Posted in Empathy

Empathy and Evil

For those who are interested in exploring the importance of empathy in human interactions, the program “How Evil Are You?” on the Discovery Channel is well worth watching.  Eli Roth looks at the question from both social and physiological perspectives. From the social perspective, he recreates portions of the infamous Milgram experiments to examine whether people can (still) be influenced by authority to inflict pain on another person. From the physiological perspective, he undergoes brain and DNA tests for physiological markers of empathy, aggression, and selfishness in order to identify his own propensity for evil.

The footage of the modified Milgram experiments, while every bit as difficult to watch as the footage of the original experiments, produced one of the more intriguing moments in the program.  The one woman who refused to participate, and refused to administer even one shock to the “subject” in the study, firmly stated that she would not want the shocks administered to her self and she would therefore not administer shocks to another human being. If we think of empathy as the capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes, or feel what another person might feel, we can see that empathy was at the center of this woman’s moral compass.  It was the basis on which she judged her actions as right or wrong. Another intriguing moment in the program came when the doctor interpreted Eli Roth’s medical tests as showing that he could be a “temporary psychopath,” comparable to the fictional character Don Corleone, largely because of the patterns of response in the empathy centers of his brain.  (Yet, despite this physiological predisposition, there appears to be no indication that Eli Roth has acted accordingly.)

For me, these observations generated a few thoughts. Empathy is clearly a capacity that is fundamental to our individual humanity and enables us to interact in prosocial ways with other human beings. Some people may be physiologically challenged when it comes to the capacity for empathy, yet this does not necessarily compel them to act in antisocial ways. The question is whether and how we can foster empathy in our interpersonal interactions — whether as parents, friends, colleagues, educators, professionals, or otherwise — so that people are supported in placing empathy at the center of their moral compasses. An equally important question is whether and how our social institutions – families, schools, churches, businesses, political systems, and more — can foster empathy in human interactions. The quality of our lives and our societies depends on it.