Archives for posts with tag: virtue

I’ve seen a number of attacks on “empathy” recently, even a book, Against Empathy. I usually get a few sentences into one of these exercises in counter-narrative and shrug.

They seem a bit like the resentments of jilted lovers: the denigration comes from dashed love. Or else it’s just wanton contrarianism.

But what is the error? Let me guess. Perhaps too much is made of empathy, these days. Maybe because we live in an intellectually stilted, post-modern era, empathy has been forced by our cultural narrowness and the general lack of humanistic education to serve beyond its natural capacity.

Empathy isn’t everything in psychology or ethics. But it is something. Perhaps two or three somethings.

My working model, since my earliest philosophical speculations (adaptations from Plato, Aristotle, Smith, Spencer, et al.), has been that empathy is pretty important. A cardinal virtue, even.

In my old schema, it is the other-regarding virtue of our emotional life, a check on unbalanced temper as it applies to others, or even oneself conceived objectively (especially one’s self as conceived at a distant time, past or future).

But it is not justice. It is not truthfulness. (My two other other-regarding cardinal virtues.) They are linked, as are all the virtues, but a person can excel at one and be deficient in others.

And like all the virtues, a person may likely be born with an aptitude for some but not others. That is, a person can take naturally to one virtue, but be clumsy (at best) about others. Why, I’ve even known folks to be reflexively just in their social dealings, but almost congenitally imprudent. (Prudence being the self-regarding virtue of the active life.)

A person possessing empathy but lacking justice can be dangerous, to self and others. Indeed, one might define human moral error as an imbalance of the virtues, a lack of the full set. Maybe the vice at the heart of what we call the “moralistic” is the mania that results from cultivating one virtue to the exclusion of others.

So empathy isn’t everything. It certainly is not love, or faith, or hope (none of which are cardinal virtues to my reckoning, two perhaps not being virtues at all).

Empathy also is not prudence, or temperance, or the savviness with concepts that, for want of a better word, I call wisdom.* Empathy’s earliest serious investigators, Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer, who discussed its importance under the name “sympathy,” never assumed or even implied it was.

But empathy’s lack of status as the be-all and end-all of sociality or personal development or ethics does not mean it is nothing, or even “not much.”


* My old list of cardinal virtues is not traditional. They are all mentioned, above, but here they are in order:


The recent Nova Science Now special on canine intelligence was an eye-opener for me, and, no matter how simple and “dumbed down” the presentation, I heartily recommend it as a provocative introduction to the subject.

The most interesting segment, for me, was of the attempts (started by the Soviets) at breeding a tame race of canines from wolves. Ninety-nine percent of all specimens captured from the wild were either too fearful or too aggressive. But that 1 percent of curious canines who did not go into fight-or-flight mode at the sight of humans were selected for breeding. And then the process was repeated, over and over, until the behavior of the animals became “tame.”

By which we could mean: civil. Civilized.

And smart.

Tame enough to enjoy human company; smart enough to track human eye movements, and our sense of direction, of pointing.

This latter is something even chimpanzees cannot do. Dogs are more in tune with humans than are any non-human primate.

Truly, this is an interesting aspect of intelligence. Recent work by Jonathan Turner suggests that intelligence to “read” emotions is the crucial feature on the road to what made hominids human.

The lesson I draw, though, is not about dogs. It is about man.

The ancient Greeks believed that virtue was to be found in moderation, the moderation of impulses and proclivities, between contrary passions. And here this research bears this ancient idea of virtue out. What makes for a civilized person is to avoid the instinctual fight-or-flight tendencies. A virtuous human is one that does not leap to aggression, nor sink into fear. The civilized stance — as opposed to the “wild” stance — is to stand one’s ground, and accept (perhaps even expect) co-operation from the other.

To see the other primarily as the enemy is, at core, an uncivilized habit. And when human beings  fall into that habit — either because others are, indeed, doing the same, or for less realistic reasons — civilization is lost. An essential element of “humanity” is lost.

In this we see something like a “natural end,” to use the much-overused and misunderstood terminology of the Aristotelians. It’s not that “Nature” cares one whit about whether the human species remains civilized, progresses in its civilization, or regresses. It is that, by choosing and expecting and daring to co-operate — and to treat others as non-enemies, at the very least — the natural consequence is the improvement of human nature, the gradual modification of human institutions that, in turn, buttress that motion towards improving peaceful habits and inclinations, and the opening up of new vistas of expanding options that this civilization affords.

Not discussed in the Nova program was the possibility that the breeding of dogs was co-evolutionary rather than pure artificial selection, “breeding.” The first dogs may have hung closer to human beings simply because they were curious, and gained an advantage. They may have domesticated themselves.

This is especially interesting, for human beings learned early to see the advantages in their new friends, the dogs. As the show explained, without dogs, civilization may not even have been possible. Early agriculture and the domestication of other animals was dependent upon canine assistance. Dogs were absolutely vital in defense of property and territory as well as in hunting.

It interests me that some early civilizations were more keen on honoring their dogs than others. I think one might say there is something perverse about those cultures that look down on dogs. They have forsaken an element of civilization. And maybe we should be a tad wary of any group of people that doesn’t like dogs.

But, to return to the upbeat moral of this story: the balancing point between conflicting instincts and habits, the “sweet spot” of moderation, is the key to virtue. And we now know that this key spot was found, early in the human story, by dogs. And that made a huge difference.