Empathy Is Good; Justice Is Better
In a way, this is “Part 3” of an ongoing series of blog posts about the foundation for ethics. The question with which I began two essays ago was whether or not human rights depend on a transcendent reality “above” nature. Of course, all along (and I mean all along!) I have been arguing here that this is the case—namely that ethical and moral absolutes (not necessarily “rules”) must have some source and foundation “above” nature and that if nature is all there is, then there really can be no moral or ethical absolutes; all is relative.
This question and argument always garners an interesting set of responses. By far the majority of Christians and traditional Jews (to say nothing of Muslims and adherents of other theistic religions including Deism) already agree, so I hear very little from them. When I ask this question and point toward my answer, mostly atheists and agnostics, secular humanists and naturalists respond negatively (and sometimes viciously).
I hesitate to single out any commenter(s) for special treatment here by responding to him/her/them with a whole blog essay, but one person’s (or more persons’) response calls for such, not because I consider it especially pernicious or even obviously faulty but because it is worthy of a considered and somewhat lengthy response.
If I have understood her/he/them correctly, the response to my question and my argument about a transcendent source and foundation for moral and ethical absolutes has been that, if such exist, they are founded upon empathy. I do wonder if we are talking past each other, but I have tried to clarify that and, for now, anyway, believe I understand what he/she/they are saying.
My question, and invitation to conversation, was not about motivation for ethical and moral concern and action; it was about the source and foundation of moral and ethical absolutes. To me these are two different things—the motivation to be concerned and to act and the source and foundation for the moral and ethical principles one believes in.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Certainly empathy is a very good thing, but it is a feeling and therefore subjective. Everyone’s empathy is going to be slightly different, at least in measure, in intensity, and in terms of priority for involvement. Empathy is a wonderful motivator for social concern and for participation in ethical and moral action—for helping people, for social reform, for change in public policies.
However, if one is asked about why they—the questioner—should care and become involved, empathy only goes so far. What if they aren’t empathetic? That is often the case. Even if nobody empathizes with an oppressed individual or group their oppression is still morally and ethically wrong.
Let me offer an example of why empathy isn’t a sufficient foundation for moral and ethical principles.
According to some researchers I have read, Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary after watching newsreel of the German “Blitzkrieg” against Poland. In the film he has seen what the public did not see—innocent men, women and children being slaughtered. According to the researchers, Goebbels wrote in his diary “God harden my heart.” (This anecdote is reported in an essay by philosopher Eleanore Stump; look it up via any internet search engine using key words.)
In other words, he experienced at least a moment of real empathy for the slaughtered Polish people, but he thought there was an overriding principle that was higher and more important ethically and morally than his empathy. What that principle was is not important here. What’s important is to realize that moral and ethical principles must be more than subjective feelings. They must be inter-subjective and some must even be transcendent and absolute.
There are groups of people in this world for whom almost no one has empathy. Certainly that was true in the past; I assume it’s still true. I grew up in a state in which an entire segment of the population was literally despised by most people who did not belong to their group. They were treated as subhuman even if nobody would admit to believing they were subhuman. Nobody I knew growing up in that state had empathy for them. Yet, I came to believe that the way in which they were being treated was absolutely ethically and morally wrong—even as I still did not know any of them personally and did not have any particular emotion or feeling about them.
Again, empathy is good; justice is better. And justice will not automatically arise from empathy and it should be implemented in law and public policy even where no empathy exists—for the disadvantaged. Exactly what justice is is another question. My only argument here is that justice is a transcendental ideal rooted in ultimate reality which is both being and goodness. Call it/him/her/them God or not. (Plato did but apparently did not believe in a supreme personal being.)
Empathy is individual, ephemeral, subjective, fickle. Justice is not. It is real even though it is never fully captured or actualized perfectly in law or public policy. It is what “hovers” over all law and public policy (and treatment of individuals by others) “calling” them to higher, better and purer actualizations of itself. (I realize I’m anthropomorphizing “justice” here, but it’s a figure of speech unless there is a supreme personal being who embodies justice and to whom we are accountable.)
Only this is why slavery was absolutely morally and ethically wrong even when (hypothetically) everyone thought it was right.
This is like the old question about the tree falling in the forest when nobody is there to hear it. Does it make a sound? Yes, insofar as “sound” is defined as sound waves.
Does moral and ethical obligation exist when nobody feels empathy for those suffering oppression, neglect, disadvantage? Yes, but only insofar as justice is more than a feeling or emotion or even a social construction.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).