Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Contemplating empathy's value

Human morality is likely a maturation of emotional empathy. The latter is also found in various primates. Chimpanzees, our closest living ancestors, also display an empathy that is more encompassing than other species save for us:
Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.
Chimp communities have methods for deflating internecine conflict. An instinct toward diffusing tensions within social groups has obvious social advantages:
If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.

Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.
This behavior can also be thought of as a precursor to social compromise and reciprocity, which in turn allows for groups to grow much larger than what is feasible in communities of one or a few dominant males and those subservient to them.

It is not without costs, however. Fit males are unable to capitalize on their full procreative potential. Scarce resources must be shared, and big finds are more quickly consumed. Warfare likely forced humans, out of necessity, to 'transcend' these restraints:
As Dr. de Waal sees it, human morality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries, with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. “The profound irony is that our noblest achievement — morality — has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior — warfare,” he writes. “The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter.”
From these localized beginnings, human morality has become increasingly ecumenical. Religion is a tangible representation of this phenomenon, and has helped facilitate it. It generally followed a similar path, from localized animism and shamanism, to regional supernatural narratives in Nordic and Greek mythology, to the universal accessibility of Christianity, and (arguably) to pluralistic humanism that is unconditionally all-inclusive.

The degree of moral sophistication likely differs between contemporary populations as well. Anglo populations descended from northwestern Europe seem to have gone the farthest, as evidenced by their propensity to engage in costly undertakings with a determination to make the world a better place for all its denizens. The leadership in business, media, and politics, all largely see the world from some variation of this universalist/propositionalist perspective. The 'ancient', pugnacious Bushmen are at the other end of the spectrum as the least morally 'evolved'.

In my favorite war strategy game, I find myself forming emotional bonds with the fictional troops I lead. Compromising the strength of an expeditionary force, I keep some warriors who've previously kept me alive garrisoned up uselessly in the center of my encampment just so they won't be at risk. This is absurd and self-destructive. But it is genuine. As a vegetarian and 'practitioner' of ahimsa, I'm a pretty extreme example, though my ancestry is Scottish and English.

I throw out the 's and the bit of self-indulgence as a segue into the question of how evolutionarily beneficial such moral ecumenicism is to human fitness going foward. Will it lead to self-immolation for those societies that extend it to other societies that do not have a universalist conception of morality? Will the latter societies on the receiving end use this moral generosity to overcome those giving it to them?

Randall Parker reports on emotional "brain damage" that inhibits emotive responses in those who've suffered from it:
Consider the following scenario: someone you know has AIDS and plans to infect others, some of whom will die. Your only options are to let it happen or to kill the person.

Do you pull the trigger?

Most people waver or say they could not, even if they agree that in theory they should. But according to a new study in the journal Nature, subjects with damage to a part of the frontal lobe make a less personal calculation.

The logical choice, they say, is to sacrifice one life to save many.
A morality that is extended wide enough to include all levels of an entire society facilitates technological and economic growth by allowing the most industrious in that society to rise to the top.

Despite East Asia's IQ advantage over Europe, the latter has been the world's advancing force for the last five centuries. The social immobility in the lands of Confucianism (although Confucianism is often thought of as being distinctly Chinese, it's influence in Korea and Japan has been monumental) retarded the East for hundreds of years, and communism has done so more recently. While China may have more raw human capital, it seems to have been inefficient in its use of that capital. With anxiety and curiousity, we wait to see whether or not China will finally be able to maximize that human potential and become the world's human epicenter.

Yet those with a damaged frontal lobe may have more of an edge than we realize.

As Asia continues to propel itself foward at a staggering rate, the struggle for natural resouces is going to be propelled to unprecedented levels. China alone has 1.3 billion people. At less than 5% of the world's total population, Americans consume about a quarter of the world's energy. China has more than four times as many people as the US. India will become even more populous than China in the coming decades. That's an enormous increase in demand. Will a dumbed down world be able to keep up on the supply side?

A cold logic devoid of emotive moralism may have a real premium in the future. Genetic engineering, a growing share of elder dependents, and claims to scarce resources are all areas in which utilitarian logic may become an absolute necessity.

It's plausible that genetic manipulation will eventually make for customized levels of emotional empathy. Those who are going to be combat soldiers, bounty hunters, and judges are not well served by being sappy. Occupational therapists and caretakers of the senile or handicapped, on the other hand, need to be especially empathetic.


JSBolton said...

I like it that scientists are finding these simian analogues of empathy.
Why do scholars become enraged over this, and try to quash research into subhuman empathy, saying one must never attribute human emotions to animals, or whatever their dogma exactly is?
It wouldn't be because those scholars have been trying to redefine man as the empathetic animal, would it?
If the essence of humanity were empathy for the distress of others, wouldn't that lead on towards supporting freedom-for-aggression, since we could then reject the wish to punish or exact revenge, or to attack real enemies?
Presently the genders differ as much on these empathy indicators, as genetic change could likely manufacture. Women would be paid more, if markets could value empathy as a feature rather than a bug, at least in the overall aspect.

Anonymous said...

All the empathy we are dispalying in this nation has been, well, excuse the phrase, fucking us real good. It is wrecking this nation. Interestingly, many of those who are all about empathy (wealthy liberals) never actually have to deal with the results of all of it. That benefit is reserved for people like you an me. We get to pay for it as well. Lucky us!
A little less empathy would be good all around from foreign (smash the enemy in Iraq without getting sappy about collateral damage or nonsense like Guantanamo) to domestic social policy (end handouts to the lazy, criminal and degenerate, and public schools while kicking out the hordes of 3rd worlders here). No wonder why everyone takes advantage of the US. We still send money to the Palestinians, so go figure. The Japanese know we won't do shit about their unfair (to us, Japan see nothing wrong with doing things that actually benefit Japan!) trade policies. They must be laughing their asses off.

As you point out, the Chinese (or most anybody else) are not crippled by this excessive empathy. They will do whatever they feel necessary to succeed, with no hand-wringing either. If it hurts some other country, then too bad. Emotive moralism can get you killed real easy. It is only to be more so in the future. The up side of course is that this could result in the death of vast amounst of emotional liberals. One can hope.

adog said...

You're playing war games and suggesting carpet bombing but still say you practice non violence? I'd say you're full of shit if I didn't know you.

dave in boca said...

Edward O. Wilson is eloquent in arguing for such moral development of humanity beginning in pre-human collectivities. In books like Sociobiology, On Human Nature, and Consilience he makes the now unfashionable remark that moral development is a function of teamwork, which is a function of empathy, etc.

crush41 said...


Scholars are weary of anything that attributes a biological basis for anything in humans. Can't start slipping and sliding down that path, because they've more than just an inkling as to where it'll eventually lead us.


It will certainly be interesting to see how a growing China will deal with the rest of the world, especially unstable or hostile states that try to interfere with their exporting or resource gathering. It's safe to say that the third-world will come to have an even less favorable view of Sinitic world power status than they do of the US today.


Fair-weather ahisma, of course :)


Wilson was a pioneer in making the case for the emotive-biological link that I'd say is probably more acceptable today than it was three decades ago, although understandably philosophers and moralists don't want to have to give yet even more ground to science.

Nerissa said...

Before you write off empathy as being non-productive I'd like to point out two things.

First, people normally work TOGETHER for greater productivity. Cold-hearted folks without empathy don't form strong teams. A non-empathetic individual might best an empathetic one but a strong team will best a dysfunctional team.

Second, in the USA and elsewhere we're not giving out handouts entirely out of the kindness of our hearts. Take the non-empathetic let 'em rot approach and let's see our cities burn as the poor masses riot. We are, in effect, paying them to keep the peace.


Audacious Epigone said...


I appreciate your thoughts, and I'm by no means either an expert on the subject nor firmly on one side or the other.

But relative to most of modern human history, a callous Machiavellianism might be more personally advantageous today than it has historically been in the past (at least in terms of secular and materialistic measures of success).