What this country needs is a good spanking
Haves and have-nots

Empathy -- sideshow or prelude?

Empathy-roots David Brooks has an interesting take on empathy in today's New York Times.

In brief, he thinks it's highly over-rated.

"It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them," he writes. "It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments."

His biggest beef with empathy is that it doesn't necessarily lead to action. For that, he says, people need a strong "sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code."

But from where does he think those "codes" spring? Could they be the product of an emotion, hardwired into our stone age brains over generations, that we call "empathy"?  

It seems to me that the particularly human capacity to feel another's pain -- and to share their joy -- plays an important role in the construction of our moral codes.

Brooks, of course, is correct that empathy is no cure-all. It’s easily manipulated, no more motivating than a good three-hanky movie, easier to muster for those who are near, and highly vulnerable to bias and selectivity.   

But when empathy is fully developed it can be a powerful brake on our more dangerous demons. A long series of experiments have demonstrated that the simple act of purposefully considering someone else’s point of view can reduce prejudice and deflate stereotypes, even of outcasts. 

Empathy isn't a "sideshow," as Brooks suggests.  It's only the first act in the process of developing the very codes of behavior he admires. And essential to confronting the weaknesses he decries.




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