The Foundations of Empathy

It’s very strange when people—usually religious people—talk about an Absolute Morality. The very idea is preposterous. There are many beliefs about Morality (all of them wrong, because they miss point), and not all of them deal with religion. Virtually all modern religions, however, operate under the belief that we human beings receive our “Moral Sense” from some god or another. If this was the case, then what our Moral Sense told us would never change.

But it has changed. After all, 300 years ago, burning witches at the stake was perfectly acceptable. Having 25 year old men marrying 13 year old girls was perfectly acceptable until about 130 years ago. Slavery was perfectly acceptable until about 200 years ago. 2,000 years ago, “Eye for an eye” was a perfectly acceptable moral standard in most parts of the world. My point isn’t that any of these ideas are inherently right or wrong; just that they have changed. And we all know it. Even though several years ago I challenged my Uncle, since he claimed to believe that his unchanging god had been just in ordering the Israelites to rape and murder non-believers, to go get a knife and come back and kill me, because I wouldn’t resist, he opted not to do so. Clearly, he understood—on some deep subconscious level—that what was acceptable then wasn’t the same as what is acceptable now. He would never admit it, of course, but there’s no sense in denying reality.

What Society deems as acceptable has changed over the course of human history; it has changed significantly. There’s no telling what we find acceptable today but future generations will look back and be disgusted by. There’s no telling what we allow today but which will be disgusting 200 years from now. It’s impossible to predict in what ways the zeitgeist will move when it comes to detail, but one thing is clear: society tends, for whatever reason, to become more tolerant of differences over time.

There are, really, two kinds of Morality. There is Social Morality and there is Individual Morality. Unless we lie to ourselves, the truth of the matter is that we will get away with anything which we can get away with. This is true of every human being—though many will deny it. There is a hidden force, however, which affects “what we can get away with” apart from any conditions inflicted by Society. After all, it’s nearly impossible to get away with murder—but even if you could get away with murder, and you knew for a fact that you would get away with it, would you murder someone? Almost certainly not. Society’s Laws will have no impact on your decision to forgo murder. Instead, “something else” will cause you to decide not to kill anyone.

That “something else” is the same force which causes our Laws to change as we become more tolerant: Empathy. Before slavery was contested, white people didn’t have any problem with slavery because they did not apply Empathy to their relationships with blacks; instead, they did not accept the fact that black people were more similar than different and that only the color of skin distinguished them. It was not evil that caused massive amounts of people to allow slavery; it was intolerance. This intolerance left them utterly unable to extend their Empathy to apply to their slaves. As they became more tolerant of the differences, their Empathy began to apply, and the idea of slavery became repulsive; finally, Society reflected this influx of Empathy and outlawed the institution.

While we can postulate any number of reasons for Individuals within a Society to become more tolerant of the differences which distinguish them, the ultimate cause is Familiarity. As Familiarity with different races, different people, different cultures, and different beliefs increases, it becomes clearer and clearer that they are, ultimately, People, just like everyone else. Society is becoming more tolerant of gays and lesbians because we are more familiar with them. Gays and lesbians began expressing their lifestyles in the open, thereby forcing Society to familiarize with them, and Society has responded to this Familiarity with Tolerance. The same is currently happening with Atheists in the United States; as atheists express their lifestyle in the open, thereby forcing Society to familiarize with them, Society is responding to the familiarity with Tolerance. While not very long ago, open Atheists were more likely to be attacked and killed than gays and lesbians, the situation has already changed so drastically in the United States that I hardly ever get any death threats any longer. That’s always the point of these Expressionist Movements: to express the lifestyle in question, to force Society to become familiar with that lifestyle, and this yields the result of Society becoming more tolerant of that lifestyle.

Morality, then, is nothing more than a reflection of what actions Society at large is willing to accept and tolerate. It doesn’t exist as a thing independent of Society; it is intimately tied to Society. The concept may be independent, but “what actions are moral and what actions are immoral” are entirely dependent on Society’s familiarity with—and therefore tolerance of—a variety of lifestyles.

And ultimately what guides the Morality is Empathy. Left unrestricted by the bigotry imposed by unfamiliarity, Empathy creates a Society of total tolerance. If a Society could instantly and completely accept any lifestyle, then Empathy would reign supreme. It’s important, then, to understand—since Empathy is the ultimate driving force behind “what is acceptable and what is not”—what exactly Empathy is.

Empathy is… narcissism.

Every single sentient being views the world through the being’s eyes. This is more than a literal truth; by the virtue of existence, any living being has a perspective limited to experiencing reality as that being. Everything we see, everything we taste, everything we touch, and everything we experience is a relation to us. We judge everything by how it affects us and by what impact it leaves on us. We judge food by how it tastes, looks, and smells to us; we judge music by how it sounds to us; we judge friends by how they impact and modify other experiences, but also in how they impact us directly; we judge everything in terms of relation to ourselves.

These are obvious truths. This the nature of Subjective Experience, and that is actually a redundant term, since Experience is, by definition, Subjective. Everything within our lives and our lives as a whole are subjective experiences; they never can be objective because we are subjects. We are not hive minds; we are not omnipresent patterns of energy permeating through the entire universe feeling all at once from limitless perspectives. We are beings, and this means our experience will be subjective.

When you see a homeless man lying sick and hungry on the sidewalk, cold and shivering, thoroughly beaten around by life, you are affected. You are filled with pity, with remorse, with sympathy for this man, and these are all negative emotions. So when you later try to help the homeless man, you aren’t really doing it for his sake; you’re doing it to negate those negative emotions which he brought out in you and replace them with positive emotions. The reason you forgo murder is the same. You do not forgo murder because you think it’s wrong. You forgo murder because you anticipate that doing so would crush you with negative emotions like guilt, remorse, anxiety, and sorrow; you avoid these emotions by not committing the action.

The reason we do “good deeds” is exactly the same, as well. We do good deeds because we have negative emotions and we want to supplant them with positive emotions; or we do good deeds because we have neutral emotions, no emotions at all, in other words, and we want to supplant those neutral emotions—or the lack of emotions—with positive ones. Even doing a very minor good deed will fill a person with positive emotions. Even something so simple and mundane as paying for the McDonald’s order of the car in the drive-thru behind you will fill you with positive emotions, and you do the good deed in order to be filled with those positive emotions.

As a subjective being, there are only two ways in which Empathy could possibly function as a human condition in the first place. Either Empathy functions by the imagination, by the ability of a person to put oneself in the shoes of another, or Empathy functions by the subconscious desire to experience positive emotions and avoid negative emotions. There really aren’t any other options.

In actuality, if you examine these two things closely, you find that these two “functions” of Empathy… are actually the same thing. By using our imagination to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we also bring along the negative emotions which would come to us if we were in that person’s place. We use our imagination to empathize with our friend when she’s going through a break-up, and doing this fills us with those same negative emotions which we want to avoid. Once we’ve done this, we’ve connected ourselves to the situation so completely that we must help our friend get rid of those negative emotions; we must try to help our friend and supplant the negativity with positivity, for our own sake. And we become confused when we do this, because we don’t stop to think that it’s really our negative emotions which we’re trying to get rid of, not our friend’s.

And even if we do recognize that we’re removing the negative emotions from ourselves as well as our friend, rare is the person who can accept that our motivation is to remove them from ourselves and that if we remove them from our friend, it’s hardly more than a happy accident. So great is our Ego, our sense that we “must be good, noble creatures” that we are fully capable of ignoring this reality and instead operate under the delusion that our friend is the target of our efforts, not ourselves; we do not want to admit that we’re so selfish that we would be working to remove our own negative response to imagining ourselves in her situation when the convenient scapegoat is right there and we can easily say that we’re trying to remove her negative feelings and removing our own is just the happy accident.

One or the other must be true. We’re either trying to remove our friend’s negative emotions and accidentally remove our own in the process, or we’re trying to remove our own negative emotions and accidentally remove our friend’s in the process. We can very quickly determine which of these is true. As soon as your friend leaves your company—to return home or to work or whatever—and your friend’s situation falls from your mind, what happens? You forget about your friend’s problem, unless some event happens which recalls it to your attention. But you’ll forget about your friend’s problem as you go on about your own life, and the negative emotions you felt while empathizing with your friend will fade; they are no longer affecting you, and you no longer have any desire to do anything about your friend’s problem. Until your friend’s problem is brought back to your attention and those negative emotions return, you don’t have any desire to do anything about your friend’s problem. If you were truly acting for the sake of your friend, you would work toward removing her negative emotions, even when you were not feeling them for yourself while imagining yourself in her position or otherwise empathizing with her.

It’s clear then, that the real cause of Empathy is narcissism: we feel Empathy because we are instilled with negative emotions by certain circumstances and our desire to rid ourselves of those negative emotions leads us to invest time and energy into alleviating the circumstances which produced those negative emotions. Everything we do is selfishly motivated, is the done with the intention of bettering the way we feel. Morality is nothing but an extension of our ability to feel negative emotions based upon the conditions of others, and our ability to feel negative emotions based upon the conditions of others is nothing but a reflection of our tolerance of those others, while our tolerance of others is nothing more than a representation of our familiarity with that person “type”.

5 thoughts on “The Foundations of Empathy

  1. I agree more or less with what you had to say. Everything that we do is motivated deep down by our own desires not the desires of someone else. The fact that we help people in the process is just a good byproduct of those selfish desires. Now the question is why did I bother to leave a comment on this post? What selfish desire am I trying to fulfill by doing that? 😛 LOL

    • This is a sort of musing thing that I wrote years ago, and I’m not sure that I still see it in these terms, or at least not so… bluntly. I guess it’s true, though, that we are ultimately guided by self-interest. I mean, you’re right–we kinda have to be. Genetically, we’re programmed to be. Hmm.

      It’s a strange thing, this existence stuff. lol 😀

      • I think bluntness is needed at times and this being one of them. We like to bullshit ourselves into thinking that we are good people because we do these things for other people. When we are probably doing it for ourselves and our needs and desires. Whatever that might be.

        Yeah existence is a strange thing indeed. Takes a lifetime to figure it out if a person does it. 😛 LOL

    • I’m definitely going to have to revisit this.

      Do I think it’s possible to… just be nice? To just be generous? I don’t know. I don’t *think* that I believe it’s possible, but am I really willing to accept that? Am I really willing to think that it’s simply impossible for someone to just be kind and genuinely selfless about something? Hm. :/

      • I think it might be possible and it would take someone that has a lot of strength and courage. Because to be selfless one has to go against their basic instinct. That being self-preservation. To actually allow themselves to be harmed for the benefit of someone else.

        For example I could give you all the money you needed for your transition. People would be astounded by my selfless act. But is it so selfless, if I felt that the money I earned was not doing anything and I gave it to you so I could feel good about myself and all the money I had? But if on the other hand giving you the money meant that I went without eating or paying my rent because I could no longer afford it would that be selfless?

        I think when it comes down to questions like selfless, courage, strength and other attributes about a person the only one that can judge them is that person. That person can only judge if they are being honest with themselves like you said in the post. For only ourselves know really what is going on in our mind that lead us to making that choice.

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