The lack of empathy

by scotslawstudent

I’m currently working on a criminal law essay which was:

  • started early enough not to be a panic (it’s worth doing this), and
  • on a question which encompasses most of everything (I was thinking that the sermon at mass yesterday was relevant)

One of the unexpected resources I’ve come across, which I won’t directly cite, was an Independent article on empathy.

The problem with “root of all evil” arguments is that it’s important to work out if the person speaking really has stumbled upon the root of all evil or if they are just a man who only has a hammer. I can’t quite make up my mind about Simon Baron-Cohen’s (cousin to that Baron-Cohen) contention that empathy (and the lack of empathy) determines basically all problems. People who put themselves in other peoples’ shoes don’t hurt other people.

I think that’s partly obvious but partly things are more complicated than that. I can put myself in others’ shoes reasonably well but I still hurt people (more than I’d like, frankly) so I don’t think I can put it down to being exposed to too much testosterone in the womb. Empathy is a tricky thing to make into a characteristic and I have a feeling that empathy is something you do rather than something you just have.

I have a well developed fear of heights and every time I climb somewhere high I can feel myself working out what it would take to fall off. In fact the way that I can climb anything is by obeying a mental “precariousness limit” and I find that sounds sane enough that I suspect everyone stops climbing when it feels too precarious. I wonder if I do a similar, unconscious, thinking process for empathy — I don’t pull the legs off flies because I’ve worked out that must hurt.

Disappointingly the article mainly focuses on the newsworthy examples – psychopaths – rather than the interesting cases – overly empathetic people – and it’s a tale of slavery and Nazis for the most part. I’d like to see why deeply empathetic people (level six empathy) can still do bad things.

H/T: Rock, Paper, Shotgun