Here’s a blog exchange that gives me a chance to revisit a favorite theme — what is evil? Ernest Partridge argues that evil is the absence of empathy. And it’s a good argument.
Someone who is utterly without empathy is, by definition, a sociopath. I think there are degrees of empathy deficiency short of sociopathy, however. You’ve probably known people who could be empathetic to others in their same demographic group but utterly callous to “outsiders,” for example.
Partridge goes on to describe today’s American Right as “regressives” who lack empathy, versus “progressives” whose moral worldview is based on empathy. And I think that’s a valid argument, but perhaps not the whole enchilada.
I would argue that the difference between today’s “conservatives” and those I like to call “normal people” is also a difference in cognitive ability. And I don’t mean just “smarts.”
Righties have rigidly linear thought processes; they don’t see the interconnectedness of things. The Iraq War is a good example of linear thinking — Saddam is bad, taking him out is good. They were incapable of even considering how “taking him out” might change Iraq’s relationship with Iran, for example, or how the ancient Sunni-Shia feud might impact postwar Iraq. Even now they don’t seem to grasp how much the war has and is and will cost the nation, nor how the rigidly linear focus on Iraq actually hurts our overall anti-terrorism efforts.
Domestically, they don’t appreciate how allowing New Orleans to rot might impact the rest of the U.S., or how allowing big chunks of the population to fall into poverty because of health care costs or the mortgage crisis might impact the economy as a whole. They can’t see outside the linear “people dumb enough to take junk mortgages/not have health insurance don’t deserve to be rescued.”
I’ve met some far left-wing ideologues who seemed no more empathetic than their right-wing counterparts. The difference is in where their loyalties lie. As for the rest of us, I don’t know if “seeing the interconnectedness of things” is the result of empathy, or vice versa, or unrelated. I think probably it is possible for someone to have a keen intellectual grasp of interconnectedness but rank only average on the empathy scale.
John Hawkins of Right Wing News has a different view of Partridge’s post.
At the RightOnline summit at Austin, we actually discussed the nature of “evil” for a while. While most people think of “evil” as a greasy character, twirling his mustache while planning to hurt the innocent for the sheer joy of it, that’s not an accurate description of most evil people.
Saying that evil people lack empathy gets closer to the truth, but isn’t quite right. Even a person who isn’t very empathetic could be pure of heart, live by Golden Rule, and be a great person.
I don’t think so. Hawkins is leaving out the self-bullshit factor, or the lies we tell ourselves to give ourselves permission to do whatever we want to do, consequences be damned. Empathy is a wonderful moderator of self-bullshit. Without it, people inevitably rationalize why the injury they do to others to get what they want is somehow justified, even “moral.”
So, what is at the core of evil? I’d say selfishness.
Selfish people aren’t empathetic and they don’t care very much about how their actions impact others because it’s all about them.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a distinction between Hawkins’s definition of “selfishness” and “absence of empathy.”
Oh, they may say they care about people and pretend to emphasize with them, but in reality, they do what they do only because it benefits them.
That’s classic sociopathic behavior.
…And regrettably, the “moral cornerstone of progressive politics” isn’t empathy, it is selfishness. Take that for what it’s worth.
What it’s worth? Since Hawkins doesn’t bother to explain why he thinks the “moral cornerstone of progressive politics” is selfishness, I’d say you’d get more value from a bucket of piss.
If you are talking about the moral cornerstone of progressive politics, I agree with Partridge — empathy, definitely. I argue that empathy — or, at least, good socialization — is the cornerstone of morality, period.
If you’re interested, I have an article about the Buddhist understanding of evil on the other site.