The quote “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” has often been attributed to Gandhi, to warn people against committing another crime to rectify the one that came before it. But it is not this cautionary quote that concerns me. What’s intriguing is how we can simultaneously agree with this and still justify vigilantism, or vigilante justice. According to Cornell Law, “Vigilante justice often describes the actions of a single person or group of people who claim to enforce the law but lack the legal authority to do so” (Cornell University Law School). But I would like to narrow the range of vigilante justice to be examined. I want to look specifically at the type of vigilante justice that involves an individual taking the law into their own hands “to effect justice according to one’s own understanding of right and wrong” (“Vigilante”). As one may point out, an individual’s understanding of right and wrong is subjective, allowing certain people to empathize with one set of morals over another. I believe this can factor into the one’s opinion on whether or not a certain instance of vigilantism is warranted.
Generally, vigilante justice is only accepted under certain circumstances, but I would like to analyze the reason for this and identify the circumstances in which vigilante action is justifiable through the lens of empathy. Because there are at least two sides to a crime, one that benefits from the crime and one that is harmed by it. When one seeks out their own form of vigilante justice, they may inadvertently hurt more people than were previously involved, thus causing more damage. How do we decide when one crime can fix another, and how do we decide whose pain is more important? No two people can always agree upon the circumstances upon which vigilantism is justified nor the extent to which the crime should be punished — if at all. The reason for this difference in opinion stems from the amount and type of empathy that people have for the vigilante’s cause and those negatively impacted by the vigilantism. I want to examine how empathy impacts our perspectives on vigilante justice and circumstances in which its use becomes justified.
Multiple factors play a role in determining whether or not vigilante justice is acceptable to us. Some include our regard for the specific law being broken, our relatability to each side, and our judgment on whether or not justice has been served. Some sources I would like to consider include Martin L. Hoffman’s “Empathy, Justice, and the Law,” to help explain the feelings that can invoke empathy in people. I would like to specifically look at the empathic feeling of injustice that compels people to act on behalf of other because I feel that it is this sensation that compels people to seek out vigilante justice as a form of helping others. Another source I plan on using is David Fidler’s “The Snowden Reader,” which details the events of Edward Snowden’s decision to release information about the NSA spying on the American people and the subsequent reactions to his choice. While not quite apparent at first, Snowden can be considered a vigilante of sorts. On the one hand, he was a traitor for releasing his country’s secrets, but he also felt as if there was a moral obligation to tell the American people that their basic rights were being violated. I would like to use Snowden as an example for analyzing how the empathy different people have can influence their opinion of Snowden as a hero or villain. Additionally, I am going to use sources that analyze empathy’s limits and biases when connecting to others, as well as a source investigating the instances in which vigilante justice is acceptable to society.
Vigilante justice is a tricky thing that toes the line between heroism and crime, depending who you ask. But everyday, people are faced with great injustices that the law either refuses to address or is incapable of answering. And if given a great enough injustice, people are given little choice but to act beyond the law to promote some kind of justice. Indeed, many vigilantes have been counted throughout history, even heralded as heroes. Countless crimes have been committed for the sake of doing what was right in the perpetrator’s opinion. But what separates the criminals from the vigilantes is our empathy for them.
Cornell University Law School. “Vigilante Justice.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
“Vigilantism.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. 2008. The Gale Group 14 Nov. 2016
Fidler, David P., ed. The Snowden Reader. Bloomington, IN, US: Indiana University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. Accessed Nov 14, 2016.
Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Nov 14, 2016.
Simmons, Aaron. “In Defense of the Moral Significance of Empathy.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17.1 (2014; 2013): 97-111. Web.
Sorrell, Kory. “Our Better Angels: Empathy, Sympathetic Reason, and Pragmatic Moral Progress.” The Pluralist 9.1 (2014): 66-86. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
Zizumbo Colunga, Daniel. “Taking the Law into our Hands: Trust, Social Capital and Vigilante Justice.” Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, 2015. Print. United States — Tennessee.
Empathy can be a strange concept. It is often either confused with sympathy, its close cousin of sorts, or remains an abstract entity with vague meaning. If not, those who can define empathy often describe it as the ability to feel what another feels. But even then, this definition is a bit of a blanket statement; it implies that we can actively decide when we empathize and when we do not. And we can, to some extent. We can rationalize when to empathize and when not to, but empathy is complex and controlled by both internal and external factors. Then one must ask, what are the internal and external mechanisms and why do they exist? If people tout empathy as something that the world can always use more of, why do we experience lapses in empathy? Lapses in empathy are designed to keep the individual aware of their surroundings without losing their sense of self. It is the combination of internal and external mechanisms that helps moderate empathy, maintain good judgment and a healthy state of mind, given that they are applied in the appropriate situation. Ethics professor Aaron Simmons, advocates for empathy in his essay, “In Defense of the Moral Significance of Empathy,” defending empathy’s importance and virtue in our lives. But he too acknowledges that there is a line between empathy as a virtue and empathy as a detriment. Simmons’ writes, “virtue of empathy [exists] as a mean, between a deficiency of empathy and an excess of empathy,” thus lapses in empathy are important to using empathy in a beneficial way (109). The mechanisms of lapsing empathy will be analyzed through the perspective of passing moral judgment, the modern lens of social media, and misusing lapses of empathy.
Sometimes, empathizing isn’t always great. Nor is it always the best course of action.
When making moral decisions, various types of empathy, or lack thereof, have different benefits. In Adam Morton’s essay, “Empathy for the Devil,” Morton is concerned with the barrier people construct to prevent empathizing with “the devil,” any person who commits an atrocity. He encourages trying to break down this barrier and disallowing lapses in empathy to achieve understanding between all people, believing that it will lead to a more insightful populace. But for as much as Morton criticizes these lapses in empathy, they serve a purpose. There are instances where too much empathy for the wrong people causes a lapse in judgment and loss of identity, defeating the purpose of trying to gain a more insightful perspective. Rather, lapses in empathy prevent people from losing their morals and sense of self; Simmons also mentions similar support for a reduction in empathy to prevent “losing oneself in the emotional experiences of the other, believing that the other’s experiences are one’s own” (109). While people argue that we should expand our scope of empathy, empathy for all is not the wisest decision, especially in cases that involve empathizing with truly terrible people.
Like the strings on a puppet, social media can influence the opinions we have and the actions we make.
That is not to say, however, that all lapses of empathy are justified or that empathy is solely controlled by the individual. External factors can heavily influence our empathy and it is advised to be aware of these mechanisms that can elicit or inhibit empathy and introduce bias. During the attacks on Paris, social media released floods of concern and love for France’s capital but failed to acknowledge the analogous tragedy that took place only a day before in Beirut. As this gap in empathy was analyzed, it revealed that amounts of empathy were not elicited on a basis of heartbreak, but rather on a basis of how the respective tragedies were labeled and Paris’ stronger cultural relevance to the audience. Social media capitalized on this and introduced external factors of more sympathetic marketing for Paris that skewed empathy between the two cities even more. When empathy is influenced by external factors, it can cause one tragedy to outweigh another. These external mechanisms controlling empathy are immediately connected to the internal controls we have on our own empathy. Should any external factors deliberately trigger internal mechanisms of empathy, empathy is elicited in a biased manner. While the mechanisms of empathy serve a purpose in preventing people from empathizing with people who commit terrible crimes, news companies and social media have also learned to manipulate those same controls of empathy in a biased way for their own purposes.
Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman was published years after her prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. In the new book, many fans were upset to see Atticus’ iconic character change from Mockingbird.
Moreover, individuals are also capable of misusing lapses in empathy on the basis of irrationality as opposed to wrongdoing; one such example is displayed in the controversial Go Set a Watchman. Despite the drastic character change seen in Atticus Finch, Jean Louise’s own lack of empathy for her father when learning of his racism for the first time demonstrates an unjustified lapse in empathy, as she subconsciously locks off her empathy when she find a fundamental disagreement with him. She refuses to see the world from his point of view because she equates Atticus’ thinking to that of a criminal or immoral being. It is not unlike the lapses of empathy mentioned earlier if one removes the fact that Atticus hadn’t really done anything wrong. This is a misuse of the lapse in empathy because it severs a connection not based on physical and moral wrongdoing, but on a basis of not being able to comprehend. Empathy helps connect people to promote understanding, when a person experiences a lapse in empathy for another because of a difference in opinion, it is not our of preserving good judgment or sense of self, but ignorance. The opposite goal of empathy. While one doesn’t have to agree with Atticus’ views or be swayed by them, it does not mean that all empathy is to be removed. Without empathy in the appropriate situation, such understanding can never be achieved.
Empathy has a time and place. For the most part, people have good guides on when to empathize and not, but sometimes their own opinions and external factors cloud their judgement. As Simmons writes, “On the one hand, one must be willing to intellectually and emotionally identify, connect, and relate with others. At the same time, one must also caution against certain dangers of excessive empathy. One must maintain awareness of oneself as distinct from others” (Simmons 109-110). Empathy is not a “one size fits all” cure to every situation; it is flexible and appropriate at different times. So despite all of its benefits, it can be best to take a step back and assess whether or not empathy is appropriate.
Like many avid readers, I consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be one of the greatest books ever written. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in 8th grade, where Atticus Finch taught his children, and myself, the importance of upholding justice and protecting the innocent even in the hardest of times. Atticus Finch is a man of upstanding moral character, and he is one of the biggest reasons why To Kill a Mockingbird is regarded as a time-honored classic in American literature.
When news rolled around in 2015 about a To Kill a Mockingbird “sequel” — Go Set a Watchman, I was wary. I heard many mixed reviews about it, including statements that Atticus Finch was racist and I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or not.
Unfortunately, my hopes of Atticus’ supposed racism as a joke was wrong. This change of Atticus’ character between the two books was the primary reason for the mixed reviews of Go Set a Watchman. Atticus’ moral integrity was the reason why lawyers became lawyers and why students across our country understand the importance of tolerance (Carter).
Despite the drastic character change people see in Atticus between Lee’s two books, I found that Atticus’ greatest constant was his devotion to the law. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus tries to promote justice, working to free an innocent African-American man from a false conviction by a white woman in spite of Maycomb’s inevitable condemnation of Tom Robinson on account of his race. But he also feels the need to take legal action against Boo Radley for assaulting Bob Ewell when Boo was defending Jem, until Heck Tate tells him to allow poetic justice to prevail without the law (Mockingbird 276-280). On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman has Atticus successfully defend Tom Robinson against a white girl despite his own racist views against African-Americans. In spite of his own views or the inevitable outcome, Lee preserves Atticus’ ability to carry out the law without bias. Like Uncle Jack says in Go Set a Watchman, “he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives” (Watchman 268). I find this to be both a virtue and fault in Atticus’ character. Because Atticus follows the law sometimes to a flaw, it allows him to do the right thing without looking at race, but at the same time, he uses his concern for state’s rights to justify his racism against African-Americans. It is this trait Lee keeps constant that I believe allowed her to change Atticus so much while retaining his identity and reminded me of how the law can be used to justify both ends of an argument.
But the most alarming part of Atticus’ change was how subtly it was conveyed. It wasn’t as if Atticus’ character was backwards, it was that he was as erudite, patient, and wise as he had been in To Kill a Mockingbird. He still loved his daughter, read books before bed, and maintained an easy-going disposition — but now he was racist. And it was this one change in character that stopped all empathy for Atticus compared to the warmth he received in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, all Harper Lee had to do with Atticus was change one characteristic, his drive for justice and fairness for all people, regardless of race, to make us look at him in an entirely new way. In my opinion, this made Atticus’ change in character so difficult to comprehend because it easily turned a well-loved character into a character whose morals we could not agree with. From this, there was a lack of empathy and understanding for Atticus, not over physical and moral wrongdoing, but a conflict in ideology. Having a lapse in empathy over a conflict in ideology is not uncommon, but it is also unwarranted and destroys understanding between people. Jean Louise’s own thoughts and accusations against her father for lying to her mirrors that of the readers. She accuses him of lying because she had never seen the racist side of Atticus until she saw him at the Maycomb Citizen’s Council meeting. At this, Jean Louise shuts down her empathy for Atticus in light of this fundamental disagreement. It was unfathomable that Atticus could have ever been characterized as racist until reading Go Set a Watchman. Jean Louise did not learn her father was racist until she was a grown woman. When her Uncle Jack tries to talk her through her anger, he says, “‘… now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s… you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings… You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would be your answers” (Watchman 267). Just as Jean Louise expected Atticus to be her perfect moral guide, so did we. When this was not the case, Jean Louise and readers could not understand why. We all stopped our empathy for Atticus because we disagreed with him, not because committed an actual crime, though it may have felt like it. There were no warning signs or indications for Jean Louise to figure out that her father was racist. Thus, her idolization of Atticus as a man who looked at people without regard to race had no reason to be questioned. As this happened, Atticus let Jean Louise to go into a rage if it meant finally allowing her to see him as he was, to finally separate her perception of her father as a god from her father as a human (Watchman 266). And perhaps this is what let Jean Louise truly understand her father for who he was and finally begin to empathize with him again. This is an experience readers share with Jean Louise as we must cope with the fact that Atticus is not perfect, his earlier characterization does not reflect him in a positive light the way we had expected. But that does not mean we should not or cannot empathize with Atticus Finch.
In the end, I’ve reconciled the differences between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman and have learned to appreciate their respective benefits. While To Kill a Mockingbird has always been more informative of the human spirit, justice, and compassion, Go Set a Watchman has a tone of maturity that To Kill a Mockingbird is somewhat incapable of, given Jean Louise’s age at the time. My experience was that To Kill a Mockingbird was a book that taught me important life lessons but Go Set a Watchman related the universal experience of returning home and realizing that much has changed. Go Set a Watchman is the equivalent of realizing that something you have looked up to is not perfect, but you can still connect and empathize with it somehow. No matter how different it may be. It captures that final growing pain one must experience in which they must separate their mind from others and realize no one may truly ever understand them. But despite this crushing reality, Go Set a Watchman tells readers that this is not a bad thing. Just as Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise that her empathy now along with her different views will help change Maycomb in time, the unique perspective of any individual can bring change over time. To Kill a Mockingbird is irreplaceable to me; but I was able to appreciate Go Set a Watchman nevertheless.
Carter, Stephen. “Harper Lee Created the Greatest American Hero.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Lee, Harper. Go Set A Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.
In this digital age, some news stories can trigger a flood of empathy while other events are misunderstood, causing attacks on people for small mistakes. Social media is a double-edged sword; it has allowed global humanitarian efforts to unfold but has also decreased tolerance for small mistakes, changing empathy in unprecedented ways. The quest to invoke empathy is a race where sound bites and clickbait are tools of social media platforms to grab people’s interests instead of prioritizing accurate headlines and news stories. These devices are responsible for both the most ridiculous online stories but also the best examples of empathy and humanity. One instance is the responses to the attacks on Paris last year. When news of the bombings reached the rest of the world, people took to social media to send their prayers and regards to the families who lost loved ones and to all Parisians. Status updates like the one below were common following the attacks on Paris:
In a show of empathy for Paris, Facebook allowed users to put a tricolor filter of France’s flag over their profile picture, also allowing a check-in feature for Facebook users in Paris to notify friends and family that they were safe, an option normally reserved for natural disasters (Barnard). These were some of the social media efforts to comfort and mourn with Paris. But unfortunately, the same treatment was not given to Beirut, where similar ISIS bombings took place a day before the bombings in Paris.
In David Graham’s article, The Empathy Gap Between Paris and Beirut, Graham details the international response to the attacks on Paris in 2015, and notes the stark difference in the empathy between Paris and Beirut. Between the two relatively similar events, Graham investigates the reasons for the uneven distribution of the media’s empathy. While Paris had a higher death count, Graham’s analysis states that there is more to the difference in empathy. The gap is owed to three things: cultural familiarity, resources, and economics. As Graham explains, Paris is more culturally relatable and accessible to us than Beirut. Paris is an iconic city and vacation destination. The idea that such a stable city was attacked was perplexing and terrifying — because to many Americans, Paris could represent their hometown or a major city. Beirut on the other hand had been associated with war even though the attack was the deadliest one in decades. News outlets sent more reporters to Paris than Beirut to cover the respective tragedies and inevitably stirred up empathy for Paris.
(The difference in how news companies cover the attacks on Paris and Beirut is apparent in these videos, starting with titles of the videos.)
In fact, Graham argues, that even if there was equal media coverage of both events, empathy for Paris would have still won out because of our tendency to focus on the unexpected tragedies of “Western” society. These tendencies explained why media platforms like Facebook activated the check-in feature for Paris but not for Beirut — Paris had more Facebook users, attracting a larger global audience. For these reasons, Graham writes that Paris’ tragedy elicited more empathy because of the preconceived notions about each city worked against getting any empathy for Beirut. Graham closes with the statement that the biases implanted and reinforced by the media are harmful because it prioritizes the empathy for certain groups over others and ignores people in need— separating us when we should be uniting in such devastating times.
I agree with Graham’s statement because the gap in empathy is entirely unfair; it reduces the otherwise equal suffering for the sake of making users feel comfortable. The unfortunate reality is that stories with the greatest emotional response get the most views and generate more profit. As a result, not all empathy is portioned fairly online because social media decides who we empathize with before we can make that decision for ourselves by framing stories in ways that inhibit or elicit empathy. But it is dangerous to ignore people in need because they are harder to empathize with. It neglects the larger issue of suffering and introduces bias instead of help. As Elizabeth Tenety writes in her article, The Digital World Is Warmer than You Think, “Knowledge that disturbs you can also empower you to reach out and act in support, thus giving your own life a little bit more purpose and meaning” (Tenety). During face-to-face interaction, people are predisposed to empathizing with those similar to them and social media is one of the best ways to look past differences and expand empathy (Wayne). Social media is heralded as a tool for breaking barriers, but it is biased in choosing which barriers to break and with whom to share empathy. When social media and news companies decide what headlines to place in front of users, it prevents empathy from being transmitted. The problem is not with how social media is used per se, rather it lies with companies deciding what we like best in order to gain profit.
Between the attacks on Paris and Beirut, headlines about Paris were more abundant, using heart-wrenching words like: “‘massacre,’” “‘carnage,’” and “‘Terror Strikes in Paris’” (Ajaka). Meanwhile, Beirut was repeatedly referred to as a “Hezbollah Stronghold,” minimizing the emotional impact of the deaths and how viewers received it, as if this were to expected and less tragic (Ajaka). This ends up making social media users complacent when the benefits of social media are to inform and change perspectives. This flawed use of social media entraps users in a world that is no different from how they normally interact and limits their ability to empathize with others. In the case of the attacks on Beirut and Paris, it makes the deaths of one city more deserving of empathy than the other.
This is the kind of power the media holds over empathy. Based on the amount of coverage given and the words used to describe a story, social media can regulate outpourings of empathy as easily as one can regulate the water flow of a faucet.
Ajaka, Nadine. “Paris, Beirut, and the Language Used to Describe Terrorism.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Barnard, Anne. “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Deadly Beirut Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold – BBC News. YouTube. BBC News, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
Graham, David A. “The Empathy Gap Between Paris and Beirut.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Little Boy Reacts to Paris Attacks. YouTube. CBC News, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Tenety, Elizabeth. “The Digital World Is Warmer than You Think. Here’s How Social Media Builds Empathy.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Wayne, Teddy. “Found on Facebook: Empathy.” New York Times. New York Times, 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
In Morton’s essay “Empathy for the Devil”, the overarching theme is how empathy plays a role in committing atrocities. He argues that emotion felt when attempting to empathize with people who have committed atrocities is skewed due to the inability to truly understand. He, however, defines empathy as representing the other persons’ emotions in one’s mind and having an accurate perception, rather than truly feeling what they feel. One example he provides is the interactions between persons A and X, X who instigated a mildly racist confrontation when he was running late and A who assaulted his co-worker and is now in jail. To this, he says when X tries to empathize with A, X blows things out of proportion, leading to pseudo-empathy, a term he defines as when one thinks they understand another’s feelings, but is really just what one thinks they would feel.
He references Adam Smith, and how Smith defines empathy to show how when one thinks that another person had responded to a situation in the same way they would, empathy is felt, and if not it is difficult to find empathy.
This difference in empathy is in part owed to what Morton calls a barrier in empathy, an obstacle that prevents one from empathizing with all people, especially those who do terrible things, and prevents most people from committing crime. Because of this, Morton labels the lapses in empathy as the “blinkering effect of decency” (Morton 329). This is when people empathize all too easily in everyday situations, but stop themselves from empathizing with a bad person because they do not want to draw such parallels between themselves and people who do terrible things. Morton appears to end his essay on the note that the blinkering effect of decency is something that humans need to change in order to better understand one another on a less selfish level and develop a better understanding of true empathy.
While it has been acknowledged that empathy has many benefits, empathy also has its shortcomings. To wholly embrace empathy without skepticism is foolish, and although Morton does not do this, he is of the belief that more empathy can help people attain a wider and more insightful perspective. But more is not always better. The reason why we do not feel empathy for people who commit atrocities in the first place is because they have done something morally objectionable whereas most other people have not, allowing for a double standard of empathy. Moreover, empathy can end up clouding judgment if one mulls over a situation for too long as opposed to helping one reach a fair conclusion. Contrasting Morton’s doubt in the blinkering effect of decency, I believe that there is an underlying purpose to our tendency to empathize under certain circumstances as opposed to others. In Fritz Breithaupt’s, “Empathy for Empathy’s Sake: Aesthetics and Everyday Empathic Sadism,” Breithaupt states that it is possible to feel empathy for all people but the choice to do so is not always admirable nor desirable (151). Because there is emotional investment that comes with empathy, it is logical to be selective in doling out empathy, to minimize the risk of losing one’s sense of self should they become too involved. Thus defeating the purpose of trying to gain a more insightful perspective. Breithaupt notes cases of Stockholm Syndrome and Hostage Identification Crisis as downsides to having empathy for terrible people to the extent that one’s own priorities and sense of self can be lost (Breithaupt 154).
In this sense, the double standard of empathy is sensible, albeit self-serving. It allows humans to indulge in empathy in situations where there is nothing to lose and something to gain emotionally — that “warm empathic feeling,” colloquially known as the warm fuzzies (Morton 330). Conversely, it becomes easier to distance oneself emotionally from an atrocity, both out of not wanting to admit something that terrible could be closer to oneself than originally thought, but also out of a sense of self-preservation.
While Morton criticizes the double standard that is applied to empathy, this double standard is functional. The blinkering effect of decency serves a larger purpose that preserves judgement and identity and would not exist without a good reason.
Breithaupt, Fritz. “Empathy for Empathy’s Sake: Aesthetics and Everyday Empathic Sadism.” Ed. Ines Detmers. Empathy and Its Limits. Ed. Aleida Assmann. Basingstoke, GB: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. 151-65. Web. 12 October 2016.
Morton, Adam, and Peter Goldie. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 318-30. Print.
Empathy, the ability to connect to one another on an emotional level and feel what others feel, is an integral part of how humans decide right from wrong. Yet in the court system, countless juries are advised to keep their emotions out of their decision-making because of the inherent biases that may infringe upon justice by swaying an otherwise an impartial decision. Countless moral codes throughout history agree that it is unjust to kill or rape another, much of this law being derived from empathy itself. Thus it is safe to say that empathy does have its place in the delivery of justice. But the hardest question of all is whether or not empathy can be a good moral compass, that is does empathy promote justice? This is an especially complicated question in the movie, A Time To Kill, when racial tension and prejudice creeped into the minds of jurors and spectators alike when an African-American man, Carl Lee Hailey, was brought to trial for killing the two white men who had beaten and raped his ten year old daughter. In Carl Lee’s trial, the matter of justice does indeed become black and white for all the wrong reasons, for Canton is a typical Southern town that holds onto its racist views even in the 1980’s. In order to free Carl Lee, his lawyer Jake Brigance took up the task of getting an all white jury to empathize with Carl Lee’s emotional state and circumstances, leading the jury to acquit him of the charges. But in freeing a man who doled out his own vigilante justice, Carl Lee committed another crime to rectify the one before it, making him no less guilty of his crime in the eyes of the legal system. Empathy has a curious role in A Time To Kill, in which it neglects delivering lawful justice for the two men killed and promotes poetic justice on behalf of Carl Lee.
Justice is different in the eyes of each person and for the sake of this argument must be defined. As defined by Merriam Webster, justice is, “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals” (“Justice”). But this is not how all minds reach a so-called “just” decision. When the human mind tries to make a fair decision, two different types of justice are taken into account: lawful justice and poetic justice. Lawful justice is the dictionary definition of justice mentioned above, it is impartial and in accordance with written law. But laws do not always make the decisions people are deserving of. Poetic justice on the other hand is when people get their “just desserts” or what “what’s coming to them.” It is the reward or punishment people deserve regardless of a court ruling and can vary in severity or leniency depending on the person. Nevertheless, appealing to the jury’s sense of poetic justice can influence how many make decisions, as humans often want their definition of poetic justice to come to fruition as lawful justice. In fortunate circumstances, poetic justice and lawful justice become one and the same; there is no distinction between what society feels is necessary and the verdict handed out. But this is often not the case.
Starting as an otherwise cut and dry court case in the South where the black man gets accused of the crime regardless of the circumstances, Carl Lee’s lawyer, Jake Brigance presented a compelling appeal to empathy that convinced the jury that Carl Lee was not guilty of murder. The specific type of empathy in Brigance’s closing statement called upon the affective empathy of the jury, as defined by Martin L. Hoffman as the kind of empathy in which people take it upon themselves to feel what another has gone through (Hoffman 230). Affective empathy plays an important role in getting justice for Carl Lee because it is capable triggering such raw emotion in others to the point that it can compel people to act upon the distress they feel for others, which is exactly what was needed to free Carl Lee (Hoffman 231). It is this kind of empathy Brigance invoked in the jury that got the jury to feel the injustice and fear of learning an innocent little girl was raped. This feeling of empathic injustice is what drives many people to alleviate the distress of others and promote justice — and it is what helped the jury relate to Carl Lee and free him (Hoffman 237). Because before the story, all they heard was that a black man had the insolence to kill two white men. But now, they empathize with Carl Lee’s tragedy and the injustice of his circumstances in Brigance’s final argument.
When Brigance begins his closing statement, he asks everyone to close their eyes, mentally lowering their guards and getting them to listen without regard to skin color (A Time to Kill). In that moment, Brigance asked that they all cast their differences aside and listen to a simple story about a little girl. A little, ten year-old girl who was walking home with groceries and was brutally raped and battered by two men for no other reason than because they could. And then the little girl, unconscious and bloody, was about to be hanged, living only because the tree branch broke. By the end of this heart wrenching story, tears were seeping through the jurors’ closed eyes, their breathing had become slightly labored, and then — “Now imagine she’s white” (A Time To Kill).
(The Most Persuasive Closing Argument EVER!)
Their eyes opened in shock and revelation, because they may have cried for a young black girl who was raped, but a young white girl who got raped could have been someone they knew: the little girl next door, a niece, their own daughter. And that was when it hit home for them. Brigance narrated this story with the intention of arousing empathic feelings of injustice in the jury, so that they too understood the impulse for poetic justice, as Carl Lee had, because nobody should be able to get away with raping a child. Prior to that last statement, the verdict was all but decided: Carl Lee murdered two men, regardless of what they had done before. In this call for empathy, Brigance promotes poetic justice over lawful justice to free Carl Lee. Empathy, the shared outrage, anguish, and tears over Carl Lee’s circumstance, is what was able to justify his killing of two men and allowed Carl Lee to walk free despite the crimes he committed.
On the flip side to Carl Lee walking away a free man, a display of poetic justice after Tonya’s rape, there was still no one to answer for the murders of the two men. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that these men were despicable human beings, but in the eyes of the law, they too were considered people who deserved to have their murderers brought to justice. And while Carl Lee’s family got justice after Tonya’s rape, what of the families of the two men? It can be argued that they also suffered great loss and wished for justice for their loved ones. But the jury and audience did not empathize with these victims as much as they did with Carl Lee and his family. The film and trial focused upon the hardship and tragedy Carl Lee experienced, allowing viewers to become more emotionally invested in him. In contrast, there is a lack of empathy and attention for the families of the two men killed, and the fact that the men raped a young girl did not gain them favor. Audience members feel little attachment and empathy for those two abhorrent individuals and filmmakers do little to discourage this contempt. So although the law would have been more inclined to agree with the prosecution, the jury’s lack of empathy for them played a vital role in acquitting Carl Lee because unlike Carl Lee, the two men killed had no compelling story that made jurors’ hearts bleed. Thus it can be said that an imbalance of empathy between the defense and prosecution created a bias that favored the defense and failed to promote lawful justice. Additionally, the empathy invoked for Carl Lee’s freedom swayed the jury more than appropriate in a case about the murder of two men. The affective empathy Brigance drew out was so potent that it ignited a desire for poetic justice and prevented the jurors from acting as the ideal “judicious spectator,” a term coined by Adam Smith, describing an outsider who could empathize and feel with a person but not allow those feelings to cloud their judgement (Nussbaum 73). And as Nussbaum mentions, the judicious spectator is what keeps lawful justice at its best by passing reasonable verdicts, using empathy that helps jurors remain emotionally cognizant of those involved but detached enough to make a fair decision (Nussbaum 73-74). Unfortunately, the amount of empathy invoked failed to cultivate judicious spectators and promote lawful justice here, instead supporting poetic justice for Carl Lee by the end of Jake Brigance’s closing statement.
But perhaps the most curious part about A Time to Kill is not about the final verdict itself, but how Brigance was able to convince the jury that they were making the right decision by freeing Carl Lee and that he was not guilty of the murders he committed. Brigance draws upon the empathy of viewers to convince them that the decision of promoting poetic justice is the right choice because lawful justice will not be sufficient in giving people what they deserve. Carl Lee deserves to be free, but as Lucien Wilbanks stated, Carl Lee “is guilty as sin under our legal system” (A Time To Kill). Thus, Brigance uses the McNaughton Rule to legally justify Carl Lee’s actions as those of an insane man, but presents same those actions to the jury as those of a man doing the admittedly wrong thing for the right reason to protect his family. And that was something every single person on that jury could empathize with. It was because of that that they chose to “believe” Carl Lee Hailey was insane even though they all knew that Carl Lee was as sane as any other person in the room. The McNaughton Rule was utilized as a legal loophole to allow poetic justice in a legal system that condemned Carl Lee’s vigilante violence. Carl Lee’s actual defense that helped set him free laid in the empathic connection jurors had established with his tragic circumstance, the thought of having the innocence of one’s child ripped away from them in such a hateful manner was enough to convince the jury that Carl Lee did not deserve punishment. Because in Brigance’s final statement, he essentially asked the jury to imagine what they would have felt and done if they experienced the same emotional trauma Carl Lee had. Admittedly, such involved empathy prevented them from being judicious spectators but it made them understand and agree with Carl Lee’s choices that prioritized poetic justice over lawful justice. With Carl Lee freed, lawful justice has taken a backseat to poetic justice. But it does not feel as if justice has been lost, rather it has taken on a different form in comparison to the conventional legal justice that is so often ascribed to being true justice.
It is truly difficult, if not impossible to find justice for all sides in any given situation, much less for empathy to be able to promote a perfect delivery of justice. Empathy promotes justice in a skewed fashion in A Time To Kill by preying on the emotions of injustice viewers and jurors alike feel for Tonya and Carl Lee Hailey. It can be noted that Carl Lee’s freedom was lawful on account of the McNaughton Rule but the verdict was passed on account of the empathy jurors felt for Carl Lee and their desire for poetic justice, not because Carl Lee was truly insane. Despite this, the final verdict in A Time To Kill does not leave jurors of the audience disappointed at the lack of lawful justice. Instead there is a feeling of triumph that poetic justice has prevailed; an honorable man was able to walk free from doing the wrong thing to protect his family and get justice that was not guaranteed in court. A Time to Kill is very much a proponent of poetic justice in the quest for a cinematic hit, tapping into the empathy of the jurors to show that the so-called “right” side is capable of winning despite the court case being about the murder of two men, and not Tonya’s rape. At its core, A Time To Kill is still a film created for the purpose of profit, and uses empathy to promote poetic justice in an appeal to attract an audience with a classic underdog comeback, without regard to how laws and juries are expected to work. Nevertheless, it speaks to how empathy promotes poetic justice in an otherwise black and white court system where one may be condemned for doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons.
A Time To Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Blackboard. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.
Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Sept 25, 2016.
The film A Time to Kill is fraught with emotional rollercoasters and moral tension. On multiple occasions, audience members are placed in serious moral dilemmas regarding Carl Lee Hailey’s court case. On the one hand, it is obvious that this man killed two people. But on the other hand, the men he killed had raped his ten year old daughter and he knew they might have gotten off scot-free even with a trial. As the audience follows Carl Lee’s court case, the film brings out empathy in its characters as well as the audience that makes everyone reconsider their decision to what initially feels like a clear cut situation.
One instance where empathy is invoked in another character is when Carl Lee talks to his lawyer, Jake Brigance, in his jail cell when Jake is about lose Carl Lee’s court case. Even though Jake is about to give up his defense of Carl Lee, Carl Lee explains to Jake that he cannot settle for a lifetime prison sentence, because like Jake, Carl Lee also has a family to support. In this case, real empathy is invoked in another character as Jake can understand and feel the pressure of having to support dependants. The empathy that is invoked helps establish a further connection between Carl Lee and Jake, that makes Jake more compelled to help Carl Lee because he can see some of himself in the man he is defending.
This same approach extends to the jury as well. In this case, Carl Lee invokes apparent empathy, which I liken to Hoffman’s cognitive empathy in his essay, “Empathy, Justice, and the Law” (230). Carl Lee tells Jake point blank “You see me as different,” despite Jake’s open-mindedness, simply because of how Jake was raised (A Time To Kill). But instead of using that to distance the two, Carl Lee calls upon Jake to forget about law and use the similarities between himself and the jury to find the argument it would take to get Jake as a juror, and thus the current jury, to acquit Carl Lee of capital murder. This is apparent empathy in a sense because Jake can try to place himself in the shoes of a juror, but would never fully take on their mindset because he has bias as Carl Lee’s defense attorney. Carl Lee also makes use of real empathy and this can be seen in Carl Lee’s conversation with Jake during his explanation of racism’s continuance in the South, which invokes an “empathy for distressed groups” and “empathic feeling of injustice” in Jake (Hoffman 235, 238). What I would call affective empathy by Hoffman’s terms is the real empathy Carl Lee utilizes to get Jake to imagine the subtle and outright discrimination African-Americans experience in the South, causing Jake to feel the injustice that Carl Lee does, and perhaps enough to act upon it (Hoffman 230). This empathy is very much real because it compels Jake Brigance to work and save Carl Lee from conviction the same way many other people in real life have changed lives because of the affective empathy they have felt for others (Hoffman 238). Carl Lee’s calls for real empathy eventually cajoles Jake into redoubling his efforts of defending Carl Lee to prove him wrong and show Carl Lee that a black man can win against a white prosecution.
Carl Lee is capable of drawing out both cognitive and affective empathy in Jake Brigance. While society typically defines empathy is being able to feel what the other person is feeling, Carl Lee goes beyond that and invokes, what Hoffman labelled as empathy over feelings of injustice and empathy for distressed groups, to show Jake how important his freedom is to him as well as the larger African-American community in the South.
A Time To Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Blackboard. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.
Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Sept 20, 2016.
Esteemed gentlemen, a tragedy has befallen Maycomb County. But not for the reason we think. We are here because Tom Robinson has been accused of rape, against a young white woman no less. But in this court, against the Bible upon which they swore they would tell the truth — someone has told a lie.
We have learned that Miss Ewell was very clearly beaten about the right side of her face, which must have been done by an individual who favored their left. She claims that Tom Robinson, who lost use of his left hand in his boyhood, who swore upon the Bible with the only hand he could, his right, had beaten her so savagely about the right side of her face and raped her. And yet, there has not been a single shred of medical evidence to prove that a rape took place, nor would it have been possible for Tom Robinson to beat her with his left hand. No, the only evidence provided was testimony. Testimonies that fail to line up or show how Tom Robinson could have been possibly involved, if at all.
Quite simply, we are here for another reason entirely. Guilt. Guilt because young Mayella Ewell kissed Tom Robinson. No law was broken, just an ingrained tradition. But still a shame, apparently, to our society. So much so that young Mayella Ewell would go as far as to claim rape, to drive away the source of her guilt. Guilt because Tom Robinson would pass by her home twice everyday and every time he did, she would be reminded of the shame and the humiliation of having kissed a black man. Now, it isn’t that people don’t do things they regret, especially young people. But to go as far as to condemn a man for a crime he never committed to erase the memory of mistake is deplorable. And Mayella Ewell’s supposed guilt was not a memory for her. He is an actual human being. Tom Robinson. Miss Ewell seeks to shrug off her guilt on an innocent man. A man who has done nothing but work diligently everyday, tip his hat as he passes by, and help out others without asking for a thing in return. We are sitting here today because a person felt guilt so intolerable and had such little responsibility for their own actions, that they thought condemning an innocent person would absolve them of their sin. Would finally relieve them of that heavy guilt weighing on their conscience.
People are not to be treated as toys or tools. Black or white, we are all human. Humans are not disposable, regardless of color. We do not exist to cater to the whims and fancies of others as sacrificial lambs. Lives are not to be trifled with. Despite this, Mayella Ewell has put Tom Robinson, innocent man, before this court, falsely accusing him of a crime he never committed to ease her guilty conscience. But I ask you jurors, are you willing to condemn Tom Robinson and go home to your families with that same guilt weighing on your shoulders? Knowing that you have torn an innocent man away from his family?
In these courts, “all men are created equal.” Every human is entitled to justice. It is up to you gentlemen to deliver it.
To Kill A Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. By Horton Foote. Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. Universal Studios, 1962. Netflix. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2016.
In Martin L. Hoffman’s essay, “Empathy, Justice, and the Law,” Hoffman discusses the importance of empathy in law as well as the numerous ways in which empathy can be invoked. Hoffman argues in favor of the presence of empathy in America’s legal system despite opponents who list the detriments empathy can have on court rulings. He notes empathy as a motivator that drove some of America’s greatest Supreme Court rulings, such as Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Miranda v. Arizona, now considered defining principles in American law today. Empathy’s presence in the legal system offers a human perspective and understanding that cold reason cannot. By using empathy, it has been shown that people, Harriet Beecher Stowe for instance, have contributed to history, bringing about change in both the mindset of the people and eventually the law itself. With this evidence, Hoffman builds a strong argument for empathy’s importance in legal contexts. Hoffman acknowledges the shortcomings of the inherent biases that come with empathy, and encourages that people learn to recognize their biases and develop strategies that support reason-based and empathic decision-making with as little bias as possible.
In addition to writing about empathy’s role in law, Hoffman is careful in defining empathy’s meaning within the context of his essay which is centralized around empathy. While there are a number of interpretations of empathy, the empathy Hoffman consistently refers to in his essay is affective empathy, the type of empathy that goes beyond acknowledgment of another’s feelings and takes it upon oneself to feel what the victim feels. This distinction is important when Hoffman writes, “I now turn to individuals whose empathy with societies’ disadvantaged led to actions on their behalf, which in turn had contributed significantly to changes in laws that not only benefitted the disadvantaged but also has consequences for society as a whole” (Hoffman 238). Without Hoffman’s definition of empathy, it would be confusing trying to understand why merely acknowledging the feelings of the disadvantaged would lead to such drastic changes. But if readers understand that it was affective empathy that had caused such reactions and distress to bystanders that it compelled them to help, one can truly understand the power of empathy in moral decision-making. In defining empathy as the affective variety in his essay, Hoffman allows readers to understand the amount emotion and humanity empathy is capable of drawing out of people, making it an integral part of our legal system which would operate solely on cold reason if left alone.
Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Sept 7, 2016.