The Necessity of Empathy

A friend of mine shared this on facebook and it got me thinking about the necessity of empathy.

Potentially Fatal ‘Knockout’ Game Targeting Strangers May Be Spreading

“A recent report from New York-based CBS 2 shed light on the growing trend, displaying unsettling footage of teens participating in this game – which goes by the name ‘Knockout’ – and involves randomly targeting passersby, with the ultimate goal being to knock them out with one punch as they walk by.”

Empathy can be defined as: understanding and entering into another’s feelings, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

I have the ability to empathise. I already knew I did, but watching the video within the article linked to above proved it once again. Before I had even clicked the play button I started to feel anxiety because I knew I was about to feel fear, further anxiety, despair and deep sadness, albeit in reduced doses, as a result of observing terrifying acts of brutal violence against innocent people. I could not help but ‘enter into’ the feelings of the victims in the video. Or perhaps, given that the victims had no warning and therefore no time at all to actually be frightened, what I was actually ‘entering into’ was the thought of me being randomly attacked on the street and knocked unconscious. Such was the unpleasantness of the negative emotions that resulted from empathizing as a watched the video that I became morally outraged at the thought of anyone being forced to go through such an experience; which consequently only served to reaffirm that committing such an act myself is inconceivable. Taking an innocent person by surprise and knocking them unconscious is to me an unthinkable act, it’s never on my list of possibilities in any given moment, it sickens me to think of doing such a thing; and that’s the social utility of being able to empathise – it makes people highly averse to being violent. This is a precondition for an organised, peaceful society.

Human beings that lack the ability to empathise will only refrain from doing something if they think that doing it will not benefit them in any way, and not because it will harm or kill someone else. Someone else’s fear or pain is meaningless and inconsequential when you can’t feel it like they can, when you can’t ‘enter into’ it. The existence of people who cannot empathise threatens the existence of an ordered, peaceful society; they are the very definition of anti-social. Too many of these aberrations and society becomes regressive.

The question is: why are these teenagers behaving in such a monstrous way, so devoid of empathy? The preponderance of evidence means the root cause is most likely a combination of the environment in which they were raised in early childhood, i.e. how their parents treated them as babies and infants, and to some uncertain degree how their particular genes responded to this (a mechanism known as epigenesis).

Given the strong correlation between spanking/smacking in childhood and increased risk for higher levels of aggression and anti-social behavior in adolescence and adulthood, it’s likely that most, if not all of the teenagers involved in this violent phenomena are from single-parent families where the father is absent and/or were subjected throughout their childhoods to some or all of the following experiences: violence or threats of violence (of the kind where the intention is to ‘discipline’, i.e. modify behavior), abuse with the intention to harm, neglect, or humiliation at the hands of their parents or parent.

Primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal once said “Human morality is unthinkable without empathy” and I agreeWithout being able to empathise you can only conceive of other people and interact with them as, essentially, objects. They are tools, means to your own ends. If you think knocking an innocent stranger unconscious will help you achieve some end you find desirable, then it’s perfectly reasonable to do so. People with such a pathology are human beings in form but not in spirit.

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