious and scare commodity, attention, in order to completely avoid responsibility. This phenomenon has been discussed from many perspectives, one of them being Hannah Arendt's description of the "banality of evil." I have pointed out numerous other strategies for avoiding moral responsibility by cleverly diverting attention. Again, human animals are experts at doing this. See my paper: "Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention."

    I'd love to conclude that lack of empathy can be attributed to relatively uncommon biological dysfunction, but I'm afraid that nasty, brutish and pervasive lack of empathy is part of the "normal" human condition.

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