There but for the grace of God go those who would berate those who support empowering their government in hard economic times to alleviate hardship that was not earned.
David Brooks’ recent column, “The Limits of Empathy”, is a worthy read, whether you are a follower of his or not. I like Brooks. He’s one of the few conservative columnists that articulates well the often abrasive talking points of the right as he puts meat on the bone of mere bumper sticker rhetoric from those whom he shares a political slant with . He does it too without speaking contemptuously of those on the other side of his political views. On many occasions he will actually reflect on topics that only hint at politics without actually professing such. This is one of those columns.
The issue is “empathy” and Brooks suggests that it is a”sideshow” when comparing it to commitment and he notes that there is much written regarding how we feel about the pain of others.
“ … Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature,’ [that] we are living in the middle of an ‘empathy craze.’ There are shelf loads of books about it: ‘The Age of Empathy, ‘The Empathy Gap,’ ‘The Empathic Civilization,’ ‘Teaching Empathy.’ There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.
There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”
It’s these last two lines that had me thinking he was going to veer off into right-wing talking points about how liberals are more willing to be charitable with tax payer dollars and some alleged misgivings about doing this. I was pleasantly surprised that his message did not turn in this direction. The thrust of his column can be found in his comments here:
There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.
Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.
The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.
In a world where partisan bickering is the norm, this last sentiment of Brooks’, “Accept that codes conflict”, strikes at the heart of why partisanship is deeply imbedded within some of our politicians, political pundits, religious leaders, bloggers and any soul that can find a soap box to tell us why things are as bad as they are in today’s world. There is a vacuum of tolerance in this country and much can be attributed to those people who have railed against those efforts of government displaying empathy for various groups.
I’m not talking about the legitimate gripes where Wall Street got precedence over Main Street from Washington when the great recession of 2008 was gathering momentum. A case can be made however that saving the financial credit system and later millions of auto manufacturing jobs inevitably avoided a worst disaster than we experienced. Businesses going under and millions of jobs being lost was the result of immoral practices on Wall Street so it was hard to feel “empathy” for these people.
As their self-serving deeds reached into the larger social community however and incomes became depleted, health care benefits disappeared and homes were being foreclosed on, there was a hostility by a minority who broke from the general condemnation of Wall Street bailouts and continued to berate those actions aimed at assuaging the fallout to common men and women and their families. Obama’s stimulus package to create jobs and provide extra unemployment benefits took a beating as if the money going to help laid off workers and families trying to keep from losing their homes were cut from the same cloth as hedge fund managers and corporate CEO’s walking away with “golden parachute” retirement packages. This vocal minority that evolved as Tea Partiers were adamant that any government assistance was wrong.
To the credit of most in this group, at least early on, what we were seeing were the ruminations of true Libertarians who have always expressed this anti-government position. They’ve been around almost as long as this nation has been in existence but as a minority that seldom got the recognition they felt they deserved.
To the dismay of many, this group later became exploited by the ousted neo-Conservatives that predominated politics during the Bush/Cheney era. Former political officials made alliances with this newly formed coalition and used their financial backing from large corporate interests to divide the nation after the 2008 elections in order to recapture their past “glory”.
The mantra of the Tea Party thus became a rant against those who would show empathy towards low-income people and middle-income families whose lives had been turned upside down by the failure of capitalism – the economic system that many Libertarians view as the Holy Grail. Seeing this merely as a “downward economic period”, albeit it a large one, Libertarians felt that the invisible hand of the free market would correct this problem without any aid from government, and insisted that things would be made worse if such intrusion occurred.
In the meantime wealthy corporate and investor interests were being portrayed as victims of such empathy from those who had swept the Democrats and Barack Obama into office, calling for a greater sacrifice by these interests to alleviate the damage done by their institutions. Such sacrifices required higher taxes for the wealthiest 2% and eliminating many tax breaks for profitable companies in order to sustain badly needed revenue in the U.S. treasury to assist with vital programs needed at this time.
The belief that such empathy was reckless and went against the grain of the free market belief that self-interests would eventually foster economic revival was promoted mainly by those who had not suffered the consequences of the recession severely, if at all and were unwilling to see their lowest tax rates in modern history begin to inch back up.
There were also cries from those who claimed we were engaging in socialism, where liberals and Democrats sought aid relief with “other people’s money”.
This broken view seemed oblivious that payroll taxes from all of us contribute to the social safety net even from those who were now in need of its services. This was NOT mostly money that was being “taken from the rich to give to the poor”. It was their entitlement funds from programs they had paid into all of their lives.
But what of those needs that were beyond these entitlements? Are Tea Partiers completely valid in their claims that such people don’t deserve help because of choices they’ve made? Only if children are considered responsible for their actions, seniors for the most part can afford health care coverage as they age and the disabled are really physically able to do the work of a healthy adult.
Outside of entitlement programs there are nutrition and health needs of a vulnerable population that are not covered by programs funded primarily through the payroll donations they made while working. Should the federal government intervene here? Only if local resources are inadequate to do so. Charity starts at home but local private donations alone cannot adequately meet the needs of school age children or ailing elders on fixed incomes who might get only one meal a day. The cost of keeping such people clothed while providing heat for their home during the winter and school supplies for their education often comes at a cost that over burden local resources.
So when our empathy that turns into action is insufficient, why shouldn’t we be able to rely on the vast wealth in this country to accommodate such circumstances with the goal of enabling people to eventually provide for themselves? Is that not in the codes of those whose self-interests dictate that they can only give so much and whatever shortfall this creates is just the “roll of the dice”? What separates those who would not only show empathy for the least among us but would empower the vast resources of their government to alleviate undeserved hardship from those who feel that each person is on their own in all things?
To presume as some do that a few sacrifice more than the rest of us is laughable when you compare lifestyles with those whose abundance is the measure of incomes for thousands of “small people” – AFTER their sacrifice; incomes that have shrunk over the last couple of decades and can no longer expect to set enough aside for their children’s college education or their own retirement while those at the top-tier are seeing their greatest profits and income increases in decades. To defend such excesses implies that they were all personally gained without the assistance of a strong labor force and government projects that enable their private enterprises. This was aptly summed up recently by Massachusetts Senate Candidate Elizabeth Warren:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. [K]eep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
The code that is shared by most Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, red staters and blue staters is foreign to that mentality within Libertarianism and Tea Party followers. It is a code that says in hard times self-interests do not exclude utilizing the combined wealth of this nation within the constitutional parameters of government that allows for enabling the general welfare of all of its citizens, not just the landed gentry of a past era or the corporate wealthy interests of our day.
Believe all you want that the “original intent” of the founding Fathers made no room to accommodate the needs of our elderly, low-wage earners and children who through no fault of their own fall through the cracks of our highly regarded economic system. There is as ample historical documents and records that supports a different view.
The fact that many of the founding fathers held views that would be deemed racists and sexist by most thoughtful people today reflect that times do change; something that the men at the Constitutional Convention were not unaware of. Thus the general welfare clause passed muster with the majority of the delegates back then and has been codified within our laws to this day in the form of Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid benefits and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) just to name a few.
The code among those whose empathy lifts up the general welfare clause of the Constitution in this manner is the code of brotherhood. There are variations on this code but most concur as polls show that beyond local charities there is a greater need that only the strength and vast resources of the federal government can address. All those who abide by the code of free market “self-interests” are entitled to their view but as Brooks points out, they are expected to “accept that codes conflict” and work with their perceived adversaries through rational debate, understanding, reform, and reverence to create a universal code that represents us as one nation, indivisible.