We Empathize, Therefore We Are: Toward A Moral Neuropolitics
You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.
?F. B. M. de Waal
Empathy is the only human superpower—it can shrink distance, cut through social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke political and social change.
—Rachel Corrie (as a 10-year-old)
The official directives needn't be explicit to be well understood: Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.
In his magisterial study, The Slave Ship, maritime historian Marcus Rediker has documented the role played by emotional and especially visual appeals in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Not unlike the structural violence endemic to global capitalism today, the abolitionist James Field Stanfield argued that the terrible truths of the slave trade "had been withheld from the public eye by every effort that interest, ingenuity, and influence, could devise" (Rediker, 2007, p. 133).
Therefore, "Stanfield appealed to the immediate, visceral experience of the slave ship, over and against abstract knowledge about the slave trade, as decisive to abolition . . ." (p. 156). The abolitionist's most potent weapon was the dissemination of drawings of the slave ship Brooks. Rediker asserts that these images were "to be among the most effective propaganda any social movement has ever created" (p. 308).
Based on recent findings from neuroscience we can plausibly deduce that the mirror neurons of the viewer were engaged by these images of others suffering. The appeal was to the public's awakened sense of compassion and revulsion toward graphic depictions of the wholesale violence, barbarity, and torture routinely practiced on these Atlantic voyages. Rediker notes that the images would instantaneously "make the viewer identify and sympathize with the ‘injured Africans' on the lower deck of the ship . . ." while also producing a sense of moral outrage (p. 315, Olson, 2008).
In our own day, 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 cited the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are "wired for empathy." This is the aforementioned discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS. The work shows that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one's own pain and the pain of others.
Iacoboni's optimism is grounded in his belief that with the popularization of scientific insights, these findings in neuroscience will seep into public awareness and " . . . this explicit level of understanding of our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us" (Iacoboni, 2007, p. 14). Whether or not this occurs, Iacoboni's prediction underscores the complex relationship between science and culture and social historian Margaret Jacob's insight that "No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence" (Jacoby, 1987, p. ). Iacoboni's recent book, Mirroring People (2008a) and interviews (2008b) as well as Rizzolati and Sinigaglia's Mirrors in the Brain (2008) promise to make this new work accessible to the lay public. In similar fashion, Steven Pinker concludes a recent piece on the science of morality with these challenging but hopeful words from Anton Chekov, "Man will become better when you show him what he is like" (Pinker, 2008).
In 1996, through single cell recordings in macaque monkeys researchers reported the discovery of a class of brain cells dubbed "mirror neurons" (Gallese, 1996). Located in area F5 of the premotor cortex, these mirror neurons fired not only when the monkey made an action, but also when the monkey was observing somebody else making the same action. The monkey's neurons were "mirroring" the activity she was observing. Later on, by mapping regions of the human brain using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), it was discovered that human areas that presumably had mirror neurons also communicated with the brain's emotional or limbic system, facilitating connection with another's feelings, probably by mirroring those feelings. This neural circuitry is presumed to be the basis of empathic behavior, in which actions in response to the distress of others are virtually instantaneous. As Goleman puts it, "That this flow from empathy to action occurs with such automaticity hints at circuitry dedicated to this very sequence." For example, in the case of hearing a child's anguished scream, "To feel distress stirs an urge to help" (Goleman, 2006, p. 60).
The existence of mirror neurons was only inferred by these fMRI studies. But in 2007, Iacoboni, the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried and their associates at the
Valayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the
Giacomo Rizzolatti, one of the Italian neuroscientists who discovered mirror neurons, notes in his new book, Mirrors in the Brain (2008), that mirror neurons "show us how strong and deeply rooted is the bond that ties us to others, or in other words, how bizarre it would be to conceive of an I without an us." This hardwired system is what permits us to "grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation by feeling, not by thinking" (Rizzolatti in Goleman, 2006). Human and other primate brains have developed what Gallese terms embodied simulation, or the "experiential insight of other minds" allowing us to "pre-reflexively identify with others" (2004, 2007) so that the other becomes "another self." (n.d. p. 9) As Decety notes, empathy then allows us to "forge connections with people whose lives seem utterly alien from us" (Decety, 2006, p. 2). Where comparable experience is lacking, this "cognitive empathy" builds on the neural basis and allows one to "actively project oneself into the shoes of another person" by trying to imagine the other person's situation (
The neuroscience of empathy parallels investigations being undertaken in cognate fields but the subject matter itself has a long history. The word "empathy" is a translation of the German word "Einfühlung," literally "in-feeling." Gallese (n.d.) traces its initial use to 1858 when R. Lotze described the process by which humans relate to other species and inanimate objects. While Dean (2004, p. 6) believes it was coined by Robert Vischner in 1872 to explain how humans interact with art objects. It was the German philosopher Theodore Lipps (1903) who first introduced the term to psychology as "inner imitation."
Both the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called attention to the importance of imagining oneself in another's situation, in her person. In Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments he uses the example of how one person reacts to another person suffering a beating:
"By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, . . . and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them . . . when we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does not fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer (Smith, 1759/1976, pp. 9-10).
In Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, Freud wrote, ". . . it is only by empathy that we know the existence of psychic life other than our own." (Freud, 1926, p. 104; Pigman, 1995) 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. A decade ago the famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal (1996) wrote about the antecedents to morality in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, but scientific consensus remained elusive. All that's changed. As a recent editorial in the journal Nature (2007) put it, it's now "unassailable fact" that human minds, including aspects of moral thought, are the product of evolution from earlier primates. According to de Waal "You don't hear any debate now." In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that the precursor to the sociality of human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of our closest nonhuman primate relatives.
Overwhelming evidence has been marshaled to support E.O. Wilson's early claim that not only were selfish individuals sanctioned but "Compassion is selective and often ultimately self-serving" (
Studies have shown that empathy is present in very young children, even at eighteen months of age and possibly younger. In the primate world, Warneken and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute at
Mogil and his team at
Additionally, Grufman and other scientists at the National Institutes of Health have offered persuasive evidence that altruistic acts activate a primitive part of the brain, producing a pleasurable response (2007). And recent research by Koenigs and colleagues (2007) indicates that within the brain's prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMFC is required for emotions and moral judgment. Damage to the VMFC has been linked to psychopathic behavior and individuals with psychopathic tendencies present significant empathic impairment (Blair, 2005, pp. 53-56).
More specifically for my purpose, Damasio (2007, p. 6 and also Adolphs et al., 2000), cites lesion studies and functional imaging evidence indicating that the ability to put oneself "in someone else's shoes" is precluded by damage to the insular cortex. Finally a study by Miller (2001) and colleagues of the brain disorder frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is also instructive. FTD attacks the frontal lobes and anterior temporal lobes, the site of one's sense of self. One early sympton of FTD is the loss of empathy and the brain wave activity of mirror neurons in individuals with autism reveals misfiring.
Prefiguring the argument to follow, here I distinguish individual "moral" misbehavior, a syndrome Damasio termed acquired sociopathic personality (2007, p. 6; 1990; 1994) from what I'm labeling a societal-wide culturally induced empathy disorder having structural roots. In a capitalist society, this impaired empathy dimension of sociopathy becomes normal behavior, an adaptive survival strategy that is rewarded under the prevailing rules (Lindsay, R. 2008; Knight-Jadczyk, 2003). Obviously this begs several questions which will be taken up below. [Parenthetically, the leading authority on psychopathic behavior cautions that individual "[P]sychopaths have little difficulty infiltrating the domains of business, politics, law enforcement, government,' academic and other social structures" (Hare, 1996 p. 40; Cleckley, 1941)].
Again, while there are reasons to remain skeptical about the progressive political implications flowing from this recent work, a body of impressive empirical evidence reveals that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments like empathy, precede the evolution of culture. To reiterate, the neurophysiological data strongly suggests that morality is grounded in biology. As Greene contends, it's not "handed down" from on high by religious authorities or philosophers but "handed up" as a consequence of the brain's evolutionary processes (Greene in Vedantam, 2007).
This work sustains Noam Chomsky's visionary writing about a human moral instinct and his 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, n.p., 1988; 2005, p. 263).
In his influential book Mutual Aid (1972, p. 57; 1902), the Russian revolutionary anarchist, geographer, and naturalist Petr Kropotkin, maintained that ". . . under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay." Special cooperation provided an evolutionary advantage, a "natural" strategy for survival.
Kropotkin readily acknowledged the role of competition, but he asserted that mutual aid was a "moral instinct" and "natural law." Based on his extensive studies of the animal world, he believed that this predisposition toward helping one another—human sociality—was of "prehuman origin." Killen and Cords, in a fittingly titled piece "Prince Kropotkin's Ghost," suggest that recent research in developmental psychology and primatology seems to vindicate Kropotkin's century-old assertions (2002).
Finally, in her recent study on the origins of human rights, historian Lynn Hunt hypothesizes that certain eighteenth century novels were an important factor in expanding a sense of psychological identification with others, what she terms an "imagined empathy." This physical experience in the human mind led directly to the concept of universal human rights because "For human rights to become self-evident, ordinary people had to have new kinds of understanding that came from new kinds of feelings." (Hunt, 2007, p. 34) She cites, in particular, Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48) and Rousseau's Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). She concludes that ". . . you know the meaning of human rights because you feel distressed when they are violated" (p. 214).
So where does this leave us? 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 technical details of the social neuroscientific analysis supporting these assertions lie outside this paper, but suffice it to note that progress is proceeding at an exponential pace, the new discoveries are persuasive (Iacoboni, 2008a, 2008b; Lamm, 2007; Jackson, 2006) and our understanding of empathy has increased dramatically in barely a decade.
That said, one of the most vexing problems that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending this empathic orientation to distant lives, 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 deep-seated 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. As de Waal reminds us, evolutionarily, empathy is the original starting point out of which sprang culture and language. But over time, the culture filters and influences how empathy evolves and is expressed (de Waal, 2007, p. 50). These belief systems tend to override the automatic, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring people together. Iacoboni hypothesizes the presence of what he labels super mirror neurons in the frontal lobe area of the brain. These more complex, highly developed super mirror neurons may control the so-called lower-level or classic neurons. In Iacoboni's words "The super mirror concept blends the idea of specialized cells for actions (mirror neurons) and some executive control within the mirror neuron system. So, in my view, super mirror neurons are strongly influenced by culture BECAUSE they are a special type of mirror neurons" (Personal communication, 5/6/08).
Hence a few cautionary notes are warranted. The first is that social context and triggering conditions are critical because, where there is conscious and massive elite manipulation, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get in touch with our moral faculties. Ervin Staub, a pioneering investigator in the field, acknowledges that even if empathy is rooted in nature, people will not act on it ". . . unless they have certain kinds of life experiences that shape their orientation toward other human beings and toward themselves (Staub, 2002, p. 222). As Jensen puts it, "The way we are educated and entertained keep us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others" (2002). 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 of putting oneself in another's emotional state. Recent studies suggest that ". . . affective dispositions, or attitudes, differ depending on whether the other is seen as a competitor or a cooperator, and in turn influence whether we react with a congruent or a non-congruent emotion to another's affect." That is, competitive relationships tend toward counter-empathic responses (Decety and Lamm, 2006).
One might argue that Americans have become collectively inured into somnolence but Sabrina Harmon's hundreds of photos from Abu Ghraib, including the now-iconic image of a hooded and wired figure standing on a box, are all that stood in the way of the government's desire to see this crime and cover-up concealed from the public. Harmon said she took the stomach-turning photographs of abuse and humiliation because "I was trying to expose what was being allowed, what the military was allowing to happen to other people." For her efforts, Harmon was prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison.
Conversely, the virtually ubiquitous feedback loop of the towers falling on September 11 tended to create a feeling within the viewer that she was in fact falling, producing both identification with falling victims and a powerful sense of fear of "terrorism" (Lakoff, 2001).
The second cautionary note is Hauser's (2006) observation that proximity was undoubtedly a factor in the expression of empathy. In our evolutionary past an attachment to the larger human family was virtually incomprehensible and therefore the emotional connection was lacking. Joshua Greene, a philosopher and neuroscientist, adds that "We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn't face the other kind of situation." He suggests that to extend this immediate emotion-linked morality—one based on fundamental brain circuits—to unseen victims requires paying less attention to intuition and more to the cognitive dimension. If this boundary isn't contrived, it would seem, at a minimum, circumstantial and thus worthy of reassessing morality (Greene, 2007, n.p.). Given some of the positive dimensions of globalization, the potential for identifying with the "stranger" has never been more auspicious.
As noted by filmmaker Ben Henretig, distribution of video on the internet (including YouTube) offers an unparalleled online platform for engendering empathy and action. "You can view, surreptitiously, police brutality in
But not in every case.
It may be helpful, as Halpern (1993, p. 169) suggests, to think of empathy as a sort of spark of natural curiosity, prompting a need for further understanding and deeper questioning. In her study of empathetic art, Jill Bennett calls attention to the affective and critical functions of "shock" art. It shocks us ". . . in the manner of what Brian Massumi has called ‘a shock to thought': a jolt that does not so much reveal truth as thrust us involuntarily into a mode of critical inquiry" (Bennett, 2005, p. 25). However, our understanding of how or whether political engagement follows remains in its infancy and considerable work remains to be done. Other writers make the seemingly optimistic case that society's moral guardians are those engaged in social communication, the most creative members of society including novelists, poets, musicians, photographers and film directors (Pizarro, Detweiler & Bloom, 2006). But while there's no denying their enormous potential, these talents are more often enlisted in the service of selling products than in arousing emotion on behalf of moral persuasion.
And putting it none too delicately, others worry that neuromarketing agencies will employ imaging techniques and research to evaluate consumer behavior and locate the "buy button in the brain" (Lee et al., 2007; Editorial, Nature Neuroscience, 2004).
Almost a century ago, Stein (1917) wrote about empathy as "the experience of foreign consciousness in general." Salles' film The Motorcycle Diaries addresses empathy, albeit indirectly. The film follows Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and his friend Alberto Granada on an eight-month trek across
The film's power is in its depiction of Guevara's emerging political awareness that occurs as a consequence of unfiltered cumulative experiences. During their 8,000-mile journey, they encounter massive poverty, exploitation, and brutal working conditions, all consequences of an unjust international economic order. By the end Guevara has turned away from being a doctor because medicine is limited to treating the symptoms of poverty. For him, revolution becomes the expression of empathy, the only effective way to address suffering's root causes. This requires melding the cognitive component of empathy with engagement, with resistance against asymmetrical power, always an inherently political act. Otherwise, empathy has no meaning. [This roughly parallels the political practice of brahma-viharas by engaged Buddhists.] In his own oft-quoted words (not included in the film) Guevara stated that "The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love."
A second example is Paul Farmer, the subject of Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains. Farmer, the contemporary medical anthropologist, infectious disease specialist and international public health activist, has adopted different tactics but his diagnosis of the "pathologies of power" is remarkably similar to Guevara. He also writes approvingly of
Again, it remains to be explained why there is such a paucity of real world examples of empathic behavior. If only four percent of the
In partial response, Hauser posits a "universal moral grammar," hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution; this neural machinery is unmediated by cognition; it 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 is promising but fails to give sufficient attention to the socioeconomic variables responsible for shaping the culture. As Goldschmidt argues, "It all has to do with the quality of justice and the availability of opportunity" (2006, p. 151) Earlier, Goldschmidt (1999, n.p.) argued that, "Culturally derived motives may replace, supplement or override genetically programmed behavior." As Rizzolatti and Craighero (2006) wisely remind us, "To use the mirror mechanism—a biological mechanism—strictly in a positive way, a further—cultural—addition is necessary."
This suggests that neither a reductive biological explanation nor a culture-inevitably-trumps-nature argument is defensible. Instead, I'm comfortable with what the political theorist William Connolly (2002) describes as ". . . politics through which cultural life mixes into the composition of body/brain process. And vice versa." Connolly, to my knowledge the first social scientist to employ the term neuropolitics, doesn't explore the mirror neurons/politics of empathy link in his erudite inquiry.
Recent work by Molnar-Szakacs and colleagues suggests that cultural stimuli imprint and influence certain neurobiological responses and subsequent behavior. Further, the culture and ethnicity of those conveying the messages seems to be a critical variable. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) they found significant measurable difference in mirror neural activity in their subjects depending on whether the information provider shared the subject's cultural/ethnic background. Molnar-Szakacs concludes, "Our data shows that both ethnicity and culture interact to influence activity in the brain, specifically within the mirror neuron network involved in social communication and interaction" (Molnar-Szakacs, 2007a, 2007b;
Here we return to our earlier question regarding the relative absence of widespread empathic responses within society. Cultures are rarely neutral, innocent phenomena but are consciously set up to reward some people and penalize others. As Parenti (2006) forcefully asserts, certain aspects of culture can function as instruments of social power and social domination through ideological indoctrination.
Culture is contested terrain and studying it can reveal how power is exercised and on whose behalf. Lakoff (2005) reminds us that in cognitive linguistics certain values like compassion are termed "contested concepts" because although a core meaning might be assumed, those holding a wildly different ideological commitment can appropriate and direct them toward other ends. The primer here is Gramsci's (1971) classic analysis of cultural hegemony in which capitalism maintains domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society's prevailing cultural norms. This consensual control is achieved through mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as "common sense."
Cohen and Rogers, in parsing Chomsky's critique of elites, note that "Once an unjust order exists, those benefitting from it have both an interest in maintaining it and, by virtue of their social advantages, the power to do so" (Cohen, 1991, p. 17). (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, 1996b, n.p.)
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, p. 7; Chomsky, 1988). In a recent interview, de Waal succinctly described this system maintenance function: "You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions" (de Waal, 2007b).
For this essay, and following Chomsky, I'm arguing that the human brain is the primary target of this perverse "nurture" or propaganda. In the context of this paper we might rephrase this as the human brain's mirror neuron network is the target of this manufacturing of ignorance and indifference because exposure to certain new truths about empathy—hard evidence about our innate moral nature—poses a direct threat to elite interests. There's no ghost in the machine, but the capitalist machine attempts to keep people in line with an ideological ghost, the notion of a self constructed on market values. This "[S]ort of very harsh political ideology is often sold as being congruent with how human nature operates. You look at free market capitalism as an extension of nature. Wall Street is a Darwinian jungle. But his is not how human nature actually operates" (de Waal, 2007b). But, as Kelleher observes, ". . . if no one saw himself or herself as capitalism needs them to do, their own self-respect would bar the system from exploiting and manipulating them (Kelleher, 2007). 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 elite manipulation, this cultivation of callousness.
First, the evolutionary and biological origins of empathy contribute robust empirical evidence—not wishful thinking or even logical inference—on behalf of a case for organizing vastly better societies. In that vein, this new research is entirely consistent with work on the nature of authentic love and the concrete expression in that love in the form of care, effort, responsibility, courage and respect. As Eagleton reminds us, if others are also engaging in this behavior ". . . the result is a form of reciprocal service which provides the context for each self to flourish. The traditional name for this reciprocity is love." Because reciprocity mandates equality and an end to exploitation and oppression, it follows that "a just, compassionate treatment of other people is on the grand scale of things one of the conditions for one's own thriving." And as social animals, when we act in this way we are realizing our natures "at their finest" (2007, pp. 170, 159-150, and 173). Allot (1992) provides an early account of the evolutionary history of love and its significance for human development and survival.
Predatory urges, cruelty, barbarism and more are also aspects of our nature and have their evolutionary origins and neural correlates. As Chomsky has written, "If you see somebody beating a child to death, should you say, "Well, you know that's human nature—which it is in fact: there certainly are conditions under which people will act just like that. To the extent the statement is true, and there is such an extent, it's just not relevant: human nature also has the capacity to lead to selflessness, and cooperation, and sacrifice, and support, and solidarity, and tremendous courage, and lots of other things too" (Chomsky, 2002, p. 356). The critical question is how to determine which will prevail, how to realize a form of global environment that enhances the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish.
I've noted elsewhere that Fromm's classic, The Art of Loving, is a blistering indictment of the social and economic forces that deny us life's most rewarding experience and "the only satisfying answer to the problem of human existence." For Fromm, grasping how society shapes our human instincts, hence our behavior, is in turn the key to understanding why "love thy neighbor," the love of the stranger, is so elusive in modern society.
The global capitalist culture with its premium on accumulation and profits not only devalues an empathic disposition but produces a stunted character where everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but individuals themselves. The very capacity to practice empathy (love) is subordinated to our state religion of the market in which each person seeks advantage in an alienating and endless commodity-greedy competition.
Over five decades ago, Fromm persuasively argued that "The principles of capitalist society and the principles of love are incompatible" (Fromm, 1956, p. 110). Any honest person knows that the dominant features of capitalist society tend to produce individuals who are estranged from themselves, crippled personalities robbed of their humanity and in a constant struggle to express empathic love. Little wonder that Fromm believed radical changes in our social structure and economic institutions were needed if empathy/love is to be anything more than a rare individual achievement and a socially marginal phenomenon. He understood that only when the economic system serves women and men, rather than the opposite, will this be possible (Olson, 2006).
The dominant cultural narrative of hyper-individualism is challenged and the insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature that claims we are motivated by greedy, dog-eat-dog "individual self-interest is all" is debunked. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to mainstream economics and David Brooks (2007), certain interpretations of human nature have invariably functioned to retard class consciousness. Despite its continuing supremacy in mainstream undergraduate textbooks, a massive amount of cross-cultural behavioral experiments have made a shambles of the canonical model, Homo economicus. In one recent study, Henrich and colleagues found that the self-interested behavior predicted by this selfishness axiom failed to materialize in all fifteen of the societies studied (Henrich, et al. 2005; Henrich et al. 2004; and further, Gintis et al. 2005b; Stanton, 2007). These new research findings help to further refute the allegation that people are naturally uncooperative, an argument frequently employed to intimidate and convince people that it's futile to seek a better society for everyone. Stripped of yet another rationalization for empire, predatory behavior on behalf of the capitalist mode of production becomes ever more transparent. And learning about the conscious suppression of this essential core of our nature should beg additional troubling questions about the motives behind other elite-generated ideologies, from neo-liberalism to the "war on terror."
Second, there are implications for students and teachers. Cultivating empathic engagement through education remains a poorly understood enterprise. College students, for example, may hear the ‘cry of the people' but the moral sound waves are muted as they pass through a series of powerful cultural baffles. Williams (1986, p. 143) notes that "While they may be models of compassion and generosity to those in their immediate circles, many of our students today have a blind spot for their responsibilities in the socio-political order. In the traditional vocabulary they are strong on charity but weak on justice."
Nussbaum (1997) defends American liberal education's record at cultivating an empathic imagination. She claims that understanding the lives of strangers and achieving cosmopolitan global citizenship can be realized through the arts and literary humanities. There is little solid evidence to substantiate this optimism and my own take on empathy-enhancing practices within
Third, 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, a study on the negative consequences of neo-liberalism in
Other failures to engage this moral sentiment include dire consequences for the planet itself. Within the next 100 years, one-half of all species now living will be extinct. Great apes, polar bears, tigers and elephants are all on the road to extinction due to rapacious growth, habitat destruction, and poaching. These human activities, not random extinction, will be the undoing of millions of years of evolution (Purvis, 2000). As Leakey puts it, "Whatever way you look at it, we're destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet. . . ." And researchers at
While one hesitates imputing too much transformative potential to this emotional capacity, there is nothing inconsistent about drawing more attention to inter-species empathy and eco-empathy. The latter may be essential for the protection of biotic communities. A compelling example of using technology to promote human empathy for the natural world is the extraordinary BBC production "Planet Earth." Decety and Lamm (2004) remind us that ". . . one of the most striking aspects of human empathy is that it can be felt for virtually any target, even targets of a different species."
This was foreshadowed at least fifty years ago. Paul Mattick, writing about Kropotkin's notion of mutual aid, noted that ". . . For a long time, however, survival in the animal world has not depended upon the practice of either mutual aid or competition but has been determined by the decisions of men as to which species should live and thrive and which should be exterminated. . . .[W]herever man rules, the "laws of nature" with regard to animal life cease to exist." This applies no less to humans and Mattick rightly observed that the demands of capital accumulation and capitalist social relations override and preclude mutual aid. As such, neuroscience findings are welcome and necessary but insufficient in themselves. For empathy to flourish requires the elimination of class relations (Mattick, 1956, pp. 2-3).
Fourth, 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" (de Waal, 2005, p. 9). Amin (2003), for example, proposes that the new
Finally, as de Waal observes, "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, p. 9). An ethos of empathy is an essential part of what it means to be human and empathically impaired societies, societies that fail to gratify this need should be found wanting. We've been systematically denied a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with this moral sentiment. I would argue that the tremendous amount of deception and fraud expended on behalf of overriding empathy is a cause for hope and cautious optimism. 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?
Abbreviated and preliminary versions of this paper appeared at www.zmag.org (5/20/07) and www.identitytheory.com (10/16/07). I wish to acknowledge helpful comments on earlier drafts by N. Chomsky, M. Iacoboni, K. Kelly, H. Nakao, S. Preston, and J. Wingard. Thanks, as always, to M. Ortiz.
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