Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Empathy’s dark side

Just up on the Templeton Foundation’s YouTube channel is a nine-part conversation between the eminent primatologist and psychologist Frans de Waal and Discover magazine’s Carl Zimmer about de Waal’s celebrated new book, “The Age of Empathy.” Note especially the final segment, in which de Waal talks about empathy’s “dark side.” He explains that a successful torturer has to have a certain capacity to understand what his victim is feeling in order to be good at his malign task. Similarly, says de Waal, Bernie Madoff, “who is probably a psychopath,” had to be exceptionally good at empathizing with his marks in order to swindle them so successfully.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Interesting idea from de Waal, and not one I had thought of before — the idea that our human capacity to feel things that we generally think of as being good (empathy for the situation others are in), can also be used for evil.
Not entirely surprising, given the way we work, but just something that had never crossed my mind in such a way.

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R Hampton

posted January 27, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Of course Frans de Waal is perhaps most noted for this theory on the natural (evolutionary) origins of morality. His research with apes has led him to conclude that;
I don’t think that chimpanzees are moral beings in the human sense. But they do have empathy, sympathy, reciprocity. They share food, resolve conflicts. All of these elements are present in human morality. So what I argue is that the basic psychology of the great apes is an essential element of human morality. Humans add things to that, making our morality far more complex. And that’s why I don’t want to call chimpanzees moral beings exactly.
They have the moral emotions, yes. You can see gratitude, outrage, a sense of fairness—you can see parallels and equivalences in all the great apes. But to get to morality you need more than just the emotions. So yes, empathy is a good thing to have. And I cannot imagine how humans could have morality without empathy, but what morality adds to that, for example, is what Adam Smith termed the “impartial spectator.”
Perhaps psychopaths share the same basic empathic instincts of the great apes, but for some reason failed to develop most (or all) of the extra bits common to human morality.

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