Ethics – Empathy – Why Is It Useful?

Friday, February 12th, 2010 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Last week we looked at the biological implementation of empathy — the way you can feel another’s feelings — and looked at some of the evolutionary reasons for such a mental power to exist, why it might evolve.

However, just because something is useful to genetic evolution does not mean it’s useful to you, personally. Contraception is a horrible idea to genetic evolution, but a great idea for humans who want more control over their reproduction. Suffering pain being such utter torture for the psyche is good for your genes, but not good for your mental state.

You are not a slave to your gene’s evolutionary interests.

Feeling another person’s happiness and joy is all very well, but the people around you aren’t always happy and joyful. Is it really an advantage to be forced to share another’s misery? If you’re editing your brain, reprogramming your mind, you can presumably learn to turn your empathy off. Learn to avoid sharing your friend/associate/stranger/mark/victim’s misery where it is profitable to do so.

Does empathy always help you, personally.

Being able to turn your empathy off, to observe pain without feeling it, even being able to inflict it without personal emotional damage, would appear at first sight to be an advantage. It doesn’t mean you have to inflict pain. It doesn’t mean you have to ignore it when others do. It just opens up your options, right? Would it not be better to be able to calculate another’s emotional state without having to experience their misery, their loneliness and sorrow? To dispassionately observe a slaughter?


Last lap around the spiral we talked about karma and described how evolution had given us the power to actually feel in synch with one another because those particular circumstances create the motivational pay off for people to be good to each other in a way which benefits each of the people in a society by benefiting the whole of society. Each person it in gets a better base from which to live.

This, then, is the primary benefit of feeling an emotional resonance, an empathy with others. It will motivate you, it will guide your will, it will encourage to you to see others as an end in themselves. It’ll stop being being a psychopath!

Personal Gain

The genes which deliver your empathic skills evolved because they were helpful to your ancestors. Not so much because they were useful to the community in which your ancestors existed, but because they were genuinely, selfishly, mathematically, more able to reproduce than the alleles which they were competing against.

It’s actually, genuinely, objectively, better to feel the emotions of those you interact with. The gains from living in a group of individuals that agree this ethical code far exceed the loss of giving your contribution to that group.

While you’re still human you not will be using dispassionate considered mathematics to judge the right cause of action on any given occasion. You’ll be flying by the seats of your pants. You’ll be making judgements on the fly, within hundredths of a second. If you could turn off your emotional response, your empathy for your fellow man, you’ll risk making decisions without your ethics turned on. Your behaviour will be determined by these split second decisions, and so if you want to behave ethically, you need to always feel the empathy which you actually use to make these decisions.

Those emotions will guide your actions and your desires.

We won’t be trying to explore ways to overcome your empathy in order to treat people more brutally or dispassionately. Quite the reverse. We intent to help you learn to do it better and more of the time.

Next week we’ll look at ways of practising and so improving your empathic powers, then at the end of the month will introduce our final guided dream, in which you will do just that and grow your ability to empathise while you dream.