Un-Empathic Nation?

According to exit polls in the recent 2004 elections, 22% of respondents identified ‘Moral Values’ as the most important issue in the presidential race (CNN, 2004). Of the seven issues presented in the survey (Taxes, Education, Iraq, Terrorism, Economy/Jobs, Moral Values, and Health Care), ‘Moral Values’ ranked the highest, slightly above the Economy/Jobs (20%) and Terrorism (19%). What exactly ‘Moral Values’ means to these voters is unclear, and the polls do not provide any additional clarification. In reality, Americans probably hold very diverse views of what constitutes moral behavior, with that 22% of voters representing but one perspective. Nonetheless, one assumes that such high regard for moral values is an overall indication of this country’s desire to behave morally.

But does the rest of the world see the U.S. as a moral nation? Responses to a recent survey by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC, 2003) show that 50% of participants from 10 countries described the U.S. as a religious country (compared to 34% who described it as a non-religious country). This would suggest, assuming that most people associate religion with positive moral values, that half of those interviewed probably see the U.S. as a nation of solid moral principles. However, 65% of the same respondents also described the U.S. as an arrogant nation (compared to 15% who described it as a humble nation). And when all was said and done, six out of the ten countries participating in the survey disagreed with the statement “America is a force of good in the world.” According to the survey, 79% of Americans, however, whole heartedly agreed with that statement.

At the risk of making a generalization, I would argue that the U.S. is not as moral a nation as it would like to think it is. World opinion seems, by and large, to corroborate this perception. My thesis is that the reason Americans are  seen in this light is because, in general, they are becoming increasingly unable to demonstrate empathy—both towards the rest of the world, and towards each other. My goal, however, is not merely to bash the United States. I want to look at the problem of empathic deficiency in the U.S., its  causes, and consider some solutions. I will suggest ways in which empathy can be cultivated and moral development nurtured amongst the people of the U.S., not because they are the only ones in need of doing so, but because I believe an un-emphatic disposition, combined with nearly absolute economic and military power at a global scale, is a recipe for catastrophic disaster. If the U.S. sees itself as a moral nation, but the rest of the world sees Abu Ghraib, there is reason to doubt a peaceful coexistence.

What is the relationship between acting morally and the ability to feel empathy? Empathy, as defined by Hoffman, is the ability to experience “an affective response appropriate to someone else’s situation rather than one’s own” (Gibbs, 2003, p. 79). Empathic arousal triggers emotions and behaviors intended to align the subject with the victim’s plight. From an anthropological perspective, empathy has played an important role in the survival of our species; empathy promotes pro-social behaviors, which guarantee the strength and prosperity of groups. It is “the glue that makes social life possible… a biologically and affectively based, cognitively mediated and socialized predisposition to connect emotionally with others” (ibid). So empathy functions as the basic mechanism that impels subjects to behave morally, which in this context means that someone who observes the suffering of others feels compelled to help them as opposed to ignoring them, thus ensuring the survival of the group as a whole.

But what is it that prevents humans from forming such an emotional connection? Unfamiliarity and distance can play a part (Gibbs, 2003), but here I will focus on three specific biases that have, in my opinion, atrophied the ability of the U.S. to display empathy (these biases have atrophied all of humanity’s ability to feel empathy, but for the reasons outlined above having to do with the balance of power in the world, I am selectively focusing on the U.S.). The three biases are: the disproportionate egocentric bias, the bias towards mediated experience, and the bias against diversity. Next, I will examine each one of these biases individually, and later I will discuss some strategies for how they can be collectively contested in the context of the United States.

Let’s begin with an analysis of the disproportionate egocentric bias. To an extent, egocentrism can function as a survival mechanism intended to preserve the self. However, excessive or disproportionate egocentrism has anti-social consequences: a society in which people are concerned with satisfying only their personal desires is a society destined to collapse unto itself. Unfortunately, that seems to describe in many ways the postmodern condition. A detailed analysis of what Marcuse calls the “transplantation of social into individual needs” (1964, p. 8) is beyond the scope of this limited essay. Suffice it to summarize this transplantation by quoting Norbet Elias:

Whereas previously people had belonged, whether from birth or from a certain point in their lives, to a certain group for ever, so that their I-identity was permanently bound to their we-identity and often overshadowed by it, in the course of time the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. The we-identity of people, though it certainly always remained present, was now often overshadowed or concealed in consciousness by their I-identity (1998, p. 213).

The United States is recognized, without doubt, for its cult of individualism, so it can be argued that the disproportionate egocentric bias finds its epitome here. The culture revolves around the freedom to choose how to satisfy one’s own needs, which while having a positive effect on the human spirit can also promote an anti-social attitude of competition and isolation instead of collaboration. Of what consequence is this bias to the development of empathy? According to a cognitive-developmental approach to morality, such as that espoused by Piaget and Kohlberg, morality develops from early stages of superficiality and self-centration to higher stages of decentration and eventually moral reciprocity (Gibbs, 2002, p. 17). This means that it is expected that young children will focus on situations only egocentrically or superficially (i.e., by paying attention only to the salient aspects of a situation, those that appeal to the self), and that they will find it hard to empathize with others or be able to assume their plight because they are exclusively centered on, or preoccupied with, themselves. This is a natural reaction to the world for a child, and it might even be essential for the survival of the adult individual. However, it is expected that adults, unlike children, will be able to engage more fully in decentration, or adopting the perspective of others as a way to empathize with them. In other words, adults can be expected to interpret a situation not only from the perspective of their own needs, but from the perspective of others. The disproportionate egocentric bias works against this process by making it culturally permissible to indulge in an un-empathic behavior at the expense of pro-social behavior.

The second bias, the bias towards mediated experience, explains the technological mechanisms that facilitate the first bias (the bias towards disproportionate egocentrism). Modern communication technologies and media facilitate telepresence, or the experience of being somewhere without having to be physically there. This mediated interaction with the external world can be accomplished from the safety of our rooms. While it increases our access to people and places beyond the limits of our physical reach, it also reduces the richness of that communicative experience to whatever is allowed by bandwidth (telepresence can also, in theory, increase the reach of our empathy by enabling decentration, but that’s a separate discussion). The external world accessed through telepresence, therefore, becomes a simulacrum—something contrived and artificial. Emotional indicators are reduced to abstract signs (smileys, for example), in contrast to the hundreds of small body gestures that our senses are able to decipher. This technological mediation, I hypothesize, along with the disproportionate egocentric bias, leads us to make superficial emotional connections with a focus towards satisfying our individual needs. Telepresence is entirely egocentric, in that it allows us to be selective about whom to engage and when according to our own interests (That we can train those interests to be more empathically and morally oriented is a pedagogical issue that I will not address here. Suffice it to say for the moment that even more ‘immersive’ technologies will not result in an increase in empathy without conscious efforts to reconceptualize telepresence).

If the egocentric bias makes it culturally permissible to focus on our needs at the expense of the needs of others, the bias towards mediated experience further justifies this shift. It accomplishes this by making it technologically possible to reduce interaction with the external world to mediated representations through which I can focus not on the emotions of others, but on my own reaction to the emotions of others. Importance is transferred to how *I* feel about the plight of others, represented through layers of mediation. Action (no longer classifiable as moral) becomes centered on how I can alleviate my own distress, not the distress of others, which results in further egocentrism. The last bias to be discussed here, the bias against diversity, explains the natural outcome of this process, and closes the loop.

As Gibbs points out, “difference impedes empathy” (2003, p. 11). We tend to feel empathy towards those who are similar to us, which makes sense in terms of guaranteeing the survival and prosperity of our social group. But what happens when the welfare of each group depends on the welfare of the others? What technology and progress have made possible—the interconnectedness of all human beings—we have not yet been able to support empathically. The United States is a case in point, although by no means the only one. Because of its history, the U.S. has always been a nation conformed of different peoples. But empathy has not emerged easily between the newer immigrant groups and the established groups and social classes. Tensions have not always been resolved in peaceful ways. The modern project of multiculturalism has attempted to create a positive discourse around difference, with various degrees of success. But despite the rhetoric, difference in the U.S. continues to be something that, at best, needs to be tolerated (like one tolerates a bad smell), and at worst, eliminated. Again, the bias towards mediated experience has exacerbated the problem by extending the formation of communities of interest and identity even when they are no longer spatially possible, so that confronting difference becomes even less of an eventuality. Egocentrism, reinforced through mediated experiences, results in a mistrust of anything different, which promotes un-empathic dispositions and in turn furthers egocentrism. It’s a vicious cycle.
Having analyzed these biases, I will now attempt to briefly propose strategies for breaking that cycle, and for nurturing empathy and morality in the U.S. These suggestions revolve around the recognition that decentration, or social perspective taking, promotes pro-social behavior (Gibbs, 2003, p. 3).

  • Abandon discourse of national exceptionalism. While ethnocentrism is not an exclusive U.S. phenomenon, it has become particularly noxious when combined with national exceptionalism, or the belief that the U.S. is unique, omnipotent, and without par (summarized by the uniquely American sentiment: ‘U.S. # 1’). It’s almost as if internal differences can only be superceded when it comes to defending the role of the U.S. as the world’s only superpower. The average American’s dismal knowledge of the rest of the world (perpetuated by the educational system) mirrors an un-empathic disposition towards it: Why should I learn about something I don’t care about, and why should I care about something I don’t know anything about?  Empathy is also prevented from developing by a defense mechanism of victim blaming: If the rest of the world is a miserable place, it is because it is lazy. This defense mechanism also serves to hide the ways in which the U.S., as a superpower, is responsible for some of the misery in the world.
  • Make inductions part of the public discourse. Inductions occur, according to Hoffman (2002, p. 143), when parents try to make the child aware of the perspective of the Other, pointing out the Other’s distress, and identifying how the child’s actions cause such distress. In other words, inductions force the subject to face the conflict between his or her own egoistic desires and the Other’s needs. Inductions are rehearsals for moral encounters (ibid, p. 144), and eventually they disappear as the subject becomes able to empathize without the need of the external induction. Public figures (from the political, religious, educational and entertainment spheres) could play a key role in making this process more culturally prevalent (provided they themselves are capable of empathy).
  • Seek to balance mediated experiences with direct experiences. Metacognitive tools need to be developed for transforming mediated experiences into experiences of decentration that can result in empathy. Mediated experiences should be accorded their place in our networked societies, but they should be seen in the context of larger systems of action. In essence, this means finding ways for us to re-engage our immediate surroundings, with all their diversity: Instead of decentering ourselves to empathize with people far away (which, as I argued, ultimately leads to focusing on our own emotions), we need to decenter ourselves to empathize with the people around us. This kind of empathy has firmer foundations, which can then be exported in more sustainable ways to mediated experiences.
  • Seek a balance between empathic emotions and reason as basis for morality. Part of the problem is that morality is seen as a set of absolute principles that can be applied to any situation. The rational aspect of morality is emphasized over its emotional aspects. And yet, it is the emotional aspects that allow us to apply morality in a contextualized way. Emotions respond to the specifics of a situation, whereas trying to approach a moral dilemma from an exclusively rational perspective will ignore the specifics. At the same time, focusing entirely on emotions can result in relativism. Recognizing the value of ‘rational emotions,’ or a balance between emotions and reason, is a step towards creating a more empathic society.

Having briefly enumerated these suggestions, I realize they must appear incredibly naïve and unrealistic. Perhaps so. Adapting them would mean undertaking the seemingly impossible task of changing the power relations that maintain things the way they are, at a time when the country seems more determined than ever to head in the direction that it is currently going. However, to continue down the path of devalued empathy is only to ensure our own demise, so we must try.

British Broadcasting Company. (2003, May/June). What the World thinks of America. Retrieved November 4, 2004 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/programmes/wtwta/poll/html/default.stm

Cable News Network. (2003, November 2). U.S. President / National / Exit Poll. Retrieved on November 4, 2004 from http://us.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/U.S./P/00/epolls.0.html

Elias, N. (1998).  The Norbert Elias reader: a biographical selection. (J. Goudsblom, Ed.), Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers

Gibbs, J.C. (2003).  Moral development and reality: beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman.  Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE

Hoffman, M.L. (2002).  Empathy and moral development: implications for caring and justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Marcuse, H. (2002).  One-dimensional man: studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. [New ed.]. Routledge classics. London: Routledge

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. While it is all true, 9 in 10 Americans will perhaps refuse to read your article after the first few comments, if offered. Plainly, is not popular to tell the truth, nor politically correct, and hurts too. We, the Americans, don’t have to listen to this! Tell us about Lincoln and Washington…
    A hero in disgrace? How can that be? The defender of the weak is abusing them now? No way! The Russians are conquerors, the Americans are liberators – ask the Serbs, the Kurds, the Afghans, Koreans, Vietnamese, etc. An average American has no idea about the rest of the world – private oppinion, but verified many times. If Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are not in NYC, then who cares! Morals and ethics are mostly sweeteners for the un-initiated, to stupidize them further. It seems that it is working this way – I’ll teach you all you need to know about how to behave nicely in such way that I can abuse you any time later. But…let’s be honest here: is the rest of the world any different? It seems that nothing changed since Julius Cesar – the strong aren’t popular, the weak aren’t friendly, nor honest, nor too bright either. Where the balance is, no one seems to know.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.