The Evolution of Empathy

Following the evolutionary interpretation of human history, all traits should be attributable to natural selection based on evolutionary advantage. This implies that even emotional characteristics played a role in early human survival. For example, the need to socialize which resulted in tribes that enabled progression and intellectualism. Therefore empathy, at some point in time, must have given humans an advantage over humans who were less altruistic.

But what kind of advantage could true altruism provide? While the feeling of empathy itself requires nothing but the loss of your emotional stability, empathy is often expressed through sacrificing something of yourself in order to help another in distress. This surrender of resources would appear to be a disadvantage, as those who were very empathetic may give up all they had. So was there some kind of understanding that those you helped would then help you? These are all small parts of a larger question I will attempt to address through my research paper.

The evolution of empathy could help to explain why humans in the modern era feel more or less empathy, as perhaps survival is not at such high risk. The critical question we face is what kind of evolutionary advantage did feeling and expressing empathy toward others give human beings that enabled their survival, and how could that translate to society today? This understanding is crucial to how we interpret interaction in a largely competition based society, and the shortcomings of empathy in an increasingly globalized world.

Potential Scholarly Sources

Dugatkin, Lee Alan. “Strange Bedfellows: A Russian Prince, A Scottish Economist, and the Role of Empathy in Early Theories for the Evolution of Cooperation.” Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution 320.7 (2013): 407-411. Print.

Fletcher, Jeffrey A., and Michael Doebeli. “A Simple and General Explanation for the Evolution of Altruism.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276.1654 (2009): 13-9. Web.

Lion, Sébastien, and Sylvain Gandon. “Life History, Habitat Saturation and the Evolution of Fecundity and Survival Altruism.” Evolution 64.6 (2010): 1594-606. Web.

Nowak, M. A. (Martin A. )., and Roger Highfield. Supercooperators : Altruism, Evolution, and Why we Need each Other to Succeed. 1st Free Press hardcover ed. ed. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.

Smith, Adam. “Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy in Human Behavior and Evolution.” The Psychological Record 56.1 (2006): 3. Print.

Where the Empathy Ends (A Not So Poetic Introduction to Empathy in Society)

One of the primary questions facing philosophers and psychologists alike is whether or not humanity has the ability to extend empathy toward those who fall outside of the ingrained in-groups of our psyche. While it is true that “empathy is influenced by social categorization processes,” it is less clear whether or not those outgroup determinations can be overcome through the use of empathy (Tarrant). The following posts explore the human potential and limits to empathy in real world situations, and how they can contribute to the overall understanding of empathy as a universal force. They show that empathy can be extended to both those who commit morally unacceptable behaviors, and those attributed to a psychological outgroups. It also touches on the empathetically void area of the internet, and how the lack of human interaction decreases the expression of empathy.

The Rwanda genocide: Should evil on this scale be blamed on psycopaths or on the perpetrators' beliefs? [2]

The Rwanda genocide: Should evil on this scale be blamed on psychopaths or on the perpetrators’ beliefs? [3]

The first post, “We’re All a Bit Sociopathic” explores the issue of evil as an absence of empathy in the human mind and whether or not people can empathize with those deemed evil by social and moral standards. While a lack of empathy is far from the sole cause of evil, it is the most common unifying factor within the darkest minds of this world. Philosopher Adam Morton claims that it is impossible to truly empathize with those who commit heinous crimes, because one can never comprehend committing a truly evil act until they have done so themselves. However, the stance taken in this blog post shows that the feeling of coldness toward those who commit heinous crimes is really the embodiment of empathy for someone who has no empathy for others. It is the ultimate sensation of putting oneself in another’s shoes, because what typically empathetic people feel for criminals is what criminals feel for other people and their victims–emptiness. Thus, through exploring the capacity to empathize with what many would consider to be the worst people in the world, the extent of empathy as a positive force is shown. This interpretation shows that empathy doesn’t have to be the filling of emotions, but can be the evacuation of them as well.

Three years later from the viral video that shook his life from riches to rags, the married father of four is still searching for a job. [3]

Three years later from the viral video that shook his life from riches to rags, the married father of four is still searching for a job. [2]

Tangential to the lack of emotion in empathy, is the empathetic connection with social media and the internet, where empathy is commonly lacking. The second post, “Chick-Fil-A[‘d] His Life (Think About It)” questions the validity of social media as an empathetic platform and the alienation of strangers found online. Adam Mark Smith was burned at the proverbial stake for haranguing a Chick-Fil-A employee at the drive-through window. After his video went viral the social media mob went after him with pitchforks–immediately delineating him to a cyber out-group–and he was promptly fired and is still jobless years later. While the woman he harassed forgave him, the public still views his crime as indefensible and refuses to back down. This demonstrates an interesting principle of empathy, and its utility on social media: that perhaps scientifically, empathy comes less from words and more from facial expressions. Without being able to see the physical impact of one’s words, the extent of harm cannot be judged so easily, and thus the internet is a perfect platform for bullying and harassment. This analysis of empathy on social media demonstrates a sharp limitation for empathy, showing that for it to be genuine and poignant, empathy must be expressed in the real world.

“Go Set A Watchman,” a follow-up to Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” [1]

The expression of empathy in real life situations, however, can sometimes extend too far. This is the case with what is commonly know as paternalism in the United States. Post three, “Aversion to Racism-An Unpopular Opinion” discusses the tendency to ignore institutionalized racism in favor of a mask of empathy. The primary outrage over the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman surrounded the changes in the character of Atticus Finch. Many believed that Lee ruined the altruistic and noble character and replaced him with a racist (albeit more realistic) aging father figure. But what many refuse to see is the underlying racism which permeates the original novel of To Kill a Mockingbird. The willful ignorance which continues to surround the interpretation of the original novel is shattered by Watchman, and serves to highlight the continued paternalistic views held by society. This continuation of an old practice, and the inability to see it, demonstrates the limitations of extending empathy to people in an outgroup. In this case African Americans serve as the outgroup in a white society, and because accepting their differences and extending true empathy towards the outgroup would be too difficult, white society commonly reverts to a practice of paternalism. This is an example of how the results of experimentation do not always translate to the real world. It has been shown scientifically that empathetic feelings can be expanded to include members of outgroups, but work and cooperation will be necessary before the divisive issue of race can ever be resolved in society.

The research and readings explored throughout this blog series point to the conclusion that empathy can be held for those deemed as the outgroup. While overcoming ingrained biases may be difficult, “empathy for outgroup members can be encouraged” which consequently means “more positive outgroup attitudes [being] promoted” (Tarrant). The world is still a long ways away from uniting as a species against the wrongs being committed against fellow humans, and equality being shared between everyone in equal measure. But in the end, research shows a “promising way forward for empathy initiatives” and sheds light on the hope for “more positive outgroup attitudes” without eroding social identity (Tarrant). It may be naive to hope that one day the world will consist of only one ingroup-the human race. But if anything can conquer this daunting task, it is the overwhelming power of human empathy. Or an alien invasion, either way.

Works Cited

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print., Harper. Go Set a Watchman. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 318-30. Print. 12 Oct. 2016.

Tarrant, Mark, Sarah Dazeley, and Tom Cottom. “Social Categorization and Empathy for Outgroup Members.” British Journal of Social Psychology 48.3 (2009): 427-46. Wiley Online Library. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

[1] Kakutani, Michiko. “Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 July 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

[2] Towner, Myriah, and James Nye. “Medical Exec Who Was Fired Three Years Ago over Video of Him Berating Chick-fil-A Staff Is Still Unemployed and on Food Stamps.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

[3] Witchalls, Clint. “Why a Lack of Empathy Is the Root of All Evil.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

Aversion to Racism-An Unpopular Opinion

Much of the anger and chaos which resulted from the publication of Go Set a Watchman stemmed from the apparent changes in the character of Atticus Finch. Transforming from the beloved Saint Atticus of Mockingbird who faced down lynch mobs and championed the black community in court, to an apparently passive member of the racist community was dismaying to many who loved the original character. The Atticus who stood for bravery and determination in the face of adversity, had seemingly withered into a man willing to listen to and himself espouse morally bleak sentiments. But this outrage in the literary community demonstrates an ingrained blind optimism about the past, and that history is still being viewed through rose colored glasses.

“The novel is ‘about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves’ and that is precisely why it is a novel so beloved by the white literary community (Nichols).”

While Watchman has been called “a string of cliches,” it is perhaps the other way around (Gopnik). Mockingbird is filled with nothing but cliches as viewed through the naive eyes of a young Scout. Her father is a God-like entity who stands for goodness and faith in humanity, lynch mobs are filled with men who can be dissuaded by speaking with an innocent child, and mysterious strangers appear to save little girls and boys being attacked in the woods. While the book deals with heavy issues, the cliches are more than abundant. This book is loved so much because Atticus is a hero, and has even inspired people in the real world to become lawyers who will defend the innocent in court. Unfortunately the novel is “about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves” and that is precisely why it is a novel so beloved by the white literary community (Nichols).

This adoration of such a racist novel and character is terrifying because “Atticus is canonized as the ultimate “good white person,” whose ostensible goodness hides the fact that they’re overly comfortable with the way racism has positively structured their life” (Nichols). Atticus himself, as a knowledgable man, may be attuned to this fact himself. Because he is a white male from a decent family, any racial cause he takes up within the white community of Maycomb will simply be “the blind leading the blind,” especially when it comes to the ways both he and Jean choose to approach the racial turmoil (Lee).

While both feel strongly about their approach to the changing social climate, neither seem to consider the perspective of the African Americans. It is continuously about how the changes will impact the white community, with no thought to the people at the center of the change. The racism of Atticus in Mockingbird has been articulated by scholars for decades, but the most common classroom lessons choose to ignore this perspective and instead continue to preach the valor of Atticus as a character (Marsh). This is detrimental not only to learning, but to the racial caste system of America.

“The racism of Atticus in Mockingbird has been articulated by scholars for decades.”

So Watchman being a rough draft, is everything that Mockingbird is, but lacking the hidden racism. Instead, it is blatantly racist and sexist. The present culture is too eager to accept white people as the champions of oppressed African Americans in the past when in fact “we can see why the civil rights movement in the United States had to be instigated and led by black people themselves” because even the most well-meaning white citizens were too complacent in their privilege to imagine the true revolution necessary to bring about equality (Smiley). Atticus remarks that “negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” echoing a more blunt sentiment he mentioned in Mockingbird when he portrays Tom Robinson as a strong negro man who was childlike in his innocence of the crime of rape (Lee). This shows that the racism throughout Watchman did not materialize from thin air, but just revealed the more sinister side of Mockingbird. 

Perhaps it is not Mockingbird itself which is frightening, but the response to it in the modern era. Very rarely will people criticize Atticus’ character in Mockingbird for being a racist, because the fear of backlash over this beloved novel is very real. As much as Atticus perpetuates the stigmas surrounding the black race in his defense of Tom Robinson, he voices them more clearly in Watchman when he explicitly denotes America as “our world”–a white world–and questions whether or not Jean really wants “Negroes by the carload in [their] schools and churches and theaters” (Lee). This is perhaps one of the most telling statements. While Atticus does not share the more extreme views of some of the South, he still feels that white dominance not only exists but is justified. Just as he is the ultimate father figure to Jean, he is also acts like a condescending father to the African American race. He does not find them capable of standing on even ground with white people.

“Very rarely will people criticize Atticus’ character in Mockingbird for being a racist, because the fear of backlash over this beloved novel is very real.”

Watchman is a cruel but necessary reality check for modern society. The paternalism that has permeated culture since the patriarchs of the great slave plantations still exists, and is apparent in the celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is an ethnocentric novel which suggests that white people must overcome the racial problems experienced by minority populations, and deliver them to a better life. Watchman reveals Atticus’ paternalism for what it really is–racism. And because so many people related personally to the seemingly altruistic actions of Atticus, they are now outraged by the idea that because he is racist, so are they. This willful ignorance is a sign of fear not only of admitting to the existing biases in society, but to the very changes the people of Maycomb county fear. The novel holds up a mirror to the face of the readers, and what people see inside is discomfiting because it shows how much work we still have to do as human beings to overcome ingrained prejudices and achieve true equality.

“This willful ignorance is a sign of fear not only of admitting to the existing biases in society, but to the very changes the people of Maycomb county fear.”

Regardless of the ambiguous beginnings of Watchman as a novel, it is important not to dismiss it, without taking into account how it forces us to reevaluate a novel deemed an American “classic” and purported throughout the nation to young and impressionable youths. Could the commonly taught analysis of that novel be subtly reinforcing institutionalized racism in America? If Watchman really is the first draft of the novel, then it does indeed suggest that for decades the subtlety of Mockingbird has been misconstrued, and Harper Lee’s true narrative glanced over.

Works Cited

Gopnik, Adam. “Sweet Home Alabama.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 15 July 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print., Harper. Go Set a Watchman. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

Marsh, Laura. “These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch’s Racism for Years.” New Republic. New Republic, 14 July 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Nichols, Catherine. “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise.”Jezebel. Gizmodo Media Group, 20 July 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Smiley, Jane. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.

Chick-Fil-A[‘d] His Life (Think About It)

Social media has increasingly become a common form of expression, and a tool to rally causes behind. The tremendous success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the fervor behind the Harambe movement demonstrate the world’s increasing globalization and community. But behind the memes and social fads, there is an indisputable dark side of social media. Beginning in the early 90’s and gathering momentum through the introduction of the iPhone and other smart devices, cyberbullying has gained a worldwide audience as new and increasingly horrific stories are unveiled daily of children being harassed to the point of suicide (Ornstein 1). But rarely does cyberbullying extend to the adult sphere. Perhaps because of the assumed stability of an adult’s mental condition, or perhaps because those who punished the cyberbullying youths have no one to punish them. But regardless of the reason, the term rarely coincides with the life-ruining harassment that occurs on social media between adults.

“They have been accused and veritably found guilty of providing funds to anti-gay organizations.”

Adam Mark Smith, former CFO and treasurer for Vante, was protesting the unfortunately common practice of large corporations funding “hate groups” or organizations which rally behind controversial causes. In the case of Chick-Fil-A–the company Smith was protesting–they have been accused and veritably found guilty of providing funds to anti-gay organizations. The groups they fund “proudly and aggressively” advocate for the criminalization of people within the LGBTQ+ community, and even promote the idea of killing members within that community. Not only has this all been well documented, but Chick-Fil-A has never tried to dispute these claims (Windmeyer). So however justified Smith was in his outrage, his attempt to rally people behind the cause through a social media video was a complete and utter failure.

“”[Elizabeth] accepted his apology, and there were no hard feelings.”

Seen harassing a Chick-Fil-A employee, Smith was haranguing the lowest employee on the totem pole, the drive-through window worker. While his cause was valid, it is completely incomprehensible the chain of thought which led him to believe that harassing a lower level employee would make any difference in the places Chick-Fil-A’s money is going. However rude his verbal assault was, it is not by any means the crime of the century, and there is no doubt the woman has dealt with worse. After the social media crowd began their trial and conviction of Smith, he released a video apologizing to the woman for his actions. In response, the employee Rachel Elizabeth issued another public video stating that she accepted his apology, and that there were no hard feelings (Pendleton). It is interesting, then, that the mob never set down their pitchforks.

“Why could Elizabeth forgive Smith, and not the public?”

So why could Elizabeth forgive Smith, and not the public? The answer is simple: while social media may not diminish people’s ability to express empathy in the real world, it is a medium over which empathy does not always extend. It is far easier for the mob mentality to take over on the internet, as one does not see the direct impact their words have on the person they are attacking. Thus, in today’s world the capacity for empathy is still very much there, only the internet and social media have created a place where empathy does not need to be expressed. When typing something hateful, it is easy not to understand the way it reads to others, or the impact that the words have, as there is no intonation in text, nor facial expressions on the computer (Wayne).

“Smith is still unemployed after being fired the day after his video went viral.”

Smith is still unemployed after being fired the day after his video went viral. He is being punished for supporting a good cause, though undoubtedly the wrong way. It would be interesting to see the effect if the social media rallied their attention and fervor behind his cause, rather than persecuting Smith for two minutes of mistakes.

Elizabeth forgave Smith for his misguided attempt to incite the people using social media. While his method backfired, it does illustrate the important point that people make mistakes, and social media makes it immeasurably easier to criticize people for them. It is important to consider a person beyond the one tweet or Facebook status that made them famous, because a person is more than the sum of their social media. It is only through this practice can empathy begin to breach the world of internet and social media. So in the end we should all take a page out of Rachel Elizabeth’s book, and learn to forgive social media users for their faux-pas, as it could be any one of us who commits one next.

Works Cited

Pendleton, Kara. “After Berating Innocent Chick-Fil-A Worker, Many Say He’s Now Getting Exactly What He Deserves.” Independent Journal Review. Independent Journal Review, 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Ornstein, Daniel, Betsy Plevan, and Yasmine Tarasewicz. “Bullying, Harassment and Stress in the Workplace — A European Perspective.” International Labor and Employment Law. Proskauer Rose LLP, 6 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

Wayne, Teddy. “Found on Facebook: Empathy.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Windmeyer, Shane L. “The Secret Recipe for Funding Hate Groups: 5 Simple Facts About Chick-fil-A.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

We’re All a Bit Sociopathic

Evil stems from the fundamental comparison of dark and light, developing in complexity and meaning throughout the evolution of human beings as sentient creatures. But the term empathy and its application to evil and cruelty has hardly been around for a century. While evil itself is a socially defined concept that has very few universal applications, cruelty can be broken down more scientifically in terms of empathy. While “empathy is not the only component that contributes to cruelty,” it is inevitably the “final common pathway” that leads to atrocious acts (Baren-Cohen vii).

“One can imagine what another may be feeling, but cannot actually experience the emotions and motivations themselves.”

This post is not to debate the origins of cruelty, but to analyze the ability of common people to empathize with perpetrators of heinous crimes. In Morton’s essay, “Empathy for the Devil,” he argues that common people are unable to empathize with people who commit atrocities. This stems from the inherent barriers faced when attempting to understand and feel with someone who is committing a crime or act with which we would never normally condone. He claims that because it would go against most people’s own morality, they cannot truly empathize without becoming the devil themselves. This once again comes back to psychological barriers, which create pseudo-empathy, rather than genuine empathic feelings. Therefore, one can imagine what another may be feeling, but cannot actually experience the emotions and motivations themselves, making it less accurate than the true emotion. Morton concludes with the idea that in today’s society, we tend to exaggerate our ability to empathize accurately with those we “should’ empathize with, and suppress our ability to empathize with those who commit crimes.

“To empathize with someone committing atrocities [is to] feel the ‘internal pain’ experienced by the devil himself.”

While fundamentally Morton’s argument rings true, there is an inherent flaw within his reasoning that empathy can only be experienced based on how a person could commit atrocities. Under the principles of Chinese philosophy (valid because ethnocentric arguments lack depth) the devil Morton speaks of is “a person who suffers internal or characteristic pain,” a nice way of saying a character flaw (Huang 22). This perspective is unique as western culture typically views those who do bad things as being the embodiment of evil, whereas eastern philosophy views their actions as the manifestation of internal agony. Thus, in this same vein, to empathize with someone committing atrocities, one does not have to imagine committing those acts, but instead feel the “internal pain” experienced by the devil himself (Huang). Morton’s argument that morality inhibits people from empathizing with a criminal’s actions crumbles, because it is not the acts of evil which need to be empathize with, but the character flaw or internal suffering of the perpetrator.

Now, consider the point made in the introduction: cruelty stems from a lack of empathy. Typically, as Morton points out, when a “person’s actions toward others exhibit a basic lack of empathy,” those who normally find it easy to empathize with others “will tend to be chilled (or at least “left cold”)” by those cruel actions (Slote 35). But here is where the second aspect of Morton’s argument falls. Because this chilling effect, as it were, is not representative of a lack of empathy, but rather the manifestation of it. The reason a person who normally empathizes with others feels so cold (or at least unempathetic) towards what many would deem cruel or evil people is precisely because they are “(cold hearted or very cool) in their attitudes or feelings toward other people” (Slote 37). In summary, a person, when challenged with empathizing with someone who is unempathetic and cruel will “catch (or pick up) a chill’ from the ‘cold hearted’ agents who lack a warm concern for others” and will thus feel what they are feeling–an absence of empathy (Slote).

An American crime drama which follows a team of FBI profilers, who have to think like the killers they are chasing in order to catch them.

An American crime drama which follows a team of FBI profilers, who have to think like the killers they are chasing in order to catch them.

To explore the public’s fascination with evil, one does not have to look any farther than popular television. Shows such as Criminal Minds and Dexter explore the very nature of evil, and what it means to empathize with those who commit atrocities. Morton’s argument that no one can empathize with evil without becoming the devil themselves is too narrow minded, ignoring the idea that it is not the actions we must empathize with, but the internal pain which drives them to act, and the effect of feeling what someone who is coldhearted and unempathetic feels. Thus, because we become cold ourselves when faced with people who do not feel empathy, we also become just a bit sociopathic.

Works Cited

Huang, Yong. “The “Double Bind” on Specialists in Chinese Philosophy.” Journal of Chinese Humanities 15.2 (2016): 22. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 318-30. Print. 12 Oct. 2016

Slote, Michael. “Moral Approval and Disapproval.” Moral Sentimentalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 27-44. Print.

Formal Assignment 1: Empathy as a Promotor of Justice

Engraved on the white marble edifice of the Supreme Court building stands the uncompromising phrase proclaiming “Equal Justice Under Law.” The law which governs the Supreme Court is the Constitution of the United States of America, which lists a number of relatively outdated and ambiguous statements pertaining to the way the country should be conducted. But aside from the dated wisdoms penned by wealthy, white, male, slaveowners in 1787 before the invention of the lightbulb, supreme justice in the United States is outlined by this ambiguous document. This ambiguity creates a cloud of turmoil around the term “justice” itself, and a deceptive perception of delivery on said aspect.

In a natural sense of humanity, justice is the belief that “one should get what one deserves–based on such things as performance, effort, good deeds, and character” (Hoffman 287). This definition will become crucial, especially based on the judgement of character. Hoffman, the author who frames said definition, goes on to state that “one’s rights as a citizen should be respected, punishment should fit the crime, and rules should be applied fairly and impersonally” (287). This second part will be omitted, as there is an inherent contradiction between the first and second part. One cannot judge another’s character–and what they deserve based on that attribute–without becoming personally acquainted with them. Thus, I contend that justice based on character and merit cannot be delivered without being familiar with the judged. In more eloquent terms, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee 39). This is where the discussion of empathy as a force for good within the film A Time to Kill begins, because empathy is required to pass judgement upon another person’s character, and deliver justice in the form of what that person deserves.

The central moral dilemma of the film revolves around whether revenge killing is ever justified, and whether or not a man should be punished for killing criminals. When Carl Lee Hailey kills the men who raped and attempted to murder his ten year old daughter, it is difficult not to feel relieved that the men will not escape punishment for their crimes. This sense of satisfaction stems from that innate sense of justice described above, because the men get what they deserve. Young Tonya will get to live without the fear of being attacked by those same men again, or the horror of having to face them while living in the same community. But what punishment does a man deserve for killing the men who attempted to murder his child? This will be addressed in two main parts. Firstly, if Carl Lee had not shot the two rapists, would they have been duly punished for their crimes? And secondly, did empathy inspire the court to make the most just ruling in the case?

Without Carl Lee’s actions, justice would not have been delivered in Tonya’s favor. There is a massive historical precedent for over sentencing in trials in which a person of color is the defendant, and a lack of conviction in cases where a person of color is the plaintiff. Within the movie itself, Carl Lee mentions the case of “four white boys” who “raped a little black girl” the year before and who were acquitted in court (TK). This sets a mindframe for the film in which the two men on trial would not be convicted for rape and attempted murder. In 1955, fourteen year old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and shot for flirting with a white cashier. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury despite the overwhelming evidence against them (“Emmett”). It is cases such as the Till case, in which justice is not served, which provide the understanding that in these times, Tonya would have been left without society’s protections. It is a lack of true empathy from the white juries that perpetuates this fallacy within justice. Because they sit behind a lifetime of privilege, protected by a country which celebrates whiteness, they can never truly understand the mind of a black person on trial. Since their very integration into society, black people in America have been seen as less than human, as an other which does not deserve the same treatment as a white person. Because of this deeply ingrained belief, empathy is impossible to reach for the jury in these trials; because justice cannot be served without an empathetic judgement of character, due process will always fall short. Hoffman comments on this as well, because “in multicultural settings when inter-group rivalry fosters hostility toward out-groups” empathy is translated into anger, or a bias against members of the out-groups (251). Had Carl Lee not taken action against the men on trial, the movie provides sufficient evidence that justice would not have been served due to a historical lack of empathy in all-white juries towards people of color. In this way, Carl Lee was an arbiter of justice, carrying out the sentence that the men deserved based on their actions and character.

The jury’s empathy for Carl Lee perpetuated justice in the form of his acquittal. The majority of the trial is spent arguing the insanity plea, and saying that Carl Lee could not help what he had done. It wasn’t until the closing statement when Jake Brigance-Carl Lee’s lawyer-switched tacts away from Carl Lee’s supposed insanity, to the torment he felt as a father, and all parents would feel in his situation. The question then becomes: does he deserve to be punished? Rather than: did he commit the crime? This fundamental shift in argumentation is what enabled the jury to feel they were delivering justice by acquitting him of the crime. Before the closing statement when the jury looked at Carl Lee, they didn’t “see a man” they saw “a black man” (TK). This discernment was hindering their ability to feel that Carl Lee was justified in killing two white men. They would see him as a black man who was so angry with the justice system and what those men did to his daughter, that he ambushed and killed them. That in itself did not give him enough leeway to be freed. When Jake humanized Carl Lee’s plight, and put the jury in the shoes of a black man for the first time in their life, they saw through the prejudices which had blinded them into judging him more harshly than they would have a white defendant. This insight plays toward a natural instinct within humans: seeing others “disadvantaged by racist law” promotes “action to right the wrong and restore justice” (Hoffman 238). The closing statement did not cure the jury of their racism or longheld prejudices towards colored people, because “America is a wall, and [they are] on the other side” of it (TK). What it did do however, was show them the fallacy within their own logic, and illuminate their prejudices in action. It demonstrated to the jury and the audience that they were viewing the case through colored glasses, and taking them off was the only way to deliver a decision which upheld justice. Justice in the case of Carl Lee Hailey, was giving him what he deserved-freedom to be with his family.

Finally, the trial of Carl Lee serves as a microcosm for the community as a whole, and the injustice facing black people on a daily basis. Within the courtroom the struggle for justice is between a black man and a white prosecution. Outside the same fight is being held, but it is between the black community and the branch of the KKK which seeks to reignite the marginally suppressed hatred for African Americans. Shown most explicitly in the final scene, the black protesters gathered outside the courthouse and faced down the Klu Klux Klan the same way Carl Lee was facing down the white prosecutors, or perhaps even the jury. His acquittal is symbolic of justice being served not only in his trial, but in the community itself. Carl Lee becomes a symbol for equality, and proof that a black man can face a fair trial in court. With his acquittal the KKK is broken up, and corruption purged from within the justice system (TK). This conclusion, reminiscent of deus ex machina, hints at a brighter future for the community, filled with compassion and justice. Thus, when Carl Lee is acquitted, it is not simply him being freed, but the black community as a whole. He is a symbol of justice and optimism, an attempt to right some of the wrongs which have been done unto his people.

Perhaps, when following the letter of the law, what Carl Lee did was wrong and should be punished. However, justice is not always defined by written laws. It is fluid, changing from circumstance to circumstance, and is heavily dependent upon empathetic judgements of character. In killing the rapists and attempted murderers, Carl Lee delivered justice. He was a good, hardworking man who was defending his daughter the only way he could in a society institutionalized to oppress his ethnicity. He in turn got what he–and his community–deserved when he was acquitted for his crime. Thus, the rare empathy of an all-white jury towards a black man and his ten year old daughter promoted justice in the court.

Works Cited

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

“Emmett Till Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 26 June 2015. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

Hoffman, Martin. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 230-254.

Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.

Blog Assignment 3: Empathy, Real or Apparent

Just before the dramatic finale, Jake visits Carl Lee in his barren cell, to admit their inevitable defeat. The lighting is low in this scene, with minimal decoration and furnishings in the cell. The camera pans only between the faces of the two men, emphasizing the stark contrast in their appearances. Jake is dressed in a pressed suit, looking every bit the attorney, and Carl Lee is sweaty, in a dirty shirt and pants. This setting is paramount to the upcoming conversation, because this is essentially the profession of the movie’s theme.

“They see you, they see a yard worker. They see me, they see an attorney.” -Jake Brigance (A Time to Kill)

The dramatic language used throughout their conversation is meant to invoke empathy in the viewer not only for Carl Lee Hailey, but also for the plight of African Americans. Carl finally gets through to Jake that they are not friends, and that no matter his pretty professions of equality, he is one of the “bad guys”.

“Fact is, you just like all the rest of them.” -Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill)

The harsh accusation towards the man who has become the hero of the movie is understandably shocking, which is the point exactly. Throughout the movie the audience cheers Jake on for his determination to defend the man who avenged his daughter’s rape and attempted murder. On the surface Jake is nothing like the two men who raped Carl’s daughter, but Hailey argues that they hold the same fundamental beliefs, as all white people are raised to see black people as less than themselves.

“When you look at me, you don’t see a man…you see a black man.” -Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill)

Carl makes an important point for the viewers here that still holds much relevance today. Because Jake refuses to see the racism in his inherent beliefs, he cannot win the court case. It isn’t until he acknowledges that he is in fact one of the white people who can never fully understand the struggle of being oppressed by an entire nation that he finds the words to win the case. By examining his own white privilege, he finds the words he knows will cause the jury to release Carl Lee. This epiphany is supposed to translate to the viewers of the movie, and encourage them to examine their own actions and the world they live in critically. It invokes the principle of the judicious spectator, but instead of the court room, to examine the structure of society, and the institutionalized racism found within much of the country.

“America is a wall, and you on the other side.” -Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill)

Without commenting on the application this scene and quote have for current politics, this last line calls into question everything Jake (and the viewers) know about the United States. The “American Dream” and the promise of Ellis Island were renowned around the world, but this blind optimism serves to cover the underlying problems within the integrity of the nation. Idealistic views about the “land of the free and the home of the brave” minimize the importance of critically analyzing the motions of the government. The poignant line is intended to invoke a sense of righteous indignation for the state of our wonderful country, and further rally the viewer behind Jake’s cause to set Carl Lee free–as if getting him acquitted proves that good still exists in America.

Works Cited

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

Blog Assignment 2: Defending Tom Robinson

Gentlemen of the court, I stand before you with the most humble respect for the law and the role you play in delivering justice upon those who have wronged the community. But that is not why you were called today. Today you were called to the hallowed ground of this courthouse to assuage the guilt of a young woman who in her poverty ridden misery, violated the most sacred law of our community. You were called to hide the true felon behind a cloak of bigotry and hatred.

The state, which so righteously defends Miss Ewell’s honor has yet to provide one piece of evidence which indicates Mr. Robinson committed this crime. They say she was beaten, with fingerprints all about her neck, and her right eye blackened. But esteemed panel, must I point out that this is impossible for Mr. Robinson to have accomplished? It doesn’t take a man of your intelligence to see that a man possessing only one hand could not have so encompassed her neck and covered it in bruises. Furthermore, to have blackened her right eye, the assault must have come from someone swinging from their left arm, which we have proven is impossible for Mr. Robinson to have done with his paralysis. Now don’t mistake me, there is ample evidence that a crime has been committed, but it is nigh indisputable that Mr. Robinson did not commit said travesty.

In 1776, a group of men, not unlike yourselves sat before a table and penned the greatest document to ever grace this country. They wrote that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (“Declaration”)[1]. The man which sits before you today deserves the same consideration which would be provided to any other in this courtroom. I entreat you, gentlemen, not to take away Mr. Robison’s unalienable right to Life, and not to forgo his children’s right to Happiness. The only crime committed by the man who sits before you was to do as the Lord commanded, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (“Mark”). So as tenable citizens of this community, and devout servants to the Lord, I pose a question to you on this dark day: do you follow the Lord as Mr. Robinson does, with unwavering kindness and self-sacrifice?[2]

I know you gentlemen, and I understand the desire in your hearts to protect the kind Miss Ewell; but it is clear to everyone in this courtroom today that convicting Mr. Robinson will in no way make her safe. In fact, putting an innocent man to death will only enable her true tormenter to continue his violent transgressions. Today you have the power to show the true criminal that he cannot hide behind the color of his skin.

The law of this court states that “a defendant in a criminal action is presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty” and “in case of reasonable doubt whether his guilt is satisfactorily shown, he shall be acquitted” (Davis)[3]. I have no doubt that today some of you entered this courtroom with a predisposed opinion on the proceedings. But as rational gentlemen, you, and every soul in this courtroom can clearly see that there is more than reasonable doubt as to Mr. Robinson’s guilt.

I close with this: the factual evidence not only doesn’t indicate Mr. Robinson, it sets him free. The rights of this great country that each one of us holds close to our hearts stand behind him. He has carried the word of God with unwavering piety and belief, and belief in you. He, as we all have, put his faith in your hands to listen as judicious observers, and discern the truth of this ugly matter. Do right by this community, this country, and the Lord.

Works cited:

Davis v. State. Court of Appeals of Ohio. 7 Nov. 1929. Web.

“The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

“Mark 12:28-31.” Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway, 9 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

[1] All citations are in MLA format and can be found above, under the section entitled “Works cited”.

[2] This argument is operating under the assumption that most, if not all of the southern gentlemen in the court were christian.

[3] The case Davis v. State occurred in 1929, so it is assumed that Atticus could have found the documentation and quoted the regulations it outlined.

Blog Assignment 1: “Empathy, Justice, and the Law” by Martin L. Hoffman

Martin L. Hoffman’s book, Empathy, Justice, and the Law, addresses the fragile relationship between empathy and the law, weighing the value of its contribution to the court with the potential biases and fickle nature of the human emotion. Embedded throughout, Hoffman asserts that empathy is a quintessential attribute of law and human interaction with society, positively advancing reform towards higher moral standards and Constitutional justice. Beginning clinically, he demonstrates that empathic distress has historically prompted a helpful response as was the case with some Nazi soldiers when they empathized with the treatment of Jewish prisoners. He continues the discussion with neuroscience, showing that empathy is not just a suspended wash of emotions, rather is linked to a cause and effect path within the mind which often triggers the call for justice. Empathic responses are thus an imperative tie between the people and their laws enforced by the justice system. Advancing to historical examples, Hoffman sites Justice Harlan as the lone dissenter in the Plessy V. Ferguson case which segregated schools. His analysis proves that perhaps the rational decision was to ease tensions by providing separate but equal schooling to colored children, whereas the moral and empathic decision was to protect colored children from degradation. It was empathy for the abuse being suffered by colored children which prompted the ruling to be overturned in Brown V. Board of Education in 1954. Finally, Hoffman concedes that empathy can be damaging as it holds biases towards the group one identifies with, and can foster hostility towards the others. It can lead to incorrect verdicts in the face of salience bias. Victim blaming often occurs as a result of empathy, if one connects more with the perpetrator than the true victim, as was the case of the British nanny in 1997. Within Hoffman’s essay, his careful use of the term “empathy” frames his narrative to reinforce the central theme of action inducing emotion.

Affective empathy is defined early in the chapter as feeling what another feels rather than cognitive empathy which is merely the “awareness of another’s feelings” (Hoffman 230). This discernment is crucial to the thesis of the paper because “empathy’s importance for law is based on its presumed motivational properties” (Hoffman 231). Thus, Hoffman’s central argument is built upon the foundation of action, which is more likely to occur under the influence of affective empathy rather than cognitive empathy (which are often used synonymously). Under the assumption of Hobbesian philosophy which asserts that humans are inherently selfish in their actions in order to ensure their own survival, the only way to ensure affirmative action from an individual is to personalize a plight. This is where the distinction between the two types of empathy is pivotal, because simply being aware of another person’s feelings would very rarely incite a constructive response.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Martin. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 230-254.