The Greatest Virtue, Part 2: Empathy Broken

[This first part is now edited from my original post in response to Greg pointing out that the issue isn't pronunciation but word choice. Point of Information: I've been checking the Internet but can't find a definitive answer to this question: Are empathic and empathetic synonyms or do their meanings differ in some universally recognized way?]

First, some comments regarding the word choice of "empathic" in these posts

When discussing empathy, I say "empathic," em-path-ik. My wife tends to go with "empathetic," em-puh-thet-ik. Rhymes with "sympathetic."

Although the words "empathic" and "empathetic"--from what I can tell--are synonyms, they carry different connotations for me. Em-puh-thet-ik sounds like something you do from a distance. I probably feel this way because it rhymes with sympathetic, which is something you feel ABOUT or FOR a person. Which misses the root idea of empathy: Vicarious identification. Em-path-ik sounds like, to me, the act you engage in when you do vicariously identify with a person. Em-puh-thet-ik sounds passive and distant to me. But being em-path-ik sounds like you are experientially channeling the soul of another. Which is what I have in mind when I say "empathy." So, as you read these posts, I'm going to use em-path-ik.

Okay, on with the post.

To start, in his very good book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, David Sloan Wilson tells how he asks students to write down lists of traits they consider "good" or "bad." Wilson observes that they tend to create lists that look like this (p. 31):

Good Traits
Altruism
Honesty
Love
Sacrifice
Bravery
Loyalty
Forgiveness

Bad Traits
Selfishness
Deceit
Hatred
Avarice
Cowardice
Betrayal
Spite

Wilson then makes the following observation to the students. Specifically, "goodness" appears to be those traits that facilitate group cohesiveness. Alternatively, "bad" traits are violations against the group. Simplifying:

Group > Individual = Virtue

Group < Individual = Vice

This, despite its simplification, isn't all that surprising. Cultures and groups will tend to praise and elevate those traits that facilitate their communal integrity. And they will discourage traits that produce group friction and fracture.

(Quirky detour. This observation goes to a long-standing debate I've had with some of my ACU chums. It's my "Can you sin if you are alone on a deserted island?" question. I say "no." I think sin is a social notion. No people, no sin. And luminaries such as Spinoza back me up on this. Spinoza said: "In the state of nature no sin can be conceived." I agree.

But my friends don't. They tend to view sin as a Condition, as a State You Are In. Kind of like the little black rain-cloud that follows Winnie the Pooh around. That may be true. But I don't find it a very helpful notion. I think it's a vague appeal to metaphysics when a much more concrete notion of sin is at hand; a notion, to my mind, that focuses us on the crux of the issue: How I treat people. A jerk is a jerk regardless if Adam ate the apple.)

I bring up Wilson's observation because I want to focus us on how morality is critically a social instinct. And, interestingly, this instinct, like all products of the mind, can break.

There are many kinds of social impairments, from autism to borderline personality disorder. But there is one disorder that displays a unique impairment of our moral system. That disorder is Antisocial Personality Disorder, formerly known as sociopath or psychopath.

The evolution of the label is telling. The earliest label--psychopath--was a poor choice. These people are not crazy in the sense we think of when we see schizophrenia. The disturbance isn't mental, it's social. Thus, the term sociopath emerged. But again, there are lots of different social impairments. And this impairment isn't about social skills. To the contrary, many of the people we are talking about are socially charming. No, the impairment is much more specific: Antisocial. Hence the current name.

Those with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APS) are the morally broken among us. In its most monstrous forms, Antisocial Personality Disorder is manifested in the murderers and serial killers among us. In history, Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein are good examples.

The critical psychological feature of Antisocial Personality Disorder is psychopathy (which still echos the old name of psychopath). If morality is an innate social instinct then psychopathy is the absence of this instinct. Psychopathy is morality broken.

Guess what is the defining feature of psychopathy? It's a lack of empathy. Although there are other related features, a complete lack of empathy is the defining feature. That is, we can ask of the sociopathic: How can a person kill another person in a brutal fashion? The answer: You lack empathy. The cries of the victim make no difference. These people are, in a very real way, cold and reptilian.

To conclude. I'm arguing that empathy is the greatest virtue. I bring up psychopathy to argue from a negative case. Specifically, when we see the essential disintegration of moral behavior we see empathy at the core. More to the point, we see empathy broken. And when empathy breaks our entire moral sense breaks down with it. I called empathy the foundation of goodness in my last post. That was not hyperbole. The case of psychopathy shows I was speaking in earnest. Our entire moral sense begins and rests upon empathy.

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3 thoughts on “The Greatest Virtue, Part 2: Empathy Broken”

  1. Richard,

    Two general trains of thought.

    (1) Your quirky sinless island setting leaves out the reality of God and creation present. The lone islander who engages in self-harm wounds God and the surrounding environment. Now I suppose you will argue, quirkily, that God and creation and the lone islander are a society, but . . . heh, heh, if so then (voilà), sin. Hoisted on your own quirky!

    (2) I wonder to what extent it is possible to comprehend sociopathic tendencies and their behavior and possibly prevent their onset. Do To what extent was Hitler's later behavior shaped by a brutal, abusive, alcoholic father, by his witness of the accidental death of his three-year old brother when he was five, by the slow painful death of his mother due to breast cancer, and by his severe combat trauma during World War I (he was wounded, blinded, and hospitalized for half a year)? Then too, people like Hitler and Stalin were able to motivate and (mis-)lead entire peoples because of national trauma. To what extent, then, is individual sociopathic behavior conditioned by society--and vice versa?

    Blessings,

    George C.

  2. Richard:
    I've been reading your blog for awhile, but this is my first response. I've enjoyed several of your posts, and I'm really resonating with this series on empathy. (By the way, I like the word empathic over empathetic, as well.) I am a marriage and family therapist and have counseled for about 20 years. When I do marriage counseling, I devote several sessions to what I call "empathy training" I have discovered that for many couples, it is some of the hardest work. Many folks cannot or will not allow themselves to "see" or "walk in another person's shoes, if you will. However, when they finally get it, the transformation in themselves and their relationship is rewarding to witness. Alas, it doesn't happen alot. Perhaps a tribute to my lack of skill. However, from a clinical perspective, I am totally convinced that to the degree that one can be empathic, is to the degree that one can resolve a multitude of both interpersonal and intrapersonal struggles.

  3. Hi George,
    Just for fun I think I'm going to take the whole "desert island" thing out front on the blog, maybe with a poll to have some fun kicking the scenario around.

    Greg,
    Thanks for the clinical observation. I concur; empathy (perspective taking) is the root of all good marriages. BTW, and this is embarrassing, I didn't know empathic and empathetic were two different words (although synonyms, well, are they?). I just thought we were pronouncing the SAME word different. But there are two words. I guess both Jana and I are correct. Fun thing about a blog, you get to make silly mistakes out in front of the world!

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