Empathy and Morality

Empathy and Morality
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In her book The Reflective Parent, Regina Pally briefly covered the topic of moral behavior as follows:

"People will go into a burning building to rescue another person. Less heroic forms of moral behavior occur daily as we avoid bumping into people and try not to hurt their feelings. Morality and moral decision-making involve some degree of rational thinking, but for the most part involve the ability to feel the emotions and distress of others (Keysers, 2011). Much of our moral behavior relates to preventing pain in others and relies on the brain’s shared circuitry for pain and emotional distress. When people have their brains scanned while they make difficult moral decisions, one of the regions activated is their anterior cingulate cortex -- the region where we experience pain. This implies that part of teaching children to be moral and inhibit their hurtful or selfish impulses involves helping them be aware of and feel the hurtfulness their own behavior can cause others. This is why parents will often say things like, 'I want you to think about how hurt Devon was when he was visiting and you didn't want to play with him.'"

There are plenty of examples of individuals coming to the rescue of another person and animals. However, there are also examples of those who refuse to come to the aid of another, even when their own safety and well-being was not at risk.

Consider the Florida teens who recently taunted a man as he drowned, told him they were not going to help him, and recorded it all.

In a statement, the state attorney's office said the following:

"We are deeply saddened and shocked at both the manner in which Mr. Dunn lost his life and the actions of the witnesses to this tragedy. "While the incident depicted on the recording does not give rise to sufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution under Florida statutes, we can find no moral justification for either the behavior of persons heard on the recording or the deliberate decision not to render aid to Mr. Dunn."

Cocoa Police Department spokeswoman Yvonne Martinez commented as follows:

"To think that anyone would just lack any kind of moral conscience to call for help. It's one thing to see something and not want to put yourself at risk, but to not call anybody, to sit there and to laugh and humiliate this person is beyond my comprehension."

Dunn's sister said, "If they can sit there and watch somebody die in front of their eyes, imagine what they're going to do when they get older. Where's the morals?"

Of course, only the teens themselves know the answer to that question and why they refused even to call for help.

However, the answer may lie in comments they made while Dunn was drowning and which can be heard on their recording. Those comments were as follows:

"'F------ junkie, get out the water, you gonna die,' one said. 'Ain't nobody's going to help you, you dumb b----,' another said. 'You should've never got in there.'"

Is it possible that their response was related to judgments they had made about Dunn and his actions?

After all, earlier this year, doctors in Texas were given the right to refuse to treat individuals who have had an abortion in the past or who are transgender.

Furthermore, earlier this month, a male runner pushed "a woman into the path of an oncoming bus.... The man kept running, appearing unfazed." That incident was also recorded for the world to see. Clearly, not everyone avoids bumping into people.

What about less heroic forms of moral behavior, such as trying not to hurt other people's feelings?

There are more than enough recent examples of people going out of their way to hurt other people's feelings. While it's unclear why the runner pushed a woman into oncoming traffic, it is clear that people are increasingly making a concerted effort to hurt the feelings of those they judge as immoral.

In other words, "forms of moral behavior" apparently don't apply to those we judge as immoral. In fact, in their study titled Moral judgment modulates neural responses to the perception of other’s pain, Fang Cui, Ning Ma and Yue-jia Luo said the following:

"It seems that human beings always perceive and evaluate others intuitively as morally laden. Studies have shown that when people form the first impression of a person or a group, they are more interested in their traits concerning morality than traits concerning competence and sociality.... Morality is a major component that forms the social norm and social expectancy. Usually, moral judgments concern actions where one party harms or helps another, or treats a person or group fairly or unfairly. What distinguish moral judgments from other items such as preference, aesthetics or non-moral good and bad is that moral judgments entail a belief that someone should be rewarded or punished."

This is entirely consistent with Pally's statement that for the most part, "morality and moral decision-making involve the ability to feel the emotions and distress of others."

In fact, in their Study, Cui, Ma and Luo stated the following:

"[I]t is reasonable to suppose that morality also has a strong effect on empathy. When facing immoral persons, we would try not to get involved with their emotions and feelings since the immoral persons are more likely to be dangerous. Keeping alert and emotionless to immoral ones would be better for our own safety. This assumption was supported by the evidence that reduced empathic responses were observed when viewing unfair person’s pain, compared to viewing the pain of a fair one."

Which people and groups might you be judging as immoral, such that you would refuse to come to their rescue if their lives literally depended upon it, even if doing so wouldn't place you in harm's way? Do you think they would do the same if the shoe were on the other foot?

Before jumping to conclusions, I'd like to remind you of "Crystal Griner, the courageous Capitol Police officer who, with her professional partner patrolman David Bailey, helped to save the life of Representative Steve Scalise in the horrific shooting in suburban Virginia." Griner also happens to be an African-American lesbian in a same-sex marriage. "Scalise, the House Majority Whip whose life she helped to save, has a lengthy record of voting against LGBT rights, opposing same sex marriage time and again.... He voted against her marriage. But she took a bullet for him. Next time an LGBT vote comes up, will Rep. Steve Scalise remember?"

How about the "Houston-area mosques, all affiliated with the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, [which] are currently serving as 24-hour shelters?"

In their Study, Cui, Ma and Luo stated as follows:

"Morality is a code of values and customs that guide social conduct, which is innate to the human brain. Morality is a fundamental component of human cultures and has been defined as prescriptive norms regarding how people should treat one another, including concepts such as justice, fairness, and rights.... Morality and empathy are both crucial in building human society."

As the Bible says, "Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister."

According to Pally, "part of teaching children to be moral and inhibit their hurtful or selfish impulses involves helping them be aware of and feel the hurtfulness their own behavior can cause others."

Are judgments that people or groups are immoral or subhuman because of their race, color, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, or genetic information helpful in building human society?

How are such judgments impacting empathy, which plays an important role in morality?

As Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate and author Elie Wiesel said, "No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them."

Elie Wiesel's perspective applies equally well to moral judgments.

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