The topic I am discussing in this blog sequence is empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feeling of another. The arousal of empathy can be seen in every aspect of life. This leaves us a question: Is empathy missing in some certain circumstances? If so, why is it missing? My aim in this post sequence is to use three posts of mine to answer this question.
Blog Post 1: Disagreement about Adam Morton’s theory
Adam Morton has a pessimistic view on people’s ability to empathize with evildoers. He expresses this view in his work Empathy for the Devil. Morton believes that people can only “pseudo empathize” with evildoers (327), which means that people cannot truly empathize with them. My aim in this post is to examine if our empathy is missing for those evildoers by expressing my opinion about Adam Morton’s theory. Morton says that one finds it difficult to understand how evildoers could overcome the barrier of his or her ethical value and actually commit the atrocious act, and therefore people do not usually try to empathize with evil. Otherwise, all they can feel toward evildoer is “pseudo empathy”, which is a sense of empathy that is not real. My point is that people can easily understand the “how” question for some certain types of evildoers when they take the evildoers’ circumstances when they committed the atrocious act into consideration and it will all come clear. So people can sometime empathize with evil. My way of proving my point is to use another scholarly source. The source I use is from Paul Formosa’s “Understanding Evil Acts”. In his article, Formosa states that many normal people, with no tendency of committing evil acts, are capable of doing atrocious acts in certain extreme circumstances. He gives an example of Milgram experiment, in which the object is being put into a compulsive environment. Most of the objects do atrocious act towards other innocent person in the experiment as they are told to. Formosa uses this result to prove that some evildoers do not have that “how” process, all they need to commit evil acts is an “evil-encouraging” environment. That being said, some evildoers do not have their mercurial motivation. Hence, we can empathize with some evildoers and not have to worry about being not able to truly empathize with them. From this post, we can see that the empathy is not missing in the process when we examine some people who commit atrocious acts.
Blog Post 2: Why is empathy missing in the digital age
Although we can empathize even with devil, sometimes people in certain circumstances stop empathizing with other normal people. This lack of empathy can be seen in the Internet. In my second blog post, I discuss the reason that people appear to be cruel to others on the Internet. The answer to this question is that when making comment online, people stop viewing others as human beings, and thus they stop empathizing with the object of their comments. I found an example of this phenomenon to start with. The example is about a 17-year-old Belgian model being viciously attacked by people on the Internet because of a Facebook status she posted in 2014. She posted a photo of her holding a rifle next to a dead animal, and made a harmless joke about it, which irritated other Facebook users, and they started to harshly criticize her over the social media. This incident got her lost her contract with L’Oreal. I find several sources to help me explain this phenomenon. I use an article on BBC news called “Why are people so mean to each other online?” written by Jane Wakefield. She attributes this phenomenon to the fact that Internet users do not consider other users as real human beings and they feel safe making those comments hiding behind the computer screen instead of in front of their subjects (Wakefield). Then I use Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory to interpret those users’ behavior. In this case people engage in cognitive dissonance process to eliminate the feeling that the victim of their criticism is one of their own kind, and thus they hardly feel guilty for their acts. After we have analyzed those people’s circumstance and emotional process, we can see that is not too hard to understand their cruelty on the Internet. We can see in this post, when people are interacting with others in some virtual way, like the Internet, they stop empathizing with others because they lose the senses of likelihood between them and other Internet users. In such circumstance, empathy is missing.
Blog Post 3: Explanation for Jean Louise’s response
The characters in the literature works are perfect examples to use in this discussion. Some fictional scenario reflects real life situation perfectly. In some fictional works, certain character finds him or herself in a situation where it is hard to empathize with others. In my third blog post, I examine the reaction of Jean Louise, a character in the novel Go Set a Watchman. After finding the fact that her father is a racist, Jean feels extreme anger toward her father, Atticus Finch. At this point, her empathy for her father is missing, and she does not understand her father’s intension for doing all the thing he does. And this is because she does not think of herself as being in a same group as her father, which is also a kind of lack in the sense of likelihood. However, when Jean has a talk with her uncle, Dr. Finch, her anger subsides dramatically. From her uncle, we can see that she used to look up to her father. Hence we can understand her reason to feel angry with her father and her reason to think of herself as an adversary of her father. Then when Dr. Finch tells her “you are your own person now” (Go Set a Watchman 264), She has less expectation for her father, so she does not feel furious anymore, and stops considering herself as an enemy of her father. Her change is obvious in the text. After the talk, Jean realizes that Atticus was trying to preserve her world for her, and she has been trying to crush him for that (Go Set a Watchman 277). Her missing empathy is recovered because she starts recognizing herself as a person from a same community as her father.
From my three posts above, we can see that when empathy is missing in some scenarios, it is usually caused by the lack of the sense of likelihood. As Frans de Waal mentions in his article “Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy”, “Our evolutionary background makes it hard to identify with outsiders. We’ve evolved to hate our enemies, to ignore people we barely know, and to distrust anybody who doesn’t look like us (Frans de Waal).” He also mentions that empathy is so “fragile” that once we stop identify with others, we can no longer empathize with them (Frans de Waal). The Internet users who are cruel to others have no empathy for other people on the Internet because the victims are considered “outsiders”. The attackers stop identify with their victims, so their empathy is missing for them. Jean Louise has no empathy towards her father at the beginning because he is considered as an “outsider”. Therefore, the posts proves my answer to the question.
Morton, Adam. “Empathy For The Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan, Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 318-330.
Formosa, Paul. “Understanding Evil Acts.” Human Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007., pp. 57-77
Despiegelaere, Axelle. Facebook.com/AxelleDespiegelaere, Facebook, Jul 1 2014.
“L’Oreal Severs Ties With Viral World Cup Model After Crass Hunting Photo Emerges”, Business Insider, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/loreal-fires-model-axelle-despiegelaere-after-hunting-photo-2014-7. Accessed Oct 24 2016.
Wakefield, Jane. “Why are people so mean to each other online?” BBC Technology, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31749753. Accessed Oct 24 2016.
Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, California: Stanford University Press, 1957.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman, HarperCollins, 2015
de Waal, FBM. “Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy.” ANNUAL REVIEW OF PSYCHOLOGY, vol. 59, no. 1, 2008., pp. 279-300doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625.