There Is an Ugly Underside to Empathy

Empathy can create in-groups and out.

Posted Apr 01, 2014

What kind of creatures are human anyhow? Throughout much the 20th century, we were thought to be aggressive and selfish—the naked ape. But now research shows that this was inaccurate. Accumulating evidence demonstrates that far more than warriors, human are co-operators.

If we humans didn’t cooperate with one another, we couldn’t survive. Not being particularly strong or fast, with poor eyesight and hearing relative to other creatures, and with jaws and teeth too weak to do much good at tearing, it is a wonder that we are the top animals in today’s world. The best explanation for human’s extraordinary dominance is that we work together and take advantage of what others do. Together we are stronger, more clever than any one can be alone and collectively we have thrived as a species.

What holds us together is empathy, the emotional basis that underlies human communities. But if empathy is a strong part of human nature, why then is it that we kill one another with regularity and periodically go to war?

The same emotional linkage that bonds us also separates us. Out of empathy comes the willingness to sacrifice ourselves for those we care about. And we care most about those who are close to us. We identify with family, kin, countrymen and others who fall into special categories, such as co-religionists.

And therein lies the problem. By identifying with one group, we tend to dismiss, disparage or even disdain others who are outside our group. So we have in-groups and out-groups, those we love and those we hate, those we trust and those we distrust. We like the ones we are like and tend to dislike the ones we perceive as unlike us.

The additional problem with empathy and its derivative ‘loyalty’ is that groups exert enormous pressure to conform. This is fine when that enforcement is in the service of cooperation for the common good.

But the enforcement of cooperation through customs, mores and rules may wind up in deadly conformity. For example, The Almighty Latin King Nation is a notorious gang in the US. Yet its constitution is a code of ethics, stating, “every member of the Nation shall honor, respect and protect with his life the lives and reputation of all members . . . There shall be no stealing inside the Nation and [no acts] of vandalism and destruction of property, and graffiti is strongly discouraged. Extortion is out.” It continues, “Homosexuality is out. Shooting up is out. Disrespecting a King, Queen, fiancé or mistress is out. Gambling is out.”

This gang’s constitution makes the point that there is honor even amongst thieves. But the Latin Kings are thugs nevertheless.

Clans, tribes, nations and religions have often excluded minority opinions as irrelevant or dangerous. Wickedness has often come wrapped in group righteousness.

The lesson from recent advances in the science of human nature is that there is much going for us as a species to be ethical. Yet it is possible for all the pro-social mechanisms built into us to be disabled, for things to go morally wrong, for the aggressive and brutish instincts to overcome the empathic, cooperative and altruistic ones. The role of ethics is to show why the latter is preferable to the former.

More Posts