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Empathy as Morality

Posted by Tug Brice on 4 Jun. 2021

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I was arguing on the Internet today (a bad habit of mine) and ran across someone who seemed to be taking the position that without a god figure, there could be no morality. This irritated me because it’s a stand I’ve seen religious people make before and it boggles my mind. So I expressed that in a comment and said that we didn’t need a godhead to proclaim morality from on high, that empathy made an acceptable basis for human morality. And this was the comment I got back. 

“But what makes empathy good? What makes feeling compassion for your fellow man a good thing? If we really were just randomly evolved matter, if the universe is just mindless accidents, then there is not good or evil. We can collectively decide what makes us happy, what we figure to be good or bad but it’s all arbitrary, just made up rules. A fixed moral law (and thus a moral lawgiver) is the only reason good and evil can actually exist beyond our arbitrary decisions. Maybe in some societies, be it for practical reasons or just what society decided, one could even say compassion is wrong. If it’s just us, good and evil don’t really exist. If there is a moral lawgiver overseeing all things, then good and evil are real things”

I was floored. I didn’t know how to respond to this for a long time. I had to think about it for a bit. Finally, I came up with a reply, and after posting it, thought it would make a worthy blog post.

“I have no idea even where to START explaining to you why you should think that seeing a fellow human being suffering is a bad thing. I don’t know what kind of twisted logic it takes to get to a place where you think compassion could be a bad thing. I also don’t know how to explain to you that pretty much every major religion (and certainly all three religions of the Book (that is, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)) have empathy enshrined in their most basic tenants.

But just for a moment, let’s look at your assumption that, as you say “If it’s just us, good and evil don’t really exist”. I can make a fairly strong argument that assumption just plain wrong. Let’s start by looking at the animal kingdom. If we start at less evolved species, we don’t find a lot of social behavior. There aren’t a lot of reptiles that go around in groups. They are mostly solitary animals. As we head up the evolutionary ladder to mammals, you do start to find social behavior. First basic, and then more complex social behavior. By the time you get to chimps and dolphins, you get some startlingly complex societal groups. And do you know what one of the core tenants of social behavior is? Empathy. Social groups do not function without at least a basic level of empathy, and the more complex the group, the greater the levels of empathy required. But that’s just one example. Let’s look at another.

There’s a core behavior that helps distinguish mammals from other animals. Not only do mammals birth live young, but we also spend time raising them. The bond between mother and child in mammals is incredibly strong. Mammalian parents will go so far as to sacrifice their own lives so that their children may live. That is a level of empathy that isn’t seen anywhere else. Now you can argue that this is merely genetics, an instinctive, programmed behavior, but isn’t everything at some level? If we start doing that, we will never stop.

I don’t know about good and evil. I’ve rarely seen people who talk about good and evil as clearly defined things do more harm than good in the world. The world is never that clear-cut. People are people, and they do the things that people do. Very few people ever think of themselves as evil, even when doing things that cause harm to others. That’s why compassion and empathy are my guiding light.

People who think of themselves as “Lawgivers”, or follow those who do tend to think in terms of crime and punishment (the clue is in the name), and punishment often does more harm than good. People don’t need to be punished when they do something wrong, they need to be taught and rehabilitated. We all have to live together in this world. Punishment makes people angry, and anger creates a desire for revenge. This can create a vicious cycle where injury follows injury and nothing is ever solved. Teaching and rehabilitation solve the problem and helps everyone live together.

You argue that without good and bad it’s just made-up rules. I argue that we are born with the rules built-in. All we need to do is try to understand each other. “

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