Listening to the recent bloggingheads.tv discussion between Robert Wright and Steven Pinker, both countenance an idea I find hard to accept, namely, that the expansion of the moral imagination and empathy explain in large part human civilization's moral improvement.
Now, I have no problem with the idea that we humans are becoming better, morally. Anyone who denies this will have a lot of historical explaining to do. Wanton acts of cruelty, exploitation and deprivation just don't happen on the scale or percentage per capita today that they have in the past. We are kinder, more compassionate, less violent, and vastly less wasteful of both other humans and nature itself than our hunter-gatherer peers (and even our more recent peers). So, I accept the phenomenon. I just have hard time accepting the causal explanation given for this phenomenon.
Humans benefit from cooperation. The question is, why don't we cooperate in non-zero-sum partnerships more often? Why is it that humans have a tendency to compete and punish each other when both (or more) clearly benefit from cooperation? The answer recommended by Pinker and Wright is that our psychology isn't adapted to easily play non-zero sum games with strangers. But they both also observe that we as a society have gotten a lot better at this. The average American feels sorry for those who suffered in the 2005 Tsunami, and for the victims of protest in Myanmar and Iran, and for the poor in the inner cities. It bothers us when innocent Iraqis or Afghanis are killed because of our military action, and we are similarly disturbed by violence, like in Serbia, that doesn't really affect us other than morally.
Apparently, if Wright and Pinker are correct, this is all a very odd and recent phenomenon, to be explained by the fact that we have learned to expand the domain of our moral imagination. Our moral imagination, to give it a rough definition, is the ability to imagine ourselves in the circumstances of others, despite the fact that those circumstances might be very different from our own. Peter Singer has also recently championed this explanation. In short, we now include more people in our 'in-group,' where co-operative behavior is more likely and more rewarding. I went to talk just last Saturday where Frans de Waal also--albeit with scientific reservation--got in line, suggesting that humans as a whole are better learning to empathize with strangers, or to expand the in-group parameters, and that this explains in part better moral outcomes.
Again, I don't deny the phenomenon. To the extent that any of this is measurable, we are improving morally and we are also better at expanding the parameters of our 'in group,' to such an extent that most educated people, at least, have some inkling that they have a moral interest in the well-being of people not otherwise related to them beyond also being human. But Pinker, Wright et. al, want to explain the former by means of the latter, and this I just don't buy.
My basic argument is that cruelty is not the antithesis of empathy, but presupposes empathy. The moral imagination argument suggests a sort of moral blindness, relieved by an expansion of the moral imagination. Humans are cruel to one another because they do not see that the person they are victimizing feels pain, just like they do. When empathy is contracted, the victimizer is cruel to the victim because she is unable or unwilling to put herself in the victim's place, to understand the pain and suffering and humiliation that her action is causing. But this is precisely what cruelty does presuppose. In cruel acts, I take pleasure in the fact that I can empathize with your pain, helplessness and humiliation, I put myself in your shoes, understand that you are suffering, and delight in being the agent of that suffering. Such cruelty is not a failure of moral imagination or empathy, but a result.
One of the gifts left to us by the Ancient Assyrians is a trove of monuments and carved artifacts extolling the exploits of their kings. There is, for example, a monument remaining from King Asshuriziroal in the 9th century BCE that brags:
"Their men, young and old, I took as prisoners. Of some I cut off the feet and hands; of others I cut off the noses, and lips; of the young men's ears I made a heap; of the old men's heads I built a minaret.
Over fifteen hundred years after Asshuriziroal, an army of Goths savaged Milan, allowing the Byzantine garrison to depart unharmed but killing each and every male in the city while giving all the females over the Franks for slave labor and misuse. The siege of Milan is notable for not being particularly noteworthy at all, displaying the accepted mores, as it were, of siege warfare through most of human history. Such conduct, I believe, would not be tolerated today by even the most vicious of regimes. Only in the darkest depths of Hitler's genocide in Eastern Europe or Stalin's in the Soviet Russian Empire has anything approaching routine standards of ancient cruelty been witnessed by any living human.
I think it's clear that our 6th century peers were just as good at putting themselves in the heads of strangers as we are. The difference between our Gothic and Babylonian ancestors, I suspect, has less to do with an expanded moral imagination and more to do with the fact that we condemn what we experience in the exercise of our moral imagination. Perhaps it is true that an expansion of empathy is a necessary condition for treating strangers humanely, but it does not guarantee it. More to the point, perhaps, in-group/out-group distinctions are not drawn on the basis of who we empathize with. Humans can easily empathize with any other human. The difference that makes a difference to moral progress is not that we can imagine ourselves in the minds of strangers, but that we care about the strangers we imagine ourselves as being. This itself is not probably not a cognitve act, so I don't mean to suggest that in-group/out-group distinctions are drawn on a cognitive foundation (although that may be the case). I just think it unlikely that empathy alone explains that difference.
The morally disturbing fact about or predecessors were not that they couldn't put their heads into the minds of their victims, but that they could and were proud or honored by what they there imagined. Similarly, I think that the de-humanization argument often used to explain atrocities even today needs to be qualified: it's not that an SS officer simply did not understand that Jews and Slavs suffered, too, just like him; he did know that, he could visualize and imagine it--he just didn't care.