Empathy has been a central concern of mine for most of my life.
Many conservatives talk about empathy being limited or somehow weak and unworthy, maybe even dangerous such as the allegation of sympathizing with terrorists. I’ve never understood this.
Maybe conservatives have issues with their own ability to empathize, but my empathy is often on overdrive and my entire sense of identity, my entire sense of morality and humanity is rooted in it. If anything, my problem is too much empathy or too strongly felt empathy. This isn’t to say it is about empathy making me a better person. It’s simply doesn’t fit what conservatives describe in their own vision of human nature driven by naked self-interest and ruthless Social Darwinism or else driven by a sinful fallen nature.
To be fair, most average conservatives genuinely want more emphasis to be put on family, religion, community and civic duty (also, ethnic culture for some). But even these average conservatives seem to be motivated by the same basic belief of having little faith in a greater capacity for empathy beyond the narrow confines of group identity (however the in-group and out-group are defined).
I would make a clarification to which conservatives aren’t likely to admit. Conservatives seem to recognize that liberal-minded empathy doesn’t have the narrowness, xenophobia and parochial quality that is more common to the conservative-minded expression of empathy. If they didn’t understand this, they wouldn’t wouldn’t worry so much about liberals sympathizing too strongly with the enemies, foreigners, diverse cultures, criminals, drug addicts, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden, along with others deemed to be social inferiors and social unworthies.
So, it’s more that conservatives think people should willingly choose to limit their empathy or have society, specifically the political and economic system, intentionally constrain the effect of empathy to the small-scale, especially families and churches or private individual interests such as charity. In the place of empathy, they think we should prioritize something better to guide the moral order: principles, faith, rules, merit, etc. It’s not that they dislike empathy, but they can’t imagine a morally good world that is centered on a broader vision of empathy (i.e., a morally good world centered on a core liberal value).
I wouldn’t argue that there are no problems with empathy. It is apparent, to grossly understate the problem, that the human race on the large-scale has yet to get the knack for fundamentally caring about and for all people or even most people, as true in wealthy countries as poor, as true in oppressive states as in capitalist countries. It is the reason why civilization is failing and probably will continue to fail for sometime, assuming it will ever succeed.
My main disagreement with conservatives is that they believe civilization is better off without worrying about all that namby-pamby stuff of peace, love and understanding. From their perspective, the problem is too much emotional concern, too much softness, too much forgiveness. From my perspective, such obvious cynicism (and the realpolitik that goes with it) is mind-blowing, heart-wrenching and soul-despairing.
By the way, I hope it is obvious that liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness aren’t equivalent too or necessarily even strongly correlated to the two party system. I suppose it’s likely that most Republican political activists and elites would measure strongly on conservative-minded traits, but I honestly doubt that many Democratic political activists and elites would measure strongly on liberal-minded traits.
I’m not sure that liberal-minded traits are more rare. It might be something about liberal-minded traits not being as effective for seeking and gaining positions of power and authority, wealth and prestige. The regimented power structure of hierarchical big government (like big business) is fundamentally unattractive and contrary to liberal-mindedness, not to say it is impossible for a liberal-minded person to succeed under such circumstances, just difficult and less probable. Besides, to the degree they succeeded was most likely to the degree they sacrificed and undermined their liberal-mindedness.
In a conservative social system, even when some liberal values and/or rhetoric has been incorporated, it is a lose/lose scenario for the liberal-minded. To win according to conservatism automatically means to lose according to liberalism, although I’m not sure the opposite is true in the same way or to the same extent (since liberalism on principle is about accepting and allowing to the greatest degree possible for what is different, including conservatism), but I’d love to test my hypothesis one day if we ever finally create a liberal social system.
I was looking at research on empathy, motivated by my speculations on empathetic imagination. This combination of empathy and imagination is key to understanding liberal-mindedness. But it isn’t as simple as conservatives lacking empathy
The research does show a correlation between the abilities of empathy and imagination. Seeing this kind of research is what originally led me to coining the term empathetic imagination. Other research shows that empathy is negatively correlated to analytical thinking. It is difficult to empathize and analyze at the same time. As a side note, this makes me wonder about the possible negative correlation between imagination and analysis (which might be related to the opposing traits of optimism and pessimism, the research showing the former having greater capacity for change and the latter having greater capacity for accurate present assessment; just a side thought).
Leaving it at that is unsatisfying because this generalizes too much about all people. What makes psychology interesting to me is how much difference and diversity exists within human nature. So, are these kinds of attributes fully and always opposing and contradictory? Do they inevitably suppress the activity of the other?
Yes, it is no doubt challenging to simultaneously empathize and analyze (or imagine and analyze). But, I’d have to offer strong doubt to it being impossible. Based on still other research, one would presume that some people might be better at it than others.
On a personal level, I notice how closely linked are my own abilities to empathize and analyze (and imagine). I don’t know that I do them precisely at the same time and in concert, but I find it easy to quickly and smoothly switch back and forth so as to feel seamless. I couldn’t say whether this is an inborn ability or learned. It does seem to me that I was less analytical when young. I’ve become more analytical without, as far as I can tell, sacrificing my empathic tendencies. The two are closely tied together for me, at least in my own experience according to my own self-observations for whatever that is worth.
I feel my way into ideas in the way I feel my way into the experience of others. This intuition doesn’t seem inherently irrational, although it is or has an element of the non-rational. My intuition is one of the main tools I use in ascertaining rationality. With it, I sense the connections and compare them with alternative possibilities and interpretations. I don’t see how analysis would be possible without some minimal basic functioning of intuition. Something has to be perceived first before it can be analyzed (indeed Myers-Briggs theorizes intuition as one of two perceiving functions — sensation being the other — which offers the information to the judging functions, and also Myers-Briggs research has shown intuition to be strongly and positively correlated to intellectuality and IQ).
To complicate things, all of these factors (intellectuality, imagination, intuition, empathy) share the common positive correlation to certain well-researched traits. The specific trait I have in mind is the thin boundary type which I will discuss further after looking at some intriguing examples of how empathy can play out in diverse ways.
I was reading about how empathy manifests or not among those with different psychiatric disorders (read here for a summary).
For example, it has been theorized that psychopaths and autistics are mirror opposites. Psychopaths have impaired affective/emotional empathy, but may have unimpaired cognitive empathy. Even if they perfectly understand people (their beliefs, thoughts, motivations, etc) on an intellectual level, they won’t express much sympathy or compassion (especially to distress). Autistics have impaired cognitive empathy, but may have unimpaired affective/emotional empathy. They are strongly affected by the psychological state of others (especially distress), even though they have a hard time of understanding others. So, a psychopath can relate better to others than an autistic and also more likely to harm others, a dangerous combination.
My mom has suggested that I might have aspergers. I don’t know if that is true, but the empathy aspect fits.
I’ve always been extremely socially sensitive while, when younger, I was nearly a lost cause in terms of being socially oblivious and clueless. As a child, I was just as happy playing by myself as playing with other kids. I also had a language learning disability which is common for autistics and less so for aspergers, usually just a delay that can be remedied with therapy as was the case with me. My learning disability caused me to have delayed reading and permanent memory issues, specifically word recall, but I’m above average IQ. My above average IQ particularly related to high level of visuospatial skills which is a common trait of autistics.
This is interesting to consider as I see myself as extremely empathetic. Since childhood, I’ve overcompensated in many ways. I’ve become obsessed with communicating and with understanding human behavior. I still have social awkwardness and shyness, but it for damn sure ain’t because of a lack of raw empathy. My emotional empathy is always keen. As for my cognitive empathy, it has caught up at this point and now is, at least in some ways, far above average.
I haven’t thought of myself as having aspergers. I have developed a strongly intuitive sense of what makes people tick. If I have aspergers, I must have massively developed my cognitive empathy. I’ve had social issues, but the subjective sense takes no effort whatsoever. It is easy for me to read people these days, although the fact that I’m so self-consciously obsessed about it is probably a clue. Assuming I have aspergers, it must be mild which gives me immense empathy for those with severe autism. My mom worked with many severe autistics in public schools and her descriptions are very sad in some cases.
My brothers have told my mom that they suspect something like aspergers in themselves. My oldest brother had learning difficulties, although not with language, and my second oldest brother was diagnosed with anxiety disorder which might have been a misdiagnosis since aspergers don’t deal well with social stress (I’ve seen one of his anxiety attacks and I immediately recognized it as something I had experienced as well). All three of us have been socially challenged and have been on anti-depressants which could be a secondary result of the other issues.
Autistics have strong empathic distress with weak empathic concern (as a result of the impaired cognitive empathy) which causes social awkwardness and dysfunction. People are more likely to irritate or stress out an autistic than draw out a response of sympathy and compassion or even normal sociability and friendliness. This social distress is exacerbated with observing other people in pain which causes them to want to avoid the situation rather than offer help. However, when they understand someone’s state of mind, empathic concern is expressed normally.
Autistics lack a strong sense of Theory of Mind and can’t easily identify emotions even in themselves, much less in others, despite feeling emotions strongly. Empathizing is relational and so there is a close connection between self-awareness and social-awareness. Some theorize that autism may be an extreme male profile of neural functioning. What differentiates the genders is that men tend to have a smaller corpus callosum and so fewer connections between the two hemispheres. So, one might expect that men and autistics would have more difficulty than average with empathizing while analyzing or using both in concert by easily and quickly switching back and forth… or something like that.
This then brings me to the aforementioned boundary types, originally articulated by Ernest Hartmann.
Conservatives and men (also masculine women) have on average thicker boundaries than liberals and women (also effeminate men). This is the basis of calling the Republicans the daddy party and the Democrats the mommy party, and it is a fact that the two parties respectively have disproportionate numbers of men and women. I’m not sure about what research might have been done on autism and Hartmann’s boundary types, but I do know that most diagnosed autistics are male.
Also, there has been a long debate about whether women have greater empathy than men or rather whether the differences observed are inborn or learned. I’d see this as related to the debate about whether liberals (i.e., self-identified liberals and the liberal-minded) have greater empathy than conservatives (i.e., self-identified conservatives and the conservative-minded). Is it a matter of the degree or the kind of empathy?
The research I’ve seen is that there is a difference in when and how empathy is used. It is significant that more men are conservatives than liberals and more conservatives are men than women, and likewise with conservatives and thick boundaries. To be something like a surgeon or a judge requires one to clearly demarcate empathy from analysis, something thick boundary types are good at doing and something conservatives idealize. Not just demarcate, though; also, be able to shut off. A surgeon doesn’t want empathy to be within consciousness at all while slicing into someone.
To completely or even partly shut empathy off at will is not a strong talent for liberals and thin boundary types. On the other side, when a conservative or thick boundary type is in empathy mode, the very opposite probably happens and if so they’d have less access than liberals to analysis. Everyone to some degree suppresses analysis while empathizing and suppresses empathy while analyzing, but not everyone does it equally nor does everyone value it equally and seek to develop it further.
That is my own hypothesis. It is supported by the data I’ve seen so far, but it is too early to declare exactly what the difference is being shown.
The complicating factor for me is first and foremost personal.
As someone possibly with aspergers, my empathy may be far from the norm. Then again, those diagnosed with aspergers and autism have been increasing which either means the condition is increasing or the diagnosis is increasing. Maybe aspergers is on a continuum of normalcy, human nature normally containing a range of potential traits, behaviors and psychological profiles.
The angle of aspergers and autism confuses my thinking. I suspect thin boundary is more closely related to affective empathy for that is the actual component of empathy that allows one to feel what another is feeling, to viscerally know another’s experience. Thin boundary types have a harder time distinguishing their own experience and identity from those they are around, especially in close relationships. Autistics and aspergers includes this affective empathy, above average in fact. On the other hand, these conditions also includes underdeveloped cognitive empathy which causes dysfunction in the affective empathy.
I’m not sure what any of that means. Are such people thin boundary types or thick boundary types? Is autism an extreme male psychological profile? Is this just an oddity that is irrelevant in trying to understand how empathy normally operates?
To continue with the personal, I’ll use the example of my dad to clarify the conservative mindset.
He is one of the most morally genuine people I know. He sits around worrying about being a good person. He is no fundy. He doesn’t take the Bible literally. But he takes his religion very seriously. He does his best to walk the talk. Minus the religiosity, my own nature is close to his. One of the biggest differences is that he is much more social than I. He is more outwardly good and successful, according to the standards of society. He loves to have a role to play, especially the role of authority figure, and he plays that role well; but he is also more willing to submit to authority without question or irritation. He has little problem with sticking to the rules and conforming to expectations.
My dad might win the prize for being the least socially dysfunctional person in my immediate family. And I probably could win the prize for being the most socially dysfunctional. So much for the greatness of my valuing empathy; empathy plus dysfunction just creates dysfunctional empathy, well damn. Unlike his liberal children, he never had any major social issues at any point in his life. He says he is shy, but he has even overcome that and it is entirely unnoticeable to an outside observer. He has held many leadership positions, including in various churches.
Despite his arguing for empathy being limited, he uses what empathy he has in a socially beneficial way, although his empathy has much less of an emotional quality than my own, maybe more of a sense of moral rule-following that an uncertain relationship to empathy as emotional concern. His empathy is probably average, at least for a conservative, maybe more cognitive empathy than affective empathy. He even is fairly humble which helps his empathy express relatively well, considering how confident he is able to act when needed. He is proof that basic levels of empathy are all that are required for being a generally good person, good citizen, and good Christian; at least according to conservative social norms.
It’s true that he doesn’t spend as much time imagining the lives of and identifying with those who have fallen on hard times. And it’s true that he is more likely to blame people for the hard times they find themselves in. He has never experienced bad times to any great extent and so it’s not part of his personal sense of reality. Nonetheless, he’ll volunteer at the local soup kitchen and he’ll donate large amounts of money to organizations that help those in need. I’d put it this way. Empathy for him is more of a luxury than a necessity. It’s a good thing to have for charity, but it’s useless for the real work of life: business, leadership, etc. It’s just something to contemplate in one’s free time after a hard day’s work or in retirement after a life of hard work and success
He is a standard conservative in prizing pragmatism or rather the rhetoric of pragmatism, the question being pragmatism to what end. Whatever empathy he might lack relative to bleeding heart liberals, he makes up for it with practical action toward his conservative-minded goals. He is a man of action and authority, the ideal of conservatives. If all or just most conservatives were like my dad, the world probably would be a decent place, although the problems would still exist if in more mild form.
I was having a discussion with my dad about religion.
My dad is in a Bible group. Because he is now living here in this liberal college town, he has been forced to deal with more liberals, including in his Bible group, than he has become accustomed to from having spent 20 years in South Carolina. There is one particular liberal view with which he has been struggling: the value of giving freely without limiting one’s charity to moralizing judgment and expectation.
He is coming around to awakening to how truly radical is Jesus’ message. It can’t be limited to conservative morality. Jesus didn’t demand people be good conservatives, good Christians or good anything before he offered help and healing. This is mind-blowing to him. I’ve been pointing out to him this fact about Jesus’ teachings for years, but he just didn’t get it. The idea of a radical Jesus didn’t fit into his conservative Christian worldview. Conservative Christians believe Jesus is good and radicals are bad. So, how can Jesus be both good and radical?
Jesus wasn’t interested in saving the social order, promoting family values, punishing wrongdoers, and forcing the troubled to be responsible citizens. My dad’s sense of honesty disallows him from dismissing this realization. So, he has to put it into terms he can understand.
He spoke of first-order effects and second-order effects. I suppose he is using terminology from business management, his area of primary expertise, or maybe from economics, an area of secondary expertise.
I’m not sure how this might relate to conservatism and liberalism, but I immediately saw a connection to the distinction between Confucianism and Taoism. Jesus is infinitely closer to being a Taoist than to being a Confucian. There are two quotes from the Tao Te Ching that reminded me of this first order idea:
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
In this first quote, what is described is the person embodying the first order principle. Jesus didn’t seek to enforce his own beliefs, values and worldview. Jesus, whether or not he was the Christ, was not a Christian and wasn’t seeking to advocate for a Christian moral order, much less a conservative social order. And the second quote:
The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.
This describes the first order type as opposed to the second order type.
A Confucian is a particular type of conservative which is why Chinese Communism being based on Confucianism always has had a conservative hierarchical social order with a conservative moral order. The Chinese Communists, like the Soviet Union Communists, were illiberal and anti-liberal to the extreme in being against free thought and freedom of choice, against intellectuals and artists, against homosexuals and other perceived deviants. I don’t know that the Taoist position was the polar opposite of liberalism, but it certainly wasn’t against liberalism. Taoists believed that order didn’t need to be enforced.
This could be fit into one aspect of conservatism and liberalism. Conservatives believe individuals will fail if not for external social order. Liberals believe individuals are inherently good or otherwise have great potential, although not necessarily the utopian perfectionism that conservatives fear in their worst nightmares.
I was struggling to fit all these ideas together. I intuit a resonance among them, but I’m far from certain. I sense there is a very powerful reason for why the conservative mind can so easily overlook this first order way of thinking. The powerful reason I suspect ties into empathy somehow. A larger sense of empathy is not necessary for Confucianism. Like American conservatives, Confucians limited empathy to the group, especially in terms of basing the social order on the family. Also, American and Confucian conservatives love ritual as symbolic expression and public enactment of social order.
Empathy, specifically in its fullest manifestation, is like a solvent to thick boundaries. It loosens the bonds and lets loose what was bounded. Taoism is about flow. But Taoism doesn’t oppose Confucianism in the way I hypothesize liberalism doesn’t oppose conservatism. Taoists understand that, even in flowing, boundaries are necessary. Taoists want balance, similar to how liberals want inclusion. It’s BOTH Yin AND Yang, not EITHER Yin OR Yang.
Empathy is a strange thing. I don’t fully understand it and I’m sure I never will. Nonetheless, I value it and aspire toward it.
That is the important part, in my mind and heart. Just to care, to know it all matters, that each and every person matters. Empathy is the very thing that allows us to, in the end, see us all as humans and as equals. We ultimately aren’t liberals and conservatives. We are immense, if not infinite, potential.
Despite my dysfunction, despite the dysfunction of others, despite the dysfunction of all of society, there is something fundamentally worthy and good within humanity and within the world. That is what I’d like to believe. that is what I choose to believe.
That is my moral vision.