Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Empathy, Altruism and All That Jazz

Today’s subject is how complicated it is to be a good person in today’s world.

David Brooks offers deep-think about the “empathy craze,” citing research that “Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”

Half a century ago, Mike Nichols and Elaine May made that point by satirizing an elitist couple's detachment (“It’s basically a moral problem.” “Yes, and moral problems are so much more interesting than real problems.”)

Brooks, as usual, hammers it too hard: “(T)eaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

“People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes...

“It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow.”

It may be, but empathy is also a start toward identifying cruelty to others and raising awareness. Two years ago, in Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Republican senators opposed Justice Sonia Sotomayor, accusing her of having too much empathy for the disadvantaged.

The deeper problem surfaces in moving from empathy to altruism, a concern for others that even animals exhibit but is fast disappearing from American public life.

Tea Party lawmakers have their own “sacred codes,” but they are fixed on money, not people, as they now propose to cut education grants, job training for the unemployed and heating subsidies for the poor.

For Paul Ryan, Ron and Rand Paul and other Ayn Rand acolytes in Congress, the basic sacred principle is her dictum: “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”

Rand cited Communism and Fascism as social arrangements in which others sacrifice their interests for others, making no distinction between their brutal oppression and democratic societies that try to balance freedom with responsibility to others.

Now we have the fruits of her confusion being played out in Washington, with what the New York Times calls “An Icy Political Vision,” about which our professorial president is just starting to educate the American people with straight talk.

It will require many more lectures and hard work as the endless Republican debates keep selling the virtues of selfishness.

Being a good person is hard and complicated, but it’s practically impossible when empathy and altruism are turned into dirty words.

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