Blame the Amygdala

The neuroscience of crime and violent behavior

Emotion and Worldviews

The deep empathic failing of homophobia

Lately, I have been trying to make sense of how our emotions and our sense of morality are related. Everyone has ideas about what is ‘right’ in the world, and these ideas are usually held as explanations for having certain feelings about particular events. For example, witnessing an assault or abuse can make us feel bad (if our brain is working). We then justify our bad feeling with ideas that explain why we feel bad, and we soon have a sense of morality.

First, we might reason that the aggressor is wrong for behaving aggressively because we don’t like the way we feel when we witness what he is doing, or the way we feel when he is doing it to us. To make further sense of these feelings we start weaving together ideas, such as hitting people is wrong (it has to be, right, because it makes us feel bad?), and extend it to hitting smaller and weaker people is more wrong (because this change in context makes us feel worse). However, we might start to introduce caveats such as, hitting people is wrong, unless it’s to stop someone hitting someone else. And so as our emotional responses change throughout these different scenarios, our sense of morality and the way we understand the world evolves.

The key point to note here is that our emotions anchor our morality. It is also possible to have a cold and emotionless "code of ethics," a system of rules that govern behavior, even though there is no emotional attachment to them. In fact, your emotion and the cold and emotionless ethical principles that you come into contact with probably duke it out to give you your sense of morality. Lacking an emotional attachment could cause a schism and internal conflict later, especially if we have (intellectually) accepted a moral position with no feeling, such as a stance on the death penalty or abortion. Should we experience for the first time a personal situation that involves these two issues, our emotions may go to war with our intellect.

But there’s no denying that the ideas about life that really stick, are the ones weighted down by a strong emotion, and this becomes problematic because our emotion, which is notoriously unreliable, becomes the first and often the most powerful truth criterion for understanding a moral action. If we feel strongly positive or negative towards something, that’s sometimes all the truth we need – our visceral experience.

I believe that it is this visceral failing that results in the most prejudice. For example, take homophobia. Sometimes it is touted that homophobes are really self-hating homosexuals. While I’m willing to merit that this is sometimes the case, I do not think it explains the majority of homophobia. What explains the majority of homophobia is a deep empathic failing – all justifications on top of this are all garbage, no matter what their brand. However, these justifications also form a culture that reinforces these deep empathic failings. Let me explain.

A heterosexual teenage male, with a new found and celebrated sexuality, will realize how awesome women can make him feel (this marks the beginning of personal growth and many political encounters with women, which will hopefully result in positive outcomes). Now, in an effort to understand homosexuality, there’ll be an attempt at empathy and he may fail miserably. In all likelihood he will recreate the experience of anal penetration, or imagine all of the sexual things he fantasizes about one day doing with a woman and supplanting the woman with a man. This will make him want to retreat into his shell like a turtle, and the bad feeling that results from this failed empathy could then easily be justified by bogus ideas of what it is to be gay. If the feeling is strong (or repulsive) enough, the quality of any further truth criteria doesn’t matter – the repulsion is his experience – his truth (I haven’t been to church in ages, but let me throw out Leviticus, and then show you this sour expression on my face). 

There was a deep empathic failing here for the following reason.

The great feeling arising from the heterosexual sexuality will hinder attempts at homosexual empathy, and to a large extent, a heterosexual male will never know how awesome it feels to fall in love with another man. But this doesn’t matter. What the heterosexual person can empathize with is what it is to love somebody and be attracted to somebody. How great it is to curl up on the couch after a long and trying day with his or her significant other. If the empathic focus shifts from physical sex to the emotional satisfaction (or turmoil) of being in a relationship, empathy can prevail. Given time and maturity, the awkwardness elicited by thoughts of homosexual sex can also be diminished. 

The problem is that homophobic ideas do focus on sex and encourage negative feelings, which in turn reinforces homophobic morality. It’s a particular problem with sex because the emotional experiences that result from our sexuality are often so powerful that there is no neutral ground – something is either very wrong or it’s very right. This is why sex is usually a major part of religion – the strong feelings of guilt (or in some cases empowerment) strengthens the underlying creed, which may force some to disband and others to cling even tighter. 

I believe that a failure to empathize on this crucial issue could be addressed by mentioning sexuality in school. Firstly, it’s crucial that homosexual children can learn that there is nothing wrong with them, which is vital for their development, and secondly children/teenagers can learn some theory surrounding relationships. Obviously, there is much to be learned from experience, but some good foot holds from the beginning could be beneficial. It is perhaps time that children are shown how to empathize, because their morality depends on it.

Jack Pemment is a recent neuroscience graduate from the University of Mississippi. He explores the neurobiology of criminal behavior and personality disorders.

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