Empathy Imperiled: A Review

One can to some extent understand the current enthusiasm of conservatives for Darwinian deterministic explanations of human behavior, inasmuch as determinism is compatible with the views of human nature already held by conservatives. Even religious conservatives, those who go so far as to deny evolution per se, subscribe to a deterministic view. The Edenic fall, the apocalyptic view of history, etc., are elements in God’s overarching plan, and human free will is largely limited to submitting to God’s will or facing the dire consequences. Secular conservatives hold that Evolution is the grand plan (even though they usually deny teleology for appearances’ sake) and that we should submit to the inevitabilities of our genes and our Pleistocene natures. But it is puzzling that a considerable number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences submit to Darwinian explanations of art, literature, philosophy, etc.; perhaps they do so in a desperate attempt to retain “relevance” in an age when technology, science, and the MBA have the hegemonic edge.

It is especially surprising when a writer of definitely left-wing political beliefs attempts to recruit biological evolution to the socialist or communitarian cause. Such is the case, sadly, with Gary Olson’s book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (Springer, 2013). Olson is a professor of political science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and active in liberal causes. In this book, he explores a two-part thesis: the first is that mirror neurons in the brain hardwire us for empathy; the second is that the culture of capitalism thwarts this natural empathy in favor of selfishness.

Why is his first point important to his second point? According to Olson, that we (and at least some other animals) have mirror neurons has been proven by science, which in turn provides support for the idea that human beings are naturally (i.e., biologically) empathetic. It is not biology or our evolutionary history that makes us divisive and driven by selfishness and enmity but rather, culture, particularly capitalist culture, has thwarted this natural trait. However, while the existence of mirror neurons in macaques appears to be well established, their existence in human beings is not. It further is not at all certain that mirror neurons are the source of empathy. They seem instead to mirror others’ motor movements, such that when a macaque sees another macaque pick up a peanut and put it in its month, the first macaque can imitate that action, but it is a long way from motor imitation to empathy. But by means of a non sequitur, Olson evades the problem: “The monkey’s neurons were ‘mirroring’ the activity she was observing, suggesting she was responding to the experience of another, such as when we experience empathy for someone else’s circumstances” (p. 21). As in all non sequiturs, there is some verbal sleight of hand in this sentence: from mirroring an activity (outwardly visible) to mirroring an experience (inward and subjective), and then the leap from a monkey mirroring/responding to another monkey’s actions to a human being actually feeling with another human being (and what “circumstances” are implied here?). No explanation for this leap from an activity to a subjective state is provided.

It is worth pointing out here that complex animals like macaques, chimpanzees, or humans do not consist of one behavioral trait. Even if mirror neurons do exist in monkeys or humans, even if we are willing to make the leap of faith that mirror neurons hardwire us for empathy, empathy is not our only behavioral trait and can then, quite naturally rather than culturally, be over-ridden by other traits that might be more appropriate to a particular situation or circumstance. Thus a person might be empathetic one day and jealous the next, or understanding and helpful to one person and belligerent to another. None of us would hurt a fly—until the situation called for a fly swatter.

Perhaps “empathy” is a poor word, anyway. The observant macaque might use its ability to “mirror” another’s actions by stealing the peanuts; a human being who can “feel with” another person might use that to manipulate and outwit. Merely “mirroring” does not guarantee virtuous cooperation.

There are equally damaging inadequacies with Olson’s development of the second part of his thesis, that capitalism thwarts our natural empathy. He writes that “capitalism is by its very nature competitive and exploitive, not communal and empathetic except to the degree that empathy can enhance profitability” (p. 25). Well, true, at least to some extent. But is this true only of capitalism? As a leftist, Olson seems to think that it is. But Olson fails to show that capitalism is more destructive of empathy than other actual (rather than ideal) economic systems. To do so, some comparisons (other than to Cuba) would be necessary. For example, given the endemic slavery of the Roman Empire, which was not capitalist, surely we can say that Rome was destructive of empathy. Indeed, a major motive for official Roman antagonism to early Christianity was precisely its encouragement of empathy, particularly for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Ancient Greece, despite Athens’ reputation as the birthplace of democracy, also depended on slavery and denied citizen status to everyone except free-born, native-born males (i.e., not “foreigners,” women, slaves, etc.). It is the ancient Greeks who gave us the word barbarian, a pejorative for the “them” of the us vs. them dichotomy. In the Americas, aside from the Aztecs and Maya (human sacrifice, fierce warfare), there were the Iroquois, who made territorial war against their neighbors, and slavery was also practiced by numerous Indian tribes. While many sins have been committed under capitalism, so have they under all other actual economic systems.

On the other hand, some ancient sins withered away under capitalism. Chattel slavery was abolished after capitalism was established, the vote has been extended to all adults, men and women alike, of whatever class. The various products of industrial/scientific medicine have eliminated or vastly reduced the ravages of infectious diseases, to the point where infant and child mortality has gone from being a commonplace to an exception. The disease, smallpox, that many historians estimate killed as much as 90% of Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans has been eliminated. These examples are not meant to absolve capitalism of its sins, but to demonstrate that any political and economic systems, just like the human beings who create and sustain them, are complex mixtures and degrees of good, bad, and indifferent. Capitalism may have run its course and may, through the usual difficult process that attends major historical shifts, be replaced by something better suited to our new globalized, over-heated world, but I doubt that that new system will be as morally exemplary as many dream of.

In my opinion, mirror neurons, neuroscience, genetics, etc., add little of interest or usefulness to issues of morality. In Olson’s book, the best passages are not those which unsuccessfully attempt to recruit mirror neurons to moral purposes but those which explore the profound words of Jesus (e.g., the parable of the Good Samaritan) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (e.g., King’s interpretation and application of that parable). Such wisdom does not require a pseudoscientific gloss.

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  • Gavin Reeves  On June 14, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    “I’m arguing that the human brain is the primary target of this perverse ‘nurture’ or propaganda. In the context of this paper we might rephrase this as the human brain’s mirror neuron network is the target of this manufacturing of ignorance and indifference because exposure to certain new truths about empathy—hard evidence about our innate moral nature—poses a direct threat to elite interests. There’s no ghost in the machine, but the capitalist machine attempts to keep people in line with an ideological ghost, the notion of a self constructed on market values. . . . if no one saw himself or herself as capitalism needs them to do, their own self-respect would bar the system from exploiting and manipulating them (Kelleher, 2007).

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