Empathy Deficit

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Barack Obama, in an interview with Charlie Rose November 23, 2004 cited what he called America's "Empathy Deficit." He described it as the inability for too many Americans to see things from other Americans' perspective.

This meme is interesting in that it describes a social/moral issue in terms of a "deficit," like the budget deficit or the trade deficit, that gradually will erode the strength of the union however subtly it operates.

This deficit may require competent political leadership more than either of the other deficits.

Empathy is an innate human capacity, so how does the deficit develop? Whose interests does it serve to create an empathy deficit? Look at the flip side of empathy and the market value of non-empathy becomes clearer.

Individuals with a strong empathy deficit are called sociopaths. Sociopaths do not respond to the cries of the people they oppress. They are not deterred by the pain they cause to the animals they torture or the humans they abuse. They are mostly goaded on by the promises of individual satisfactions, and to the extent that they are deterred from some acts it is by a kind of calculating self interest. To the person who wants autocratic control over others, such individuals have utility in that what they are willing to do is governed largely by the threat of punishment -- and the autocrat is the one who has the power to withhold satisfactions and to deliver punishments.

In the ideas of some leaders, individuals with a strong capacity for empathy do not make good soldiers because they tend to hold back from some measures that they may be ordered to undertake. So one facet of military indoctrination may be to tear down the empathy quotients of recruits. Military commanders with a conscience and a desire to take into account the need to win over the hearts and minds of civilian populations (e.g., in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, etc.) are aware of the need to train recruits to take actions against enemy combatants without losing their empathy for all the people they may encounter in and around the battlefield.

Closer to home, there can be advantages for those who learn to put aside their empathy. Slaughtering cattle requires such a diminution as does becoming a "take no prisoners" businessman.

Contrast the kinds of power wielded by Adolf Hitler and Mohandas Gandhi. The first was able to use fear, hatred, and a sense of racial superiority to weld the population he controlled into a juggernaut. The second was able to use compassion, identification with "the other," and an awareness that all life is valuable to create a flexible bonding of people in and out of his immediate political sphere who would exert themselves on behalf of other people to create a better world.

What are the principles taught to the authoritarians? One of them is, "Take care of number one -- and while you are doing so remember to take care of the leader who facilitates your own goals."

What are the principles taught by those who seek to protect and enhance empathy? One of them is, "Nobody prospers without a good medium in which to grow, so protecting that good society and economy is essential to one's own growth and success. While any society can support a certain number of parasites, it is not in anybody's interests to do so. Therefore, society should restrain poorly socialized individuals from parasitically taking advantage of others. Citizens who feel empathy for other members of the society are directly motivated to help all of them get ahead, and when the greater society gets ahead the individual's success is enhanced."

One point that progressives need to hit hard is that there is no good reason for average people to be enablers for those who want to take advantage of them.

Another essential point is that fostering empathy is a principled activity that upholds the best in society. Without a society that genuinely cares about people, what would we have?

(And here's an idea for a future Obama speech:) Imagine an empathy surplus!

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