Empathy: Bringing down the walls, one brick at a time

By M. Jefferson Hale*

What would happen if the entire world followed the greatest moral advice of the sages?  What would such a world look like? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not a concept owned by any religion. One finds it even in the words of secular humanists. It is almost universal:

It is Baha’i: “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not. . . .Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u’llah;

It is Buddhism“…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” Samyutta Nikaya v. 353;

It is Christianity: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31, King James Version;

It is Secular HumanismDo unto others as you would have them do unto you; 

It is Brahmanism“This is the sum of Dharma (duty): Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.”  Mahabharata, 5:1517;

It is Islam“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths;

It is Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” Talmud, Shabbat 31a;

It is Confucianism“When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.” Confucius, Doctrine of the Mean.

Indeed, reciprocity** is a moral concept advocated by these and many more religions, as well as atheists and agnostics the world over. It is possibly the highest moral value ever espoused, and yet most who claim to adhere to this philosophy often ignore it, especially in politics. If this were not so, then there would exist little or no poverty, little or no indifference, and there would be universal, nonprofit healthcare. Why would this not be something to which everyone could agree?

I confess to my own guilt here. I, like everyone, am a product of my environment and my genetic heritage. I am a work in progress. I have profound regrets for inappropriate statements and actions that brought stress to others, and still often have difficulty in controlling my desire for fractious confrontation against those with whom I have grievances in both social situations and politics. Civil debate is always better even if civility isn’t a trait of one’s opponent, and I am a firm believer in debate. Thus, I have to keep reminding myself that anger wins no converts, always troubles the soul, and makes the way difficult. Since I cannot change the past or my genetics, therefore, the best I can do is try my best to recognize my inclinations to self-centeredness, condescension, aggression, and resist.

On this site, I will call on readers to join me in traveling the difficult path of the sages. We are all subject to the same natural impulses and will often fall short, but if everyone were to try, it would be a far better world.

How hard can it be? Consider Matthew 25:32-46. Matthew, or whoever wrote Matthew, in his quest to bring about a more just society, did not suffer from any illusion that empathy is our primary motivating force. Self-interest is far stronger. He knew that without threat of punishment, relatively few would follow his words. Moreover, he knew that mere punishment, such as execution, prison, or flogging would not be enough. He knew the punishment must be far greater than anything dealt by society. It had to be the threat of divine punishment: unrelenting torture, without end, forever.

Yet, even that threat has never been enough. Why has it not? Because we human beings are only slightly less subject to our genetic heritage than other species. By nature, we are aggressive, self-interested, territorial beings. These traits are characteristics honed long ago by the drive for survival—a drive we’ve inherited from a distant past far more dangerous than the present when to lose one’s territory and possessions was to lose one’s life, or at the very least, create hardships.

Still, human territorialism is no longer the instinct it was long ago. An instinct is a drive that impels an individual, without recourse, to certain actions, not the least of which is to protect himself, his family, and his territory in an aggressive manner and to procreate.

We now have the power to override those passions, reducing what used to be instinct to mere impulses. We have become, collectively, more tolerant and less territorial. Even though we, for the most part, have intellectualized our territorialism in the form of property possession and sovereignty by force of law, our ethical concepts are evolving. We, therefore, now have the capacity to follow the path of the sages, difficult as that may be.

I can envision a future—not in my lifetime but long thereafter—humankind will live together as brothers and sisters. I can see a time when our primary motivation will not be self-interest, but universal empathy. The founders of that future are those who listen to the sages and have the courage to venture beyond the walls of their theological and self-centered ideologies, taking with them only the greatest words of wisdom; the words of benevolent reciprocity. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone did this.

* M. Jefferson Hale is the lead character in the novel, The Empathy Imperative, by Max T. Furr

** What was implied by the sages was benevolent reciprocity. Simple reciprocity might allow for returning violence for violence, but benevolent reciprocity is returning kindness for violence. It is, indeed, a most difficult thing to do. Shouldn’t there be a Church of Benevolent Reciprocity?


— Max T. Furr is author of The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical novel exploring the nature Divine Justice. Was Descartes wrong and God was a deceiver, after all? What would the world be like if empathy, not self interest, were our primary motivating force?

Based on biblical literalism, the story opens at the beginning of the Tribulation, but a professor of philosophy and evolutionary biology becomes the focal point for a change that alters Yahweh’s Divine Plan. Jeff knew the answer to a question unspoken.

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60 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tishmoon
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 12:24:59

    Max, what a profound post. I like your idea on “benevolent reciprocity”, rather than simple reciprocity. In raising my daughter, I have made as many errors as every other flawed human, but have tried to instill a sense of responsibility and compassion in her that was lacking in my own upbringing. This post is definitely food for intelligent thought. Thank you ! 🙂

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  12. N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ
    Nov 20, 2014 @ 15:34:47

    Hi Max, thank you for directing me here. A power posts. I enjoyed reading your thought processes and I concur with regard to empathy. My journey has brought me to the understanding that our genes and environment are intertwined. That our brain development (wiring and synaptic pruning) are intertwined with our environment, and that our hormones/neurotransmitters are intertwined with the environment. I’ve also learned that without selfishness we would have gone extinct long ago. So I don’t think selfishness is bad when it is balanced with selflessness. As you probably are aware, there is a time, between 18 to 24 month when babies recognize themselves in the mirror. Our innate capacity to empathize can begin to be groomed.

    In my quest to understand human behavior outside the bounds of religion, I began to do independent research about the brain. I was amazed at what I uncovered and it was, quite frankly, life-changing. For example, in his book “The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain”, Dr. Ian Robertson writes:

    “Power changes the brain triggering increased testosterone in both men and women. Testosterone and one of its by-products called 3-androstanediol, are addictive, largely because they increase dopamine in a part of the brain’s reward system called the nucleus accumbens.

    But too much power – and hence too much dopamine – can disrupt normal cognition and emotion, leading to gross errors of judgment and imperviousness to risk, not to mention huge egocentricity and lack of empathy for others.”

    So no matter how much we try to teach or promote empathy, if we are living in cultures that glamorize and prioritize power, wealth, we will continually be subjected to the toxic side-effects. I believe one of our biggest problems has been the fact that we rarely explore core causes — or acknowledge that we are organic subject to the environment, even in vitro. Many religions, for example, has separated the mind and body — the flesh warring with the spirit. The mind/body connection is quite relevant but often dismissed.

    Another gem I uncovered was about brain injuries, including pon dysfunction, which can cause inappropriate behavior, even antisocial behavior. For example:

    “Children who experience early damage in the prefrontal cortex never completely develop social or moral reasoning. As adults, even on an intellectual level, they cannot refer to such behavior because they have little concept of it. In contrast, individuals with adult-acquired damage are usually aware of proper social and moral conduct, but are unable to apply such behaviors.” http://neuroresearchproject.com/every-15-seconds

    Brain injuries occur approximately every 15 seconds in America and is the leading cause of death and injury in children. My point in sharing this is that even threatening hell will not change their behavior and could actually intensify it. The key is to prevent it from happening through education, and to continue to find effective ways to help people rehabilitate from brain injuries and neurotransmitter addictions.

    Most societies expect a plumber to have extensive training before they can clean out our sewer pipes, but parents are just suppose to wing it when it comes to a child’s brain development and prevention of damage.

    There so much to address, but after 10 years of extensive research, I can say that I am in love with humanity and it came about because of what I learned from science. I spent many years trying to atrophy neural pathways that were created by a lifetime of being taught by my cultural religion that humans were innately depraved (evil). I will, however, say that I do think the many sages had a knowing (most likely through observation) that it is love and compassion that wires the brain of children to become empathic, productive, prosocial adults.

    Have you ever read “Peace Among Primates” by Robert Sapolsky? It’s an awesome read and compliments your post. I especially like the part subtitled “Left behind”. There in lies some keys which cause social dysfunction and creates stable societies when certain dynamics are curtailed. You can see in the Forrest Troop alpha males that they were enslaved by the same addiction Robertson highlights in his book. By changing the dynamics of their culture (even though it happened by accident), the baboons were able to create what Sopolsky called “utopia”.

    http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/peace_among_primates

    “‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” ~Dalai Lama

    I love posts like this. Apologies that mine was so long. I get excited when I read meaty posts like this one. Thank you for sharing and for caring. I’m so glad our paths have crossed. 🙂

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    • Max T. Furr
      Dec 05, 2014 @ 14:56:06

      “Hi Max, thank you for directing me here. A power posts. I enjoyed reading your thought processes and I concur with regard to empathy. My journey has brought me to the understanding that our genes and environment are intertwined.”

      So sorry for such a late reply. I could have sworn I answered your post that I retrieved. I know I printed it out to read. Please jog my memory if I did not respond–I don’t see it here? I do recall going following your links.

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    • Max T. Furr
      Dec 08, 2014 @ 14:27:00

      I am so sorry for the long delay, but I’m still getting the hang of the mechanics of this site. I think I’ve responded to you twice, but it does not show up here. I think I’ve solved the problem now.

      Also, I am very sure I wrote comments regarding your long post. I do not see it here either. I will re-respond today or tomorrow now that I’m quite sure I have the problems sorted out (I’m about burned out at the moment).

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  21. authorbengarrido
    Mar 03, 2015 @ 00:56:42

    Interesting article.

    What would you say to phikosophers like Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus who reject universal morality?

    Like

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    • Max T. Furr
      Mar 04, 2015 @ 13:51:52

      I am not advocating a universal “morality.” I am advocating for universal “empathy,” sans exclusive, religious dogma. Universal empathy would entail understanding the ethos (including the ethical/moral views) of others and realizing that their world views are a product of both their genetic heritage and the environment into which they were born. It is what shaped them just as mine shaped me.

      I look at it this way; I think most people would agree that it is moral to be just, and immoral not to be just. If this is true, then I would urge them to consider the Rawlsian “original position” on justice to which everyone of every culture could agree (if they are not so indoctrinated as to be incapable of Reason). I refer,of course, to his original position discovered via a “veil of ignorance.”

      As I’m sure you know, the use a hypothetical veil of ignorance is what philosopher John Rawls suggested as a means of finding the basic principles of justice–principles to which everyone would agree.

      Hypothetically then, if a group of people were in a room trying to establish basic principles upon which they could build a just society, and each and every person in this room were ignorant of all personal influences that might prejudice himself in such a conference–including his race, gender, economic class, beliefs about religion, social position, physical attributes, etc.–to what general principles would he want to establish?

      The first principle would be equality. Because he would not want to be disadvantaged, he would want equal rights to all basic liberties and opportunities allowed for all others in the room. Everyone in the room, being in the same condition, would opt for the same.

      The second principle follows that since social and economic inequalities would certainly develop (some folks are more astute in business and other aspects of life than are others) he would want those inequalities to be arranged in such a way as to be to the advantage of everyone, and that he would want offices and positions open to all. In other words, if he is a worker who produces value that creates wealth, then he should benefit from the value he produces. If his production increases by 10% creating 10% more wealth, then his income should rise by 10%. This is not equality, but it is equity and it is just.

      Indeed, I think these should certainly be the basis for any just society. Anything that deviates from those principles, is injustice.

      Yes, we do have our influences and our society is not built on those fundamental principles. We are born into an unjust society where a Randian self-interest is master and likely the least of the concerns of those socially and economically advantaged is the economic, social, and opportunity disadvantaged poor.

      The only way, now, to achieve a just society, is to create a situation in which empathy, taught from tothood, becomes our primary motivating force. In order for that to have any significant effect on society, then we would have to recognize, understand, and care about the two principles of a just society.

      This is why it will not happen probably within at least another millennium. I do not believe our sense of justice, or even our ability to collectively entertain the fundamental principles of a just society, have evolved enough to override self-interest.

      So, to answer the usual conservative argument that we are all equally free to advance in society, I would suggest that, to paraphrase George Orwell; We are all free, but some are much more free than others.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      • authorbengarrido
        Mar 08, 2015 @ 04:36:45

        Hmm. That veil of ignorance sounds kind of universal to me. 😉

        I’ve got a side project going right now showing how empathy can be a very, very effective weapon. You might be interested.

        Thanks for the article, by the way.

        Like

  22. Toad
    Mar 03, 2015 @ 14:45:22

    One hopes you are right in seeing the future as you do.

    Like

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  23. Max T. Furr
    Mar 04, 2015 @ 14:01:24

    I think that future to be possible, and I have described such a vision in my novel, but it is not probable given today’s ethically challenged world and the existence of religion alongside WMD.

    Then, of course, there are wealthy conservative business interests that are engaging in war profiteering, social engineering through propaganda, and thwarting efforts to build a robust green energy industry. 😦 Still, I can hope and advocate.

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  24. Trackback: IS GOD DEAF? | The Benevolent Thou
  25. BroadBlogs
    Mar 06, 2015 @ 16:00:42

    Interesting how the great religions all make this important point. And there is research showing that even very young children are empathetic. Makes me wonder what happens to bring people out of that place. Sad.

    Like

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  26. Max T. Furr
    Mar 08, 2015 @ 11:43:00

    I blame it on religious contradiction–a conflict between ancient religious laws and our evolved sense of justice and mercy. As I’ve mentioned, the walls of exclusive dogma the ancients built have created crush that single, most beautiful tenant beneath. It is indeed, sad.

    Like

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  27. Max T. Furr
    Mar 08, 2015 @ 14:58:40

    authorbengarrido, I agree to a degree. I think, however, that you understand the Rawlsian “original position.”

    Yes, when you are finished with the project, let me know (I’ll probably get a notification anyway).

    Like

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  28. BroadBlogs
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 13:48:38

    It is strange that while on the one hand all the great religions make this point on empathy, a lot of them — maybe all? — contradict themselves, too.

    Like

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    • Max T. Furr
      Mar 17, 2015 @ 11:20:28

      Very true. I see it as the only tenant necessary to a world of peace, and most religions certainly do profess it. And you are correct. After acknowledging it, they then build strong walls of exclusive dogma that crush the greatest one below.

      Worst of all, they refuse to recognize the contradiction. When it is pointed out and they come face to face with cognitive dissonance, like Linus and his “security blanket,” they recoil back behind the comforting security of their walls and suckle their Cosmic Teat. The universe seems to have an unlimited supply and each religion seems to their favorite one reserved.

      Hmm, I seem to be in a particularly negative mood this morning. I’ll get better after I have my noon Cabernet (My own security teat, I suppose.). 😀

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  31. Craig
    Jul 09, 2015 @ 13:16:25

    So glad I found your blog Mr. Furr. Thanks to the comments on The Guardian just now about the SC flag situation. I have a lot of reading to catch up on. I look forward it all.

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      Thank you, Niki, for your comment. I’m happy to have another follower. I certainly welcome your input, but I would prefer that you not sign in with your business address. I fully understand your marketing needs, but please use “Niki” or some other handle. I’m looking forward to your comments.

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  33. Abhijit Naskar
    May 12, 2016 @ 21:03:33

    Mankind is unique. Because every single member of this species is neurologically unique. And, where there is uniqueness, there is often some kind of conflict. Exactly there is the big question?
    Why should there be so many inner conflicts in your society just because each one of you is unique! Just because you come from different belief systems or you relate yourselves to different ideologies, doesn’t mean you can’t embrace the good things in each other. Forget religion, forget God, forget Science and forget all the philosophical teachings. It all comes down to one little sentence – “love thy neighbor”. You don’t need to be a Christian to love your neighbor. But you surely need to be a true Human to love another Human. That’s what mankind is all about.
    And that’s what my dear friend Max has attempted to pen here in his graceful words.
    Hard as it may sound, Scriptures are man-made. Thus the Religions founded upon them, are man-made.
    But love and goodness go beyond the limits of all religions.

    Like

    Reply

    • Max T. Furr
      May 13, 2016 @ 08:51:31

      Thank you, Abhijit, for those kind and true words. Your research has demonstrated the mechanics of transcendentalism (altered consciousness) and, therefore, you’ve lifted up and peered behind Joseph Campbell’s theological Masks of God and found ourselves peering back at us. My philosophical approach to lifting the Mask found precisely the same. Thus, we both have demonstrated the illogical and damaging aspects of religious intolerance and theological exclusivity.

      We are on the same path to a better world where universal empathy, benevolent reciprocity, and love reign throughout our species.

      Be well, my friend.

      Like

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  34. Abhijit Naskar
    May 13, 2016 @ 07:34:06

    Mankind is the most unique species on planet earth. Every single member of this species is neurologically unique. And where there is uniqueness, there often is some sort of conflict. And there rises the million dollar question.
    Just because you are different from each other, does it mean you cannot be friends with each other?
    Just because you come from different belief systems or you relate yourselves to different ideologies, doesn’t mean you cannot embrace the good things in each other.
    And that is exactly Mankind is all about. And that is exactly my dear friend Max has attempted to pen in his graceful words.
    Forget God, Forget Religion, Forget theology and Forget all the philosophical teachings. It all comes down to one little sentence – “Love Thy Neighbour”. You don’t need to be a Christian to love your neighbour, just as you love your kith and kin. You only need to be a true Human to do so.
    Hard as it may sound, all Scriptures are man-made. And Religions founded upon them, are man-made as well. But the element of Love surpasses all the claustrophobic regulations of religions. So, Identify yourself as a Human, before you identify yourself as a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim or A Jew. And that’s all you need to become a better version of yourself.

    Like

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