Ideology and Empathy

My relationship with my parents has been stressed. It’s not just this past campaign season and the elections, but it does have to do with politics in general. I’ve seen this coming for years (by which I mean the larger social trends beyond just my parents), even if I couldn’t predict the personal impact it would have on my parents.

Back in the Bush presidency, I began to more fully understand the trends that were shaping the future. Conservatives thought they were on top of the world. Their narrative had dominated national politics since Reagan, even finding ways to capitalize during Clinton’s presidency. They had been angry and righteous for a long time, and it made them feel powerful, almost untouchable. They knew that they were the Real Americans. They knew they were the moral majority. The problem was that their knowledge was incomplete and not perfectly correlated to certain social realities.

George W. Bush was the culmination of the entire Southern Strategy: white Texan good ol’ boy (at least in persona), born-again Evangelical who spoke in grand religious terms (of America as a Christian nation and of good vs evil), social conservative who gave up alcohol and funded abstinence-only sex education, fiscal conservative who pushed tax breaks (especially for the “job-creators”) and trickle-down economics, and on and on. But it all ended in failure. It turned out to not be all that they dreamed of. They were lost and confused, and then they were defeated.

Along came Obama. He had vision and narrative, just like they once had. He pointed out the failures of conservative rule. The anger and righteousness of conservatives was magnified a thousandfold, verging on bitterness and cynicism. Out of this, the Tea Party formed and swayed the entire Republican Party along with the entire right-wing media.

Now, conservatives like my parents claim that Bush never was a real conservative and that they never cared about him, but they sure didn’t feel that way at the time. Anyone who questioned the Great, Wise Leader (particularly in his first term) was considered un-American and possibly a terrorist or at least a terrorist sympathizer, definitely someone of questionable morality and allegiances. I find it odd that my dad in the past often reacted with sensitivity to any criticism of Bush as if it had been a personal insult, yet now doesn’t even consider Bush a conservative. If it’s fine for “real conservatives” to criticize Bush, why isn’t it fine for everyone else to do so?

I’m not blaming my parents for changing their minds. I wouldn’t like a conservative call it flip-flopping for as a liberal I highly value the ability to change one’s mind. It would just be nice for them to acknowledge how much they once praised Bush and how they didn’t at the time argue that Bush wasn’t a real conservative.

I spend a lot of time with my parents. I care about them. Even as I judge conservatives, I all too well understand there is a personal side that goes beyond mere politics. My parents feel hurt and attacked, as if people like them no longer matter. From their perspective, they’re just trying to be good people, just trying to be responsible citizens. They’ve always played by the rules. They’ve worked hard. They don’t understand how everything went so wrong. They just don’t understand and they don’t feel understood.

What I wish they understood is that everyone wants to be understood. It seems to me that they want something that they haven’t always been willing to offer to others.

Yes, my parents have worked hard. But so have many others. There are hundreds of millions of people in America and billions of people in the world who have lived more difficult lives than my parents. Most of these people have suffered and struggled for no fault of their own, just circumstances of their birth. They get less understanding than my parents have received. They get less benefit of the doubt. They get fewer opportunities and fewer second chances. My parents have never known the lowest depths of poverty, extended unemployment and welfare (or, worse, depending on welfare despite being employed, never being able to make ends meet with minimum wage), having to choose between paying the bills or feeding one’s children, a life of homelessness with few if any prospects of escaping the streets, being treated with negative prejudice by the police and courts because of their skin color, etc. Relatively speaking, my parents have lived a life of privilege (and so have I, although my generation fared worse than did theirs).

Conservatives like my parents often feel very little empathy and compassion towards those deemed different or other. It’s not that conservatives are intentionally trying to be mean-spirited. They just don’t feel it on a gut-level. It’s not a part of who they are, not part of their life experience. The undocumented immigrant seeking to escape the violence and poverty of Mexico (that Americans have helped to cause), well too bad for them, they are foreigners, not ‘us’. The poor who have known generations of poverty along with oppression and prejudice, well too bad for them, it’s their own fault, they should quit complaining and work harder. Obviously, this isn’t the response Jesus would give, but that doesn’t seem to bother many conservatives, if they ever think about it. That said, my parents are more likely to think about it than some conservatives, but I’m not sure it often causes them to deeply question their own privilege.

In the end, I want to understand conservatives, even if many conservatives are unwilling or unable to return the favor to others. The reason I want to understand is that I have that basic liberal/leftist sense of all of us being products of our circumstances. My parents didn’t choose to be the way they are and I didn’t choose to be the way I am. There is no credit to be taken or blame to be given. People are just people, doing the best they can for the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes understanding is the best thing we can offer to others.

What frustrates me the most is knowing that my parents genuinely are good people. I’m sure most conservatives, like most people, are good people. It’s not that my parents lack the ability to empathize, but it’s just not their first response when dealing with people they don’t personally know or identify with, especially when it comes to groups that have been made into political scapegoats.

Let me return to the example of undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Mexican immigrants aren’t coming here for the fun of it or even for the free goodies (e.g., welfare). They are coming out of desperation. They risk their very lives to cross the border. They could die of heat, be murdered, kidnapped, sold into slavery, or any number of horrible ends… yet they come anyways, risking everything, many of them putting their entire faith in God to protect them and their families. They are that desperate, but most conservatives still wouldn’t naturally think to first compassionately empathize or to consider how American policies contribute to their misery. The US War on Drugs has created a thriving black market. American money funds Mexican drug cartels, criminals and corrupt politicians. American guns go across the border to help fuel the endless violence (and then Americans complain when a tiny fraction of that violence spills back over). All of us Americans are part of the problem for our government is part of the problem, but it never occurs to most conservatives to accept responsibility for being a part of the problem; instead, they blame the victims who are just trying to escape the misery.

I could present all of this to my parents. If I pushed the case hard enough, I might be able to get them to give a more empathetic response. However, they wouldn’t likely come to such a response on their own, at least not about such issues as undocumented immigrants. I don’t want to twist someone’s arm just to try to get some empathy. I’d like to live in a world where most people respond with empathy as their default position, idealist that I am.

I was just now reminded of the quote conservatives like to repeat: “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” There is some truth to it. Fear will make even liberals more conservative-minded, even if only temporarily. But the underlying worldview is questionable, that fear represents the norm of reality and mugging represents the norm of human behavior. I wouldn’t claim that the conservative response is always wrong, but it is problematic if one is stuck within a worldview of fear. When fear closes down the normal human response of empathy, that is when people act without compassion such as mugging others. A lack of empathy sadly too often leads to a lack of empathy, fear to fear, violence to violence to even more violence; a vicious cycle of crime leading to desperation and desperation leading to crime, ever escalating (as seen with the War on Drugs which has led to an increase of drug use, drug sales and drug-related incarcerations; and similar to what is seen with abstinence-only education and abortion bans which lead to an increase of teen pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs).

In considering the conservative response, I see something even more fundamental going on. It’s not just an issue of ideologically moralizing about empathy and compassion. It goes to a deeper level of how we view the world and experience reality, a level of the psyche that isn’t easily accessed by the conscious mind for our fundamental worldview is formed prior to even our sense of self being fully formed. This has to do with how one is raised or rather the environment in which one is raised. I keep coming back to the research that showed kids who grew up in multicultural environments tended to become socially liberal as adults (and vice versa for kids who grew up with monocultural environments).

That is essentially what differentiates my parents and I. A simple, yet crucial difference. More importantly, a difference that neither my parents nor I chose for ourselves, like everyone else simply a given of the social world we were born into.

This is why it’s so frustrating. After reaching adulthood, people rarely change. My parents experienced plenty of multiculturalism as adults, but they didn’t experience it during the key formative periods of youth. They can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a multicultural world, just as I can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a monocultural world. Morality and ideology fails us in this conundrum.

I can’t say my parents are objectively wrong for putting their principles before empathy. All I can do is argue that principles not based on and instead contrary to empathy aren’t worthy principles… but that is an opinion that is only persuasive to those who already agree with me.

Is there a way to frame the discussion so that conservatives would understand the central value of compassionate empathy? I know my parents would like to be empathetically understood by others. Such a desire is a potential beginning point for developing an ability and willingness to offer this to others. But why does the plea for mutual understanding almost always end up being characterized as a liberal agenda? Doesn’t mutual understanding benefit all, conservatives included? Is there a reason conservatives don’t want mutual understanding? Do they think some people don’t deserve it because they didn’t morally earn it? Do they see understanding offered freely as a moral danger, both to the person receiving and the person giving?

As always, I wish I understood.

24 thoughts on “Ideology and Empathy

  1. You raise a lot of complex issues and questions here. A lot of Christian conservatives don’t seem to take the “golden rule” seriously–“do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I deal a lot with the empathy issue with the clients I work with, many of them are totally lacking in it, in part because they lack the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Some of them have put a self-protective wall around themselves as a result of early trauma that doesn’t allow them to empathize, but some of it is a conscious or sub-conscious fear that they could be in that person’s shoes one day. Then their defense mechanisms kick in and they reassure themselves that this could never happen to them because they’re hard-working, industrious, good Christians, etc etc etc. They are in denial about the many factors that are completely out of one’s control.
    This is a link to an interesting article about how our brains are wired so that we can’t be analytical and empathetic at the same time. As I understand what the author is saying, the key to good mental health is knowing when to use which function.

    • Wodpress just deleted my comment which causes me to feel a lack of empathy for wordpress.

      Let me repeat what I said in simpler wording.

      Conservatives seem to lack both empathy and analysis with those outside of their group, maybe because they have so much exclusionary empathy for those within their group. Liberals seem to have bothempathy and analysis with those outside their group, maybe because they lack exclusionary empathy for those within their group.

      This relates to the correlated psychological predispositions of openness to experience and thin boundary type. If the study was repeated, I’m willing to bet the researchers would find that liberals have a greater capacity to easily and quickly switch between empathy and analysis, even if they can’t operate in both modes simultaneously.

      • Well of course this is true, I guess I always accepted that as a given for healthy people. You can and sometimes should be analytical, but you have to know when empathy needs to kick in, I suppose that’s something you learn at your mother’s knee. The classic story about a poor elderly woman stealing cat food from a grocery store because she had nothing to eat is a good example. Yes, she might have committed a crime, but she was starving and elderly, so what would be a just disposition? The purely analytical person would say throw her in jail end of story, while the person with empathy would take her circumstances into account. I don’t know that this is a liberal trait, although more liberals would probably be empathetic to the woman’s plight. I’ve known some conservative judges who throw the book at drug dealers, yet are surprisingly compassionate toward people with mental disabilities who end up in the criminal justice system. I think that people who live in the real world and not some fantasy of their own making know that life is not black and white, there are varying shades of gray, so the objective analysis must be tempered by individual circumstances.

        • There are a few things to always keep in mind.

          Conservatives correlate to conservative-minded traits and liberals correlate to liberal-minded traits, but not all conservatives are strongly conservative-minded and not all liberals are lberal-minded. Psychological traits exist on a spectrum. Most people are closer to the middle than at the extremes, but you’re more likely to find politicians, activists, partisans and other similar people at the extremes.

          Most importantly, psychological traits on a spectrum aren’t mutually exclusive. People tend to favor one side or the other, but it isn’t unusual for someone to have both sides of the spectrum developed to some degree.

          The confusion is created because for clarification and simplicity psychological traits are usually discussed in a dualistic framework, and this is is even more true when speaking of psychological traits in terms of ideological labels.

          I try to be careful in using my language. For example, I often mention that my parents especially my dad are somewhat liberal-minded in some ways. Living in the Deep South, a friend of my dad’s would jokingly call him a secret liberal. It shows the complexity of such issues that I largely learned my liberal-mindedness from my conservative parents.

          However, in order to make distinctions, I emphasize the traits as they are seen at the extremes. I also emphasize the extremes sometimes when referring to my parents because they have increasngly shifted further to the right as they’ve aged. Most people become more conservative-minded as they age for the simpl reason the brain loses its plasticity. It is more difficult for an older brain to form new connections and so it is challenging for an older person to deal with new ideas, info and experience.

          I also think there is genuine value in speaking about psychological traits as dichotomies. First, even if not the majority, a significant number of people operate at the extremes and these people often have a disproportionate influence on ideological movements. Second, even small degrees of difference near the middle of the spectrum can have massive differences in behavior and certain contexts such as politics can magnify those differences.

          If you’re interested, I’d particularly recommend checking out Ernest Hartmann’s theory of boundary types. It has immense explanatory power considering its relative simplicity. Boundary types seem to get at a fundamental difference between the broad categories of liberal and conservative. The theory would be particularly relevant to the article you linked as that research apparently discovered a boundary between empathy and analysis. A thin boundary type would relate differently to that boundary than would a thick boundary type.

          • You raise some good points, and I agree with everything you’re saying.. Its clear that up to now the extremes have dominated politics for a long time, and the media have played a major role in this, the result has been a nation that appears to be extremely polarized. The notion that if you’re not for X then you must be for Y and vice versa has been accepted as a given. Maybe this is true of politicans who are trying to appeal to their base (in the case of Republicans a very small base), but I don’t believe the majority of people are at either extreme, especially on the social issues. A good example of this is when Hillary Clinton–and later Barack Obama–while discussing the issue of abortion said she thought it should be safe, legal, and rare. That seems to me to be a middle of the road position, but this would certainly not satisfy the most rabid right-wing extremist who sees anything short of a complete overthrow of Roe v Wade as a complete failure. As though overthrowing Roe v Wade would stop abortions. Women of means have always been able to obtain abortions that are safe and sterile and do not imperil their lives. So really the only people who would be affected if Roe were overturned are those women who lack the means to obtain them and have to resort to the back-alley variety. So a person can be pro-life but at the same time be in favor of letting Roe stand. When you tell this to some conservatives they don’t want to discuss it because either a) it complicates their very narrow world view, or b) they just don’t understand where you’re coming from.

  2. This is issue is obviously personal to me. I’m unable of having a simplistic us vs them attitude when it comes to the liberal/conservative divide.

    I realize liberal-mindedness was something that developed in me because of factors eternal to me. If those factors had been different, then so would I. Likewise, it wasn’t inevitable that my parents became conservatives and became as conservative-minded as they aged.

    Our social environment has a powerful impact to me. This understaning has been central to American liberalism since at least the Populist Era, but it’s not like liberals have a copyright on it. If you frame it the right way, conservatives often can be made to understand it. Nonetheless, it is a challenge.

    My parents tend to see their own consevatism as absolute principles, close to being good vs evil in the Christian sense. They weren’t always this attracted to this right-wing worldview. I doubt they could imagine themselvs having become liberals under different conditions. They don’t even remember how liberal-minded they were prior to spending a couple of decades in te Deep South.

    The ability to imagine something different is the other factor that is needed to understand what I was trying to get at this post. It’s not that conservatives lack empathy, but there is a particular type of empathy that they are less predisposed to. It is empathy combined with imagination. I coined the term of empathetic imagination to describe this ability.

    Basically, conservatives fnd it easier to empathize with that which is familiar and known. If imagination is required, it becomes more difficult for conservatives to empathize. There is a study where conservatives and liberals were sked about which types of people they empathize with. Conservatives admitted that they felt the least empathy for strangers and foreigners, but liberals ranked them higher on their empathy list.

    The only explanation I’ve been able to come to is that of empathetic imagination. The experience of a stranger or a foreigner (a Mexican immigrant being both for my parents) is an unknown. Conservatives are more likely to respond with fear. Research even shows conservatives ‘brains are larger specifically in the area that deals with fear. Empathy can’t counter fear without imagination. Only empathetic imagination can transform the unknown into a known, the strange into the familiar.

    This all starts making sense when you throw in the research about growing up in a multicultural environment. Such people probably grow up socially liberal because they are forced to deal with many different people. This develops the ability of empathetic imagination which simply means the ability to empathize with those who are different.

    Everyone is born with the ability to empathize with those who are similar to oneself (research showing infants are xenophobic racists), but no one is born with empathetic imagination. There is the inherent potential of empathetic imagination and it requires specific conditions for that potential to manifest. This is centrally what liberalism is all about.

    That is my theory.

    • I want to revise my theory as stated above. I think that we are born with infinite potential for all kinds of traits, abilities and behaviors. We all are born with the potential for conservatism and liberalism, fear and empathy, etc. All of these erve useful purposes in their proper context. If we don’t develop some of these potentials, we will be lacking part of our humanity. Certain conditions such as autism seem to be the result of part of human potential not developing fully or at all. Other conditions are caused by other imbalances of development such as those with extreme liberal-mindedness and extreme conservative-mindedness. Both underdevelopment and overdevelopment can be problematic. If a baby is born without any genetic or physical defects and is raised in a healthy environment, it is probably more likely for that baby to grow up to be a balanced adult.

    • There was something I was trying to get at with my theory, but I don’t think I communicated one important aspect. It has to do with how social environments influence us, not just in our childhood but throughout our life. Even as we age, we maintain some capacity for change.

      I was thinking about this in considering my parents. They both grew up in a monocultural environment which created an initial predisposition of conservative-mindedness. Because of this, they’ve identified as conservatives their entire live.

      However, they experienced much multiculturalism in the first part of their adulthood (college, military, moving around to different regions, living in liberal communities such as college towns, going to liberal churches, etc). This led them to develop liberal-minded traits which meant that I grew up while my parents were going through a liberal phase and so they taught me liberal-mindedness.

      My dad’s career led us to move to the Deep South in Columbia, SC. It was still a relatively liberal college town, relative to the Deep South, but it also had higher rates of right-wing mentality, especially among the people my parents associated with (conservative church, university business management department, upper class friends including an anti-communist of Cuban descent, etc). On top of this, the right-wing fully took over the GOP in the 1990s, Bush pushed the country further to the right, 9/11 attack, War on Terror, recession, Tea Party, fear, fear, and more fear. All of this pushed my parents into a deeply conservative-minded funk and their former moderate conservatism disappeared.

      On one level, this is depressing. It shows how much power fear-mongers can wield. Yet, on another level, it offers a possibility of hope. If increasing fear can turn moderate conservatives into right-wingers, then lessening fear can turn right-wingers into moderate conservatives.

    • I was puzzling over your offering, and I arrived at a surprising theory. Feel free to knock this one down; in fact I won’t mind if you do.

      My first thoughts were about the practical applications of empathy. We could define practical empathy as the ability to share another person’s worldview. To extend this even further, it could be described as a sense of oneness. Taken to it’s extreme, it could also be seen as a group of people who share the same monolithic worldview and march in lockstep in their actions. My point being, too much empathy might not be a good thing. In a Taoist sense, what would be the balancing impulse that keeps empathy from becoming monolithic? It would be diversity. In a positive sense, it would be a worldview that respects and tolerates difference. Taken to the next level, it would be independence. At the extreme, it would be schism and isolation.

      Being a liberal myself, I like to assume that in the right vs. left comparison, we are the side that has the greater capacity of empathy. But is this really true? Might it not instead be the case that the right, at least in our culture, as succeeded in taking empathy to the extreme, and created a monolithic worldview in which differences and contradictions are now ignored for the sake of unity?

      Similarly, one of the cricisms often leveled at the left is that they are not acting in concert. We all have our own pet causes, such as civil rights, or environmentalism, and we tend to see our politics in terms of our own interests more than those of the whole movement. We certainly haven’t reached a toxic level of separation, but we do have trouble getting eveyone out to vote when their own special interest is not threatened.

      As your essay demonstrates, the situation between liberal and conservative certainly is complex. I think this might be defined as an observation of another interesting counter-current in the crucible that you describe. Similarly, it is something I will have to take into consideration before I assume the inherent awesomness of new evolutionary adaptations that involve the cultivation of a predispostion for empathy or “oneness” in the human genome.

      • “We could define practical empathy as the ability to share another person’s worldview. To extend this even further, it could be described as a sense of oneness. Taken to it’s extreme, it could also be seen as a group of people who share the same monolithic worldview and march in lockstep in their actions.”

        I added some data in a separate comment for the purpose of responding to your comment.

        In that data, it is clear that liberals and conservatives express empathy in two different ways. Conservatives have exclusive empathy which is empathy that maintains a sense of in-group identity, us vs them. What is interesting in this is that there is a negative form of empathy, i.e., xenophobia. It’s not just that conservatives lack empathy for those outside their group, but that they actively dislike or distrust such people.

        Liberals aren’t just the opposite, though. Liberals don’t show the strong empathy divide. This is what I’d call inclusive empathy.

        Liberals are more like libertarians in terms of treating people equally. Liberals more equally empathize with everyone and show no xenophobia toward any particular group. Libertarians are more equal in that they are equally weaker in both empathy and xenophobia toward all groups which seems to mean more of an emotional neutrality and moral indifference toward others, just simple straightforward individualism, don’t bother them and they won’t bother you, they won’t ask for your help nor offer you help.

        Two things can be concluded.

        First, liberals have a higher on average empathy for all people and in fact all living things. Liberals just care about others, no matter who they are.

        Second, conservatives have a higher sense of empathy about particular groups. If conservatives empathize with someone, they care greatly. But if they don’t empathize with someone, they might just do horrible things to you or else let horrible things happen to you without any sense of a guilty conscience. Your either one of them or you’re nothing.

        So, this results in a more equal and broader liberal empathy and a more focused and narrower conservative empathy. On a practical level, liberals will never care about any single category or group as much as conservatives will care about those they identify with. This is what makes conservative politics so virulent. What conservatives care about comes with great emotional force. Liberal moderateness lacks that divisive righteousness as found with the conservative empathy/xenophobia combo.

        “My point being, too much empathy might not be a good thing. In a Taoist sense, what would be the balancing impulse that keeps empathy from becoming monolithic? It would be diversity. In a positive sense, it would be a worldview that respects and tolerates difference. Taken to the next level, it would be independence. At the extreme, it would be schism and isolation.”

        In a sense, you are therefore correct that too much empathy is problematic or rather too much empathy narrowly focused. The problem isn’t too much empathy in a general sense for liberals have more empathy on average. What really makes conservative empathy so dangerous is that it is so narrow and so exclusionary. Empathy only manifests in a potentially oppressive way when it is combined with xenophobia.

        It’s not independence that can counter xenophobia. Only the broadening of empathy can bring it to a higher level that serves all people, rather than just serving one particular group against everyone else. I would put the emphasis on the diversity aspect. Diversity would mean a broader and more inclusive empathy, interdependence rather than independence.

        Or you could go the libertarian route and have an independent-minded diversity of indifference, but this wouldn’t likely work on the large scale since libertarians are such a small minority. Libertarian equal opportunity indifference would be no match against the power of the conservative worldview.

        “Being a liberal myself, I like to assume that in the right vs. left comparison, we are the side that has the greater capacity of empathy. But is this really true? Might it not instead be the case that the right, at least in our culture, as succeeded in taking empathy to the extreme, and created a monolithic worldview in which differences and contradictions are now ignored for the sake of unity?”

        From all the research I’ve looked at, it seems that liberals have greater empathy in the broad sense meaning greater average empathy toward more variety of people and living things. Also, liberals seem to be more empathic which would corroborate the conclusion of greater or at least broader empathy.

        The ability to empathically understand others probably is necessary to empathize with them. That is my argument about empathetic imagination. For those conservatives identify with, they empathically understand and so they empathize with them. Liberals, however, have a greater ability to empathically understand those they don’t personally identify with and so that is why their empathy can be broadened beyond their own personal experience and their own group.

        As I see it, balance is necessary. Empathy without empathic understanding maybe inevitably leads to xenophobia. Libertarians probably don’t have the levels of empathic understanding of liberals, but they avoid the xenophobia by also having lower levels of empathy. So, the two best options are to be balanced in having either lots of both empathic understanding and empathy or lesser of both. It’s wise to avoid your empathy exceeding your empathic understanding.

        “Similarly, one of the cricisms often leveled at the left is that they are not acting in concert. We all have our own pet causes, such as civil rights, or environmentalism, and we tend to see our politics in terms of our own interests more than those of the whole movement. We certainly haven’t reached a toxic level of separation, but we do have trouble getting eveyone out to vote when their own special interest is not threatened.”

        Liberal inclusionary empathy includes to many diverse types and groups of people with diverse interests. That is why the Democratic Party is a big tent party: social liberals and fiscal liberals, whites and blacks, religious and atheists, rich and poor, well educated and less educated, higher IQ and lower IQ, etc.

        “As your essay demonstrates, the situation between liberal and conservative certainly is complex.”

        It might be better to think of liberalism and conservatism as mental states and capacities. I recommend liberalism not because it is in all ways better than conservatism. I just think it’s easier to balance liberalism with conservatism than the other way around. This makes liberalism a better starting point or resting point. A main talent of liberalism is to include, even including conservatism. The opposing talent of conservatives is to exclude which is problematic if we are to try to find balance between these two tendencies.

  3. To offer some data as context, I wrote the following post which is relevant for two of the linked articles that were evidence for the argument I made there:

    Here are the two links and the specific quotes I added to that post:

    “They offered some other scenarios too, about collateral damage in military situations, for instance, and found similar differences: Conservatives accepted collateral damage more easily if the dead were Iraqis than if they were Americans, while liberals accepted civilian deaths more readily if the dead were Americans rather than Iraqis.”

    “We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians. Conversely, though not to the same extent, conservatives are more sympathetic toward soldiers and babies than are progressives and liberals. Criminals, drug addicts, and the homeless are again more “popular” among progressives and liberals than among conservatives and libertarians.

    “Sympathy here is a relative term. Absolutely speaking, progressives and liberals are very sympathetic towards babies and American soldiers, for example. It is only when sympathy is compared between different groups that significant differences emerge. For very conservative voters, American soldiers are on the top. For progressives, soldiers share fourth place with foreigners.”

    The first article shows two interesting differences between liberals and conservatives.

    Liberals are more willing to what could be called self-sacrifice in terms of those people who are most like themselves. Conservatives would rather sacrifice people who are different.

    Liberals are more accepting of casualties of people in a position of power rather than casualties of people in a position of weakness. Conservatives are, of course, the opposite.

    In one scenario, liberals were more willing to sacrifice a white person than a black person. This could be because most liberals asked were white and so, when given a forced choice, they’d rather choose the least racist choice. But conservatives maybe didn’t mind being self-serving to their own race. Otherwise, this could be because whites have held and still hold most of the power in America, and so being put in a position of power to make a choice liberals would rather to help the most weak and defenseless in society.

    In another scenario, liberals were less willing to sacrifice innocent Iraqis, probably because they were innocent in two different ways in the scenario: 1) they were civilians, and 2) they were defenseless against a war of aggression committed by Americans which meant they had no choice in being in a war zone. Liberals were more accepting of American civilians dying in an Iraqi war zone, probably for the reason that, despite being civilians, they weren’t unwilling participants in that they freely chose to enter a war zone. Generally speaking, Americans as part of an American invasion and occupation are in a position of power, rather than Iraqis who are in a position of weakness.

    The second article brings forth evidence that is more helpful in that it doesn’t demand a forced choice.

    What the evidence shows is that liberals both have more empathy on average across all categories and more equal empathy for all.

    Conservatives do have slightly more empathy for American soldiers, for example, but they have massively less empathy for other categories of individuals such as animals, drug addicts, foreigners, homeless, etc. So, conservatives appear to have less empathy on average.

    There is a vast difference between those conservatives have empathy for and those they don’t. The obvious implication is that the conservative empathizes more with the American soldier than with the foreigner killed by the American soldier, and this empathy doesn’t even necessitate that the foreigner be an enemy combatant, just that they be a foreigner.

    • Part of the problem is defining empathy.

      Empathy relates to empathic understanding and the related concept I call empathetic understanding, along with attributes like compassion and charitableness. There are all the FFM traits such as conscientiousness and openness that correlate to ideology, along with MBTI intuition and perception and Hartmann’s boundary types.

      I see the distinction between broad inclusive empathy and narrow exclusionary empathy. Then there is the fear/dusgust response of conservatives that seems related to both xenophobia and exclusionary empathy. Of course, there are also such things as authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, narcissism and sociopathy.

      Various factors correlate in all kinds of ways which complicates what is causing what and which of these are ultimately meaningful. I don’t know how to disentangle them all, but there do seem to be consistent patterns of correlation emerging from all the recent research.


    “Interest in politics is positively correlated with empathic concern in liberals/democrats and not in conservatives/republicans.”

    “Those scoring higher on disgust/threat indexes are more likely to score lower on empathy and vote conservative, whereas those scoring higher on maximising equality and minimising harm are more likely to score higher in empathy and be left wing.”

    “Individuals who are open-minded are more likely to be empathic, when compared to close-minded individuals. This correlation is also integrated with open-minded individuals who are likely to share similar political ideologies. Some shared political ideologies may include different levels of flexibility, receptiveness, and tolerance (Tetlock 1983). The correlations in this study are theorized, and can be confirmed with previous research. Open-mindedness and empathy can be supported by the Multicultural Personality Questionnaire (MPQ). The MPQ is similar to the Rockeach Scale for open-mindedness used in this experiment because both use the total sum of the ranked questions to receive a raw score; as compared a scale that would provide self-reporting measures and may not provide accurate data (Ramirez 1991).

    “As mentioned previously, open-mindedness is understood to be the process of showing receptiveness to new or different ideas. Open-mindedness is positively correlated with high empathy, as well as with political ideology. Voting practices provide an application of behavior to previous theoretical studies.

    “The behavioral measure chosen for this study was voting on Proposition 8, which eliminated the right for same-sex couples to get legally married, and so may be regarded as a social injustice. This behavioral measure supported the theoretical ideals by showing that open-minded individuals who show more empathy and share similar political ideals are more likely to vote ‘No’ on Proposition 8. Results suggest that a vote ‘No’ on Proposition 8, demonstrates open-mindedness and empathy for different minority groups and appreciation for diversity. These groups of open-minded and empathic individuals are categorized as ‘moderate to liberal’ political voters. Therefore, voters who selected this category have similar political beliefs including: respect for diversity, empathy, and compassion more than individuals who selected ‘conservative to moderate’, who tend to be less empathic.”

  5. It ultimately doesn’t matter to me if liberals are more empathetic than conservatives. The ideology part doesn’t matter at all, except as it may relate to human potential that can be developed or suppressed. The truly important part of empathy isn’t the amount, but the quality and the results.

    It’s sort of like the argument about charity. Some argue that conservatives donate more and volunteer more than liberals. If so, that is wonderful. But it doesn’t change that conservative communities, US states and countries consistently do worse on numerous social measures.

    Just for argument’s sake, let us assume for a moment that conservatives did give more in charity and so were stronger in their empathy. Or we could assume that empathy doesn’t matter at all and that, as some conservatives argue, emotion just gets in the way of rationality and pragmatism. Either way, conservative policies still don’t show positive social benefit or even economic improvement.

    In dismissing the plight and misery of Mexican immigrants, as the example I keep using, what do conservatives gain or think they gain? How does creating a world of fear make the world a better place?

    I don’t think of myself as an individual good person in any grand way. My conservative parents as individuals do more good for society in terms of charity, but then again they’ve benefited more than most people from the good of society. Individual goodness isn’t the issue. I don’t care about intents or even actions. I care about results.

    I don’t want to be righteous and I don’t give a shit about the righteousness of conservatives. Righteousness is meaningless at best, sometimes leading to or justifying the worst in humanity. I want to live in a better world where there isn’t endless suffering. The problem as I see it is that conservatives place their ‘principles’ or their political agendas or whatever above simply and humbly making the world a better place. What is the point of conservatives trying to maintain some ephemeral moral order if it is built on pain and suffering?

    • My comment came about when I was considering the the possible results if humans did adapt to the current social environment by evolving a genetic predisposition to empathy, rather than having to cultivate or discover it, as most of us seem to have to do now. It dawned on me that one result might be a proclivity for a new race of humans that had a tendency to all think alike. In other words, is it possible that empathy and diversity might somehow be opposed to one another? Since I have strong positive views of both empathy and diversity, I proposed a kind of “extremist empathy” that results in a monolithic worldview, and an “extremist diversity” that results in selfishness and xenophobia.

      One of the first anthropologists whose writings I really enjoyed was Carleton Coon. He traveled all over the world during the early and mid 1900’s visiting the various remaining ethnic groups, getting them to pose for pictures, taking various physical measurements such as cranial size, etc and developed a kind of statistical encyclopedia of different societies of people. Because he in effect demonstrated the differences, or diversity of human beings, at the end of his career many people declared that he was a racist. I disagree. I think he just loved diversity. (And this led him, on occassion, to make some ethnic jokes, but they were not mean-spirited.) And I would content that there is no possible way he could have penetrated into so many closed and primitive societies, let alone persuaded them to allow personal photographs and measurements, unless he was very positively disposed towards them and had a vast amount of empathy. In him I see an example of a kind of Toaist balance between sameness and difference.

      As you point out, the problem may lie with how one defines empathy. I admit I was playing fast and loose with that definition. And what is really the opposite of empathy? Is it narcissism?

      You have, as usual, provided a huge amount of food for thought. I’ll get busy devouring the feast! Speaking of which, I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving!

      • I suspect all of civilization wouldn’t have been possible if humans hadn’t for milennia been continuously evolving greater genetic capacity for empathy and diversity. This fits into my theory that all of civilization is based on liberal-mindedness. Conservative-mindedness being stronger than liberal-mindedness may (or may not) work on the level of small isolated tribes, but it doesn’t appear to sustainably work for any society that is larger and more complex than that.

        Carleton Coon sounds interesting. I’ll check him out. Any particular book by or about him that you’d recommend?

        There is a simple crux of the matter, the reason why we should try to understand empathy and understand what blocks the human potential for it. It comes down to the more objective data found outside of psychological research. That data is what I referred to above that shows where and when conservatives gain power a massive number of diverse measures of societal health get worse and worse.

        This data is beyond dispute at this point. The only thing left to do is to figure out what it means and what to do about it. Two questions come to mind.

        Why doesn’t this clear data about human struggle and suffering make sense to conservatives on a gut-level, on an experiential level, on the level of empathy and compassion? They don’t seem to feel it deeply and personally which would be necessary for it to be experienced as real.

        So, the second question is: What would it take to make this data real to conservatives and more real to people in general? I’d hate to have to wait for evolution to catch up for that could be a long wait.

        Thanksgiving was fine. I was with my brother’s family which meant it was a vegetarian Thanksgiving. Tofurkey, yum! If you had some real turkey, I hope you enjoyed it enough for the both of us.

        • I’ve got a couple of minutes while I’m waiting for Mom to finish eating, so I thought I’d fire off a quick reply.

          First, I agree that time is running short for the human race. Our environment is changing rapidly, and by our own hand. I’m not sure that there is time for evolution to catch up, but there are several possible things working in our favor on this front. First, the quasi-Lamarckian method of evolution that I described, with the possibility of genetic changes being directly deposited across the Weismann Barrier and into germ cells. (This has been proposed as the method by which genus Homo developed such a large brain in such a realtively short period of time.) Second, the possibility that mental pracitices could influence the minds of our offspring, and third, and this is a possibility that interests me, having no offsprings myself, is what I call my theory of lateral inheritance.

          In this theory, the presuppositions are that the first two methods are in fact valid and acting on us at the present time, and that, a la Waddington, packets of thought, aka memes, are an analog to the genes of conventional inheritance. When you put all of these together, what you have is you or me, teaching others (not just our children) whose minds thus inherit our memes, which can then be passed on in the same way (lateral inheritance), or by the quasi-Lamarkian methods described above. Since we are mainly concerned with human beings developing new mental capacities, both of these methods shortcut conventional evolution and may give us the rapid change that is necessary to avoid impending extinction.

          This is only a hope, but what is the alternative? As you say, we can try to figure out a logical way to make conservatives aware that their closed mindset is leading to the failure of our species. This would “plug in” at the level of lateral inheritance and the teaching of others. At the same time, I think we need to also explore the possibilities I describe elsewhere; that is, changing our default mental predisposition to one which is more accepting of different ideas. It may be that if we answer the first question, and begin to teach (or practice) the right things, the rest will follow. It may also be that our very systems of both learning and evolution are antiquated, and therefor we need to discover and practice some not-so-logical things in order to influence the ability of our future generations to learn. Both Gregory Bateson and Waddington were very much into exploring these second-order processes; Bateson on “learning to learn” and Waddington on the “evolution of evolution.”

          The difference between the two orders of the processes (roughly “micro” and “meta”) ties in with Whitehead’s philosophy and also with Korzybski, which both had studied. I believe this is (or is analogous to) the same difference that exists between linear thinking and pattern based thinking. If this train of thought also interests you, I would like to hear your speculations on the relationship between empathy and pattern-based thinking, both of which are candidates (IMHO) for the new capacity which we might need to develop in our mental genome in order to make a rapid change in our worldview possible.

          Btw, Carelton Coon was a proponent of the persistence of Neanderthal genes in modern humans. I still wonder all the time what exactly those large brains of the Neanders and Cro-Magnons were being used for. If in fact they did possess the missing quality I’m searching for here, and we have simply had it “bred out” of modern humans by agriculture or technology or something, and if those genes persist in a subordinate role in our current genome, then it will be much easier to reactivate them in our offspring. Another advantage we could have on our side in the race against extinction.

          Colin Wilson has been speculating on this idea for close to 40 years and that’s where I first learned about it. A more modern “take” can be found in Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” and its sequels.

          Mom and I had chicken (real) for Thanksgiving. A turkey is way too much for just the two of us. Btw, my mother and brother were both Seventh Day Adventists (think vegan Baptist health nuts) at one time, so I know all about that Tofurkey!

          • My mind can easily follow your line of thinking. Those are the tyes of ideas and thinkers that I’m drawn to. I can’t claim any special knowledge. But for my money, I’d bet on the theory that we already have immense potential within our genetics, either as carryover from past evolution or recombinations therof.

            What might be the relationship between empathy and pattern-based thinking? The evidence seems clear to me in showing a psychological correlation.

            I’m most familiar with the Jungian-inspired Myers-Briggs type theory. There has been plenty of research done using it and in connection to traits theory. MBTI Feeling (F) correlates to more subjective/intersubjective capacities, the values and ability to evaluate on the personally human level. MBTI iNtuition (N) correlates to intellect and imagination (basically the same as FFM trait Openness).

            All of these have been broken down by factor analysis. This allows researchers to look at such attributes as empathy in more detail (which is extremely helpful with the challenge of defining terms, necessary in the process of refining research results). I have a book at home that discusses these factors, but I can’t remember them offhand. Still, I can offer my understanding based on years of reading the research literature.

            Pattern-based thinking perfectly fits iNtuition. Empathy obviously correlates to Feeling, but the broader sense of empathy seems to better fit the combination of iNtuition and Feeling (NF types). The NF temperament is defined by the archetype of the artist. NF types are the sensitive creative people with active fantasy lives and, with NFP types (iNtuition Feeling Perceiving) very idealistic.

            There is another interesting set of connections. Empathy is correlated with Hartmann’s thin boundary type. And the thin boundary type correlates to varying degrees with iNtuition, Feeling and Perceiving. So, the NFP types would fall on the far end of the thin boundary type.

            There has been a ton of research done on empathy and pattern-based thinking, both in terms of types/traits and otherwise. As for the otherwise, I read about research involving pattern perception.

            The part of the brain dealing with pattern discernment was larger in liberals. I don’t know that this means liberals see more patterns or more easily see patterns, but what it supposedly means is that liberals are better at determining which patterns are useful/accurate and which aren’t. A schizophrenic easily and constantly sees patterns. Their problem is that they can’t distinguish what is ‘real’, i.e., useful/accurate.

            A conservative doesn’t necessarily suffer from being overwhelmed by pattern perception like the schizophrenic, but they do have a smaller part of the brain dealing with pattern discernment. Combined with the conservative fear/disgust response, conservatives aren’t very open to new patterns of thought and behavior. This probably explains some of the conservative resistance to and mistrust of science along academia in general.

            Those are my thoughts, for whatever it’s worth.

          • I think what this shows, as did the link to the other article I posted here, is that when we talk about empathy or lack thereof we’re talking about biology to a great extent. Some in my field believe it is possible to “rewire” our brains by different types of experiences. The jury is still out on that, but an awful lot of time and money is spent trying to “teach” empathy to perpetrators of sexual abuse. The ability to empathize with one’s victim is often a prerequisite to moving forward in treatment, and lack of empathy is seen as a sign that treatment isn’t working and can result in civil committment in those states that have that provision. I don’t think we should stop trying to “teach” people empathy weather its in a clinical setting or a discussion about politics, but I think we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish.

          • I wouldn’t think so much about rewiring. If by wiring you mean brain growth and development, that is a process going on most strongly during the first 30 years of life, especially the first decade or so. So, rewiring per se isn’t necessarily involved until well into adulthood.

            The emphasis should be put on the early life when the brain is still being wired. That is how a multicultural environment in childhood helps make someone more socially libral as an adult. But important brain growth and development continues into the late twenties, a time of life when people not unusually transform their sense of self. Ths is probably why my parents were able to develop some liberal-mindedness when they were foced to deal with multicultural environments in their early adulthood.

            After that period, wiring is mostly finished and so the only possibility would be rewiring. The problem is that apparenly no one has yet figured out an effective and dependable way of rewiring, other than the most radical and ethically questionable methods of brainwashing. For somethng like empathy, that first decade or so is key in tha it probably creates a basic resting point of the psyche for the rest of the person’s life, barring trauma or other dratically life-changing event.

            Being realistic doesn’t require us to give up on teaching empathy when it is possible. But It probably means lowering our expectations when trying to rehabilitate adult criminals. If someone hasn’t learned empathy by adulthood, either they were born a psychopath or there was a failure somewhere in their early environment.

          • Well, as an old medical school professor once said, ethics is something you learn at your mother’s knee, you can’t teach it to medical students because by then its too late. I would largely agree with him, yet codes of professional resposibility can still be adhered to whether or not someone understands the philosophical basis for them.
            Nonetheless, countless numbers of clinicians who do court-ordered therapy stake their reputations on being able to enable adult perpetrators to feel empathy for their victims, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t.
            I am aware that the brain isn’t fully formed until the early to mid-20s, the area that develops last is the frontal lobe which regulates impulse control, and the ability to project the consequences of one’s actions. That’s why adolescents act adolescents and not mature adults. But going beyond that, once the brain is fully developed there are some in the scientific community who firmly believe that the right kinds of experiences can cause the syapses of the brain to be “rewired” or respond differently to stimuli. Much of the work in this area has been focussed on changing addictive behaviors.
            I agree that the emphasis should be on early life and teaching children tolerance, but even the most loving and tolerant homes produce children who turn out quite the opposite. So you’re right, while we shouldn’t stop trying to teach empathy to adults we need to lower our expectations, not only about rehabilitating adult criminals but also changing someone from a conservative to a liberal. It might just be that they were born that way, so education by itself might be of limited value. Like trying to change someone from gay to straight, although some believe that is possible.

  6. Bob – I thought it best to start a new beginning comment.

    The reason I mentioned the extended brain development because it means the window of influence is significantly large. Most criminals probably begin their criminal behavior in their teens, well within the window of more probable rehabilitation.

    Of course, conservatives can’t be taught empathy in the way one would seek to rehabilitate criminals… well, it theoretically could be done, but conservatives wouldn’t likely appreciate such improvements being forced upon them. Outside of criminal rehabilitation, I think best results for increasing empathy in people would have to start at a much younger age. Also, empathy education for adult perpetrators wouldn’t be the best model because children need enculturation, not rehabilitation.

    However, you bring up one difficulty. Even the most loving and tolerant homes don’t always produce loving and tolerant children. Anyway, we are dealing with the societal problem that involves the lacking in empathy among adults, as well as children. Parents without much empathy development aren’t likely to even try to teach empathy, much less succeed at it.

    I think this is going at the problem from the wrong angle. The research I’ve seen done with twins shows that peers ultimately have more influence than do parents. We must think about the larger enironment which for children particularly means peer environments such as schools. This is why I keep coming back to the research that correlates multicultural environments in childhood with social liberalism in adulthood. Social liberalism means tolerance and empathy; thus, anything increasing the formeer would increase the latter.

    We don’t need to try to teach kids empathy. All that is necessary to create the environment in which allows empathy to develop naturally. Maybe we don’t need to encourage empathy, just stop blocking it.

    None of this would ultiately be about stopping people from being conservatives. Social liberalism in the psychologica sense can be put into a politically conservative framework. Just consider the fact that the average conservative today is vastly more socially liberal than the average liberal from a couple of centuries ago. By the way, probably a major reason for conservatives becoming more socially liberal is because our society has become more multicuralism, hence inducing ever increasing social liberalism.

    It’s all a big experiment. No matter what anyone wants, the world is becoming increasingly multicultural and socially liberal. No one can know for certain what influence that, along with other factors, may have on empathy development in the population.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s