You are hereCampaign For America's Future: Occupy Wall Street: Demanding Justice

Campaign For America's Future: Occupy Wall Street: Demanding Justice


-by Terrance Heath

October 7, 2011- It's been a while since empathy — the uniquely human capacity to recognize and share the feelings experienced by others, that science even suggests is hardwired in us — when President Obama included it in the qualities he sought in a Supreme Court appointee, and conservatives from Glenn Beck to Sen. Jim Sessions. So I was surprised to see columnist David Brooks turn the spotlight on empathy again.

However, when I put it in the context of popular and growing movements like Occupy Wall Street and We are the 99 Percent, and even the movements in Wisconsin and Ohio, I was not surprised to see Brooks holding forth on the shortcomings of empathy. The success of these progressive movements constitute a powerful challenge to conservatives.

The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.

…Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

…Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

Brooks makes an interesting point in the conservative case against empathy, by first arguing that no one is against empathy, and then arguing why sometimes one should be. He instead argues for strong moral codes that allow "pro-social" action without empathy, driven instead by duty. It doesn't end up with any answers. It doesn't replace empathy, because with empathy comes compassion, and Brooks almost extolls morality driven action that may be void of compassion.

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