Monday, November 23, 2009

Empathy and Moral Progress

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.


  1. Stumbling through darkness with dim candles we are not, however, and our morality includes forethought. Syrian kings and SS officers knew what they were doing, in warfare all bets are off. Furthermore, glorification of battle often comes with deep scorn and regret on the part of individuals themselves, but that is not to say we are not ourselves masters of regretful decisions…

    Let me get straight to the point. If there is forethought, and actions are really defined by a intelligent, thinking, feeling beings, is it just expansion, or maybe more, a necessary evolution? Like a little kid, learning a lesson through hardship – or acquiring “wisdom through misery…” is our society also expanding horizons through necessary (maybe?) mistakes?

  2. I have a few concise questions to pose and statements to make.

    Starting with the arguement that, "humans are morally better". Yes, by our societal standards humans are better. We don't go around chopping of heads or acting like SS officers. But I disagree that this is simply explained by the theory of moral progression explained by Pinker et al.; instead, I argue that a culturally relativistic point of view has to be taken towards the past as well. What our current society deems as "wrong", may have been acceptable in the Ancient Assyrian culture. Thus, while certain moral truths do exist, e.g pointless murder, killing in earlier times had more of a reason (a means of perservation and personal well-being) than it does today.

    We still have a skewed moral compass today. Given, we are not beheading our opponents, but to "perserve" our companies and personal nest-eggs, Wall street and financial moguls are ruthless. While immoral decisons may no longer result in death, it does result in finacial death. I'm not saying society has gotten soft, but instead our means of "killing" has changed.

    My next question is where the proof of "why humans benefit from cooperation" comes from? I disagree. For example, yes, societies do better from international trading. That's an economic and political standpoint. Call it cyncism, but I think given the choice, any human would do whatever it takes to up another.
    Let's argue that the United States of America is the strongest country in the world currently. Yes it does provide support for others, but ultimatley it's motive is to only support democratic nations -- nations that will, in the end, be a benefit for the USA.

    Next, what is the reason Pinker et al. give for the expansion of moral imagination? It's easy to call in a phenomenon. But my answer is that, if it really exists, it has spread through globalization. The media. If not for the internet, and second to second updates, no one would be aware. This adds to my point of morality being subjective to society. What "we" perceive as correct is spread by means of split-second connections around the world. It's a global perception. But ask tribal villagers, ones who have never experienced globalization, if killing a rival tribe (for perservation of their own), is justified? I bet you they'll answer yes. Ultimately, what the "moral imagination" is, is just modern societies morality being spread incredibly fast by global media. Those who have not been exposed, still live in a human-trump-human society.

  3. t.... Your first paragraph hits on an important point: I am ruling out moral relativism, and insisting on a basic and measurable moral invariancy. Basically, a society A is more moral than society B if A tolerates less cruelty, less poverty, is committed to the rule of law, respects the dignity of individuals, etc. This of course is just stipulative. But I actually think that it is harmlessly so. So yea, the Assyrians and the ancient Greeks and the Goths all undoubtedly thought that there was nothing wrong with killing and raping and enslaving non-Assyrians, non-Greeks, etc. In fact, they certainly thought that there was honor and glory in such treatment. But, I claim, they were wrong in thinking so. Secondly, in saying that we are morally better, I don't mean to imply that we are morally perfect or ideal. We still really suck in lots of ways. I just claim that we suck less than most of our ancestors. As to whether we are really 'killing' just by different means, that's a factual question largely, but I think pretty clearly we do not kill our fellows at anything like the same percentage. There is a tendency to downplay or disregard how bad our ancestors were. The typical Roman countenanced a daily degree of cruelty and neglect that would horrify most randomly chosen individuals today. And sure, I agree that greed and competition are still very much part of standard and default human motivation. But we've found ways to organize society so that this competition does not result in a) morally heinous acts and b) redounds to the benefit of all. So, Microsoft swoops in and squashes a competitive upstart. But Microsoft does not then kill the men of that company, rape their wives, and sell the children into slavery--all par for the course in the ancient world.

  4. .....More importantly, Microsoft pays lots of taxes that then fund unemployment benefits and health insurance and schools and roads by which those affected by the takeover benefit. In most societies up until the 19th century, tax schemes, when they existed, were absolutely regressive, where the richest and most landed paid no taxes, and the poor peasants paid the most. And yes, US actions around the world will, it is hoped, benefit the US, but I don't see that that makes it any less moral. given the criteria for 'moral' I mentioned above. Because the US acts this way more people are richer, healthier, safer, less cruel, etc. And I fully agree with your final point. I believe that the moral effects for which I've argued are not the result of people getting better themselves; it is rather the result of people being shaped by more moral and humane institutions. One of the great luxuries of wealth is less need and motivation to be immoral. For instance, given the abundance of wealth and opportunity in most developed capitalist societies, my neighbor's wealth is not a direct threat to my own, so I have much less motivation to do moral harm to him for my benefit. Contrast this with a rising mid-level noble in the Roman empire, like Caesar or Pompey: basically the only way to get ahead in that world was to take a few legions out to the borderlands, kill a bunch of barbarians and steal all of their stuff. If you got a LOT of stuff, and killed a LOT of barbarians, and took a LOT of land, then you were given a triumph. That sort of bravado rightly just isn't celebrated anymore. It would be as if Tommy Franks had murdered all males in Baghdad, sold the children to China for slave labor, looted the Baghdad museums with pride, and then returned to America where we marched him up and down the national mall with lots of praise and confetti. That is almost a direct analogy, and I think that, precisely given that such a scenario is completely absurd to even imagine,it shows a fair degree of moral progress. There's a lot that's bad with free-market enterprise, and with current social-democratic institutions. I certainly don't mean, again, to imply that we are really good now or that our way of doing things is best; clearly it's not; but I'd argue that it's equally clear that we are better than most of our ancestors.

  5. Your point makes a lot of sense, but there's a few things still running through my mind.

    I agree with you, we are morally better than the societies that came before us. But, I argue that we think this because we can see it no other way. This is because, our knowledge now reagrding morals is completely subjective. As human societies progressed different institutions, one's that almost completely guided their thoughts, and morals, influenced those humans. (Not to the point to saying that we can't have a novel thought). But on the issue of morality, the common person has been conditioned at birth to think by the rules of their society, or by their religion, or parents etc etc. Therefore, I couldn't, nor could anyone argue that our society is better than what came before it. Because when we compare morals, we are comparing things that are judged by the society at that time. We argue that we flourish today because society is morally inline.

    If you imagine it objectively, on group is comparing its morals (set in accordance to to its specific societal standards) to another group's (in this case, humanity in another time period). We are framing our comparison with what we know to be "moral" now. It's impossible not to. I'm not saying I'd rather have lived as a Black American in the early years of America; but, we see slavery wrong in the present day because it's been taught to us. Obviously, back then it fit those people's moral code. But in looking at it now we think it's absolutely horrible (that includes me). But who's to say we're right? Who is the ultimate judge?

    Some may argue that the ultimate judge is that, invariably we don't have slavery today therefore, we have gotten better; and thus, what morlas we have today are better than what came before us. But I'm sure we are doing something wrong too. (I'd say denying rights to gays is pretty bad). It's a perpetual cycle. All societies will be "better" than the one that came before it, but always "worse" than what is to come ater. Humanity will never reach a pinnacle fo morality, where humans all co-exist peacefully because society has slowly learned through experience and picked up certain morals on the way. Instead, each society will think they're the most right because of the social, religious, governmental etc etc institutions that are influencing it at the time. In comparing different time periods we are comparing one time period wit hthe frame of another.

  6. "My basic argument is that cruelty is not the antithesis of empathy, but presupposes empathy."

    I think there might be ways to get around this, and continue to endorse something like the thesis you reject.

    Certainly cruelty rests on some sort of awareness of the victim as a person, as something suitable for being tortured or humiliated.

    But it also seems to rest on suppressing something, resisting a tendency to be pained by pain and pleased by joy and so forth.

    I'm not sure which of the two is better labelled 'empathy', but the latter has some claim to the title: it's a sort of seeing someone as yourself or like yourself in a certain respect.

    So I think the claim is that this has expanded and that this explains moral progress - even though the mere capacity to recognise that someone is a person, in the weaker less motivating sense, hasn't.