Empathy, religion, politics and free will

In our piece on systematizing empathy, we mentioned that religions and governments are two organizations that create moral systems aimed at getting people to behave in what the people in charge of the institutions think are ethical ways.

To be sure, some of the rules in these moral systems could be considered no-brainers. Every society has a no murder rule. That was true before the 10 Commandments made it into the Bible, and it's true in societies ruled by faiths that don't incorporate the Bible.

Sure, the definition of murder changes here and there. Think the death penalty, or so-called honor killings. Some people think those things are terrible, even within the societies that allow them. Other societies deplore them altogether.

Let's talk first about free will. Why? Because if we can't choose to have empathy, or to create a moral code for ourselves, what's the point in even having the discussion?

This video provides a decent overview of the free will vs. determinism argument. I take exception with its use of the Oedipus story as an example of determinism, however. I feel there's a difference between foreknowledge and determinism — just because something is prophesied doesn't mean it was inevitable; it means someone knew what was going to happen.

For example, if you predict, say, the University of Alabama football team is going to beat a middle school team on the football field, you're going to be correct roughly 100 percent of the time. That doesn't mean it was preordained to be an Alabama victory, it's just the most likely thing to happen.

Moving to a religious context, since that's where the argument has been taking place for centuries, just because God knows what path you're going to choose, doesn't mean it was inevitable you were going to take that path.

In The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer seeks to bridge the gap between free will and determinism, pointing out that scientists really need the universe to be determined:

Without assuming that the universe is determined, in fact, scientists could not explain the past or predict the future, and this includes psychologists and neuroscientists attempting to explain and predict human behavior (pp. 336-337).

He details four ways around the free will-and-also-determinism paradox (p. 338):

  • Modular mind: One part of the brain may not learn about a choice another part of the brain made for some time, but they are still operating in one brain.
  • Free won't: We can veto impulses, and choose one thought over another.
  • Degrees of moral freedom: We have many options, and they vary by degrees of complexity and the number of intervening variables.
  • Choice as part of the causal net: We make choices that become part of the determined universe (like the baseball example in the video — the batter chose to swing, so the ball flew through the air).

Let's take Shermer's arguments as good enough, then, since this isn't really an argument about free will. It's an argument for using our ability to choose our actions to be empathetic, with or without our religious and political institutions.

"Religion," writes Simon Baron-Cohen in The Science of Evil, "has been singularly anti-inquiry on the topic of the causes of evil" (p. 147). As an overarching institution, he argues, religion just accepts that evil exists because we don't lead the best moral lives we can.

In other words, we're not worried about why evil exists or where it comes from, we just take it for granted that it's there and there's always a good vs. evil struggle.

But is it? I don't think so. If it were, we would all be on the same side; instead, we have more ways than ever to set up us-versus-them scenarios, and we take as much advantage of that as we can.

But the point of this whole exercise is a reminder that we are all basically the same, and we should be nicer to each other.


In the late 19th century, Pankaj Mishra writes in The Age of Anger, these things came together: Zionism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu nationalism, Buddhist ethno-centrism, New Imperialism, Bolshevism, Fascism and Nazism (p. 30).

Those are all "we're the best, forget everybody else" movements; some of them, particularly the last three, changed the "forget everybody else" to "kill everybody else."

Those ideologies divide people along race, religion and nationality.

"A curious and (skeptical) sensibility," Mishra writes, "would recognize that to stake one's position on national or civilizational superiority, or turn the accident of birth into a source of pride, is intellectually sterile" (p. 34).

Let me reword that a little.

If you think you're better than someone else because you were born over here instead of over there, you're probably not interested in actually having a conversation with someone who is at all different from you or believes anything different from you.

In fact, you're probably not curious at all. Probably, you're dull. Probably, my dog is more interesting than you.

Beyond curiosity, beyond the willingness to be open to people different from you and views different from your own, some people look at otherness and turn it into something dangerous. We saw that with Bolshevism, with Fascism, with Nazism.

But look at our own us-versus-them cases. It's one thing when you sit on Facebook and Twitter and yell. That's probably psychologically damaging.

Mishra looks at some homegrown U.S. terrorism. Timothy McVeigh, he writes,

affirmed early a now-widespread view of society as a war of all against all, which has turned politics in even democratic countries into an existential struggle, a zero-sum game of all or nothing with a few moral restraints, while inciting disaffected individuals worldwide into copycat acts of extreme violence against their supposed enemies (p. 284).

Spoiler alert: People who disagree with you are not your enemies.

In fact, if you tripped and needed help getting up, they'd help you up.

If you need a couple bucks for a sandwich or a cup of coffee, they'd probably help you out.

It's easy to demonize a theoretical someone; when we're face to face, we find out we're basically the same.

When you're willing to open up and talk to people, a lot of times you can come to "let's agree to disagree on some stuff but this beer sure is good."

When you're not willing to talk to people, you come to where Mishra finds McVeigh and others like him: They "challenge the assumption that a freely willing human subject is motivated by certain desires, beliefs an perceived benefits, and has an omelette in mind — a New Man or a New Middle East — when he breaks eggs. For the the act of violence is all" (p. 292).

"For the act of violence is all" — let that sink in. It seems to be where we're coming to, when we're not willing to speak to each other.

Perhaps worse, politics are turning into religion. While we can talk about political issues, come to compromises, work to build coalitions and consensus and build a better world, it's really difficult to come together from different faiths.

"Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions," Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now, "providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause" (p. 32).

Here's how to handle that with an eye toward empathy: get off your high horse and understand that other people's views are valid, even if you disagree.

I'll say it again: People you disagree with are not your enemies.

To bring this to governments, rather than to politics-as-religion, I'll pause and reiterate something I said on the podcast. Governments should first protect us from foreign governments and actors, then from themselves, then from other people. After that, they should take care of us.

They shouldn't be there to protect us from ourselves, or to try to catch us doing something wrong. From Pinker:

Government is not a divine fiat to reign, a synonym for "society," or an avatar of the national, religious or racial soul. It is a human invention, tacitly agreed to in a social contract, designed to enhance the welfare of citizens by coordinating their behavior and discouraging selfish acts that may be tempting to every individual but leave everyone worse off (p. 12).

In other words, governments should leave us better off.

Better. That's what we want.

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