Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Moral Relativism & the Empathy Scale

Ethics is about what kind of people we ought to be and how we should accordingly behave in relation to each other. Many doctrines have tried to set out a definitive guide, but every one of them is contested by rival proponents. There are not only different religions and schools of philosophy, but within each we have further divisions with incompatible views. Even when there are attempts to bridge diverse faiths and beliefs to find common ground, these are in turn rejected by those who are adamant that there are vital differences that fundamentally distinguish their ‘true’ notions from the ‘false’ views of others.

So beyond recognising that some will dismiss everyone else as utterly wrong, while others will concede that all are somehow equally right, is there anything worth exploring further? Revealingly, when we put them alongside each other – ‘think only of oneself’; ‘care for a just few deemed worthy’; ‘be concerned with those who possess certain characteristics’; ‘respect and reciprocate one’s fellow human beings in general’ – a progression along the empathy scale is evident.

Moral doctrines at the high end of the empathy scale ask us to view others as fellow human beings deserving of respect. We should appreciate that other people would like to be treated in a thoughtful and reasonable manner just as we would like to be treated similarly by others in return. If others behave in a way not to our liking, we should seek to understand if there are extenuating circumstances – just as we would like others to understand us if we acted in a way we truly regretted. However, if upon closer inspection, we discover that someone is exploitative or aggressive because of his/her malignant disposition, we should protect ourselves and respond in a proportionate manner to prevent the person from doing more harm.

But for those who subscribe to doctrines that command them to cut off their empathy for various categories (people with the ‘wrong’ skin colour, religious affiliation, family background, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, income level, attachment to certain customs), the concerns and feelings of anyone in those categories are regarded as irrelevant. At the lowest end of the scale we have the shameless egoists who may use power or deception to get away with their self-centred behaviour, but who never care at all about anyone else.

Often those with a low capacity for empathy will gravitate towards doctrines (faiths, ideologies, political parties) that not only validate, but also celebrate, the exclusion of many types of people from respect and concern. This tends to make them feel vindicated in neglecting, hating, despising, or blaming people who have never done anything to hurt them. By contrast, those with high empathy will be drawn to ecumenical, inter-faith, or universalist-humanist tendencies that look beyond insignificant differences to embrace the golden rule of treating others as one would like others to treat oneself.

Since people’s capacity for empathy may not be as easily constrained as required by the moral doctrines they for whatever reason (family upbringing, encounter with a charismatic preacher/teacher, peer pressure) have ‘adopted’, they may develop a broader conscience and experience revulsion towards the ‘exclusionary’ doctrines they have been hitherto tied to. Furthermore, a person’s empathic reach can be nurtured to widen its engagement with the emotional connections between actions and consequences, and extend its appreciation of how others may feel without necessarily sharing their physical or cultural characteristics. This means that moral development is conceptually possible and empirically feasible.

Of course, such nurturing would be frowned upon by those whose mission in life is to promote opposition to extending mutual respect and understanding to ‘excluded’ people. But instead of shrugging our shoulders with another round of “well, they are entitled to their views”, we should recognise the importance of countering all doctrines that aim to delimit our human empathy. As educators, there is no greater task than cultivating the capacity for empathy and promoting inclusive moral doctrines that are grounded on its growth and realisation.

Note: Empathy changes can also go in the opposite direction. There are documented cases where some individuals with brain damages became deficient in their empathy and stopped to care about other people’s feelings as much as they did before. Traumatic experiences such as childhood abuse may also under certain circumstances have similarly harmful psychological effects. But it is noteworthy that amongst people with a healthy brain and no severe trauma, the general tendency would be to retain or improve their empathic capacity, but very few would aspire to become less empathic. And the essence of the sociopath is that however well he/she may fake emotional connections with other people, that individual does not care about what happens to those they come across or indeed hurt.


Woodman59 said...

Gosh...sociopaths "fake" empathy...that hit the mark!

I think this is a fantastically helpful concept - that of enabling people to move along the empathy scale.

The whole thing of making allowances for people can be tough, though. I was struggling to get through a practical task at a drop-off centre yesterday, and asked one of the visitors if he could give a hand for a while.

He declined - saying he had a "non-involvement" policy! I understand that he does the round of all such support projects, never contributing anywhere.

But what has led to this situation of such an able person "going on strike" so to speak...and only taking but not giving?

These kinds of situations can test our patience. It is also challenging when confronted by political figures who maintain that we are being "over-empathic" - i.e. that we are being unhelpful by supporting increasing numbers of people in a dependency culture who take but don't give.

One of the biggest obstacles though has been a benefits system which has not allowed for partial disability. This has terrified many people into claiming themselves as virtual cabbages - vastly exaggerating their condition so that subsequently they have to appear helpless and can do nothing for others - in order to maintain their income.

Perhaps this explains the "non-involvement" policy in this case and effectively so many others.

I feel that the level of fear involved here is having a crippling effect on community engagement.

Woodman59 said...

Sorry - "drop in" centre!