I have argued in recent columns that democracy cannot long exist without its citizens possessing a least a modicum of compassion and empathy for their fellows. While reasonable individuals may debate how much empathy is necessary to create ties among citizens sufficient to join them in something resembling common cause, there is no doubt that democracy requires that its voters possess a measure of empathetic imagination, as this facility ultimately allows individuals to dignify others in society beyond families and specific kinship networks. If this is so for relatively homogeneous groups of citizens, and I would argue it is, this condition is especially vital for heterogeneous cultures, such as that in the United States. Fortunately, human beings as a species appear to possess at least the potential to develop robust empathetic imaginations. That is, we individually and collectively have the capacity to imagine the lives and circumstances of others very different from ourselves.
I recently had cause to reflect on just how strong such empathetic connections can be while reading Laurens van der Post’s The Sower and the Seed, recommended to me by a doctoral student with whom I am privileged to work. The book consists of three interlocking stories organized around the experiences of an English army colonel taken prisoner by the Japanese Army in Java in World War II. As the novel unfolded, the colonel frequently endured cruel and severe torture at the hands of a Japanese sergeant major in daily charge of the prison camp in which the Englishman was retained. Nonetheless, that same Japanese soldier, who had otherwise behaved so heinously so often, came both to respect the colonel and to share an empathetic bond of sorts with the Englishman that ultimately led him to intervene to save his prisoner from certain execution. The novel contains a deeply poignant scene in which the English officer agreed to visit his former captor, now sentenced to death by a war crimes tribunal, on the eve of his nemesis’s death by hanging. The exchange between the two illuminates a profound bond of mutual empathy and understanding between individuals who otherwise had every reason to be and remain enemies. As the conversation of these two tortured individuals neatly symbolized in the story, human beings are indeed capable at once of both the deepest cruelties and selfishness and the most profoundly compassionate other-regardingness.
Nonetheless, empathy’s victory in the persistent tug-of-war between self-regard, cruelty and empathy for others is by no means automatic or assured. As Aristotle argued long ago in the Nichomachean Ethics, humans learn to empathize with others and to discipline their selfishness, and unless so acculturated, they might well not develop, let alone practice, such an orientation. Put differently, cultures and polities may take steps and enact policies that encourage or discourage the empathetic imagination of their peoples. To the extent community residents do not learn to care about the fate of their fellows and are not persistently encouraged so to behave, those residents are ultimately unlikely to develop the bonds that permit them to make commons-oriented decisions that can garner shared legitimacy, an outcome essential for democracy.
It is for this foundation reason that our current GOP-led, neo-liberalism-dominated politics is so corrosive of democratic possibility. Candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan daily make speeches and claims aimed at gaining high national offices by telling their fellow citizens that it is neither essential nor appropriate to provide commonly financed support for others in their midst, whether those others are indigent or medically vulnerable seniors, the disabled, the poor or other groups. The message is ever the same: One need not empathize with the situations of others in one’s midst, especially if those individuals are vulnerable or poor.
Again, it is not the specific policy prescriptions propounded by these would-be political leaders and others who share their views that are so deeply difficult for democracy (although these are indeed problematic), but the claim that underpins them that persistently tells citizens they need not, and indeed should not, care about anyone but themselves and their own immediate families or peer groups. As Aristotle emphasized, while human beings may have an innate potential to empathize with their fellow citizens, that possibility can surely atrophy, or perhaps never take root, if not encouraged. And yet, every day of this campaign season, at least one set of principals involved in our presidential campaign politics implores citizens not to empathize, not to imagine themselves in others’ shoes and certainly not to do so with the result that public action might be secured to assist them. The more successfully this thoroughly privatized and individuated view of society is proselytized, the thinner the ties that join citizens become and the more difficult it is to arouse anything like common claims predicated on the empathetic imagination of citizens. Paradoxically and sadly, a share of our nation’s political leaders and would-be leaders are daily calling for the undermining of the very foundations of the regime they purport to hold dear.