Empathy has been on my mind lately. Its absence in Donald Trump has been noted by numerous commentators as well as my fellow citizens. Why is this important? Here’s my take on it.
Empathy is the capacity to co-feel with another human being. We even extend that capacity to our relationship with other sentient creatures, especially our pets or any animals we instinctively feel a bond with. It is the capacity to “walk in another’s moccasins,” as the old saying goes.
All of this would be seen only as an altruistic virtue for the sensitive and high-minded if it were not also crucial to the underlying moral axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the Golden Rule embedded in the Torah and in Jesus’s teachings. Without empathy we have no way of sensing how our actions affect others and thus we cannot formulate either a rule or a calculus for our actions.
I imagine one could argue that the consequences of our actions could be evaluated on the basis of “objective” evidence that treats the other like a billiard ball on the pool table of life. In this case, you might seem to be following the Golden Rule by acting according to abstract rules some detached observer might derive from this axiom, much as Immanuel Kant argued two centuries ago. But you would be unable to plumb the feelings of respect, dignity, honor, love, and fear that power our deepest commitments, actions, and behaviors. You would be unable to understand the effects of your actions on real human beings. Empathy enables us to act according to the Golden Rule not merely in terms of its inherent logic but in terms of its real consequences for others. One could even argue that the value of the Golden Rule is only as deep or wide as the capacity of the actors for empathy.
In this respect the capacity for empathy could empower the highest kind of moral action, as we see in Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, or St. Francis of Assisi. However, it could also paralyze us in inaction, lest we be unable to choose among greater and lesser evils. Empathy gives us a psychological basis for ethics but it can also set a limit on our ethical action in the real world.
The lack of empathy can be labeled as “sociopathy” or “narcissism.” With this, we label the incapacity for a moral or ethical way of life as a medical disease or a psychopathology. An actor can seem to be acting in accordance with the Golden Rule, but in fact has lost the real world context for it. She or he would be play-acting an ethical life, trying to fool the people around them. Like so many people in our celebrity world, they have lost touch with the difference between their stage and the world we share together. This failure of understanding is also a failure of ethical development, a character flaw that makes an ethical orientation impossible. In politics, it is the basis for the “strong man” who is above the law and, more importantly, “above” ethics. It is the way of the dictator and demagogue.
It is in this sense that the Trump phenomenon, like its counterparts in other countries, is a failure in our moral will as well as in our economics and politics. Some have resisted the Trump phenomenon as a moral affront. They have drawn this moral line in the sand even when it seems to endanger their own views of their economic or political interests. Those who do not oppose Trump’s campaign may have their own reward, but it is not an ethical one.
Among people capable of empathy and a moral point of view, there can still be intense disagreements over policy and the facts and arguments supporting policies, but they can occur within an ethical discourse rooted in the moral principles which have withstood thousands of years of human testing. Politics is always a test of our ethical capacities, but this year’s US election is straining us all. It’s important to know what is at stake culturally as well as politically. Let’s keep the conversation healthy and strong.
When stuff like this starts driving me nuts, I do some woodworking. Here’s the latest, a cherry bowl with turquoise inlay, about 7 inches across.