Theology vs. The Memes #1: The Empathy Fraud

by Scott Huggins

The blog that follows is the first of a series I hope to do taking on ridiculous antireligious (and possibly some religious) memes, so if you follow my blog and know a meme that needs to go away, send it to me!
The modern age’s sermon is the meme: that picture or phrase that hits a nerve and is swallowed uncritically by the fan of its position. Most of them can be exposed as ridiculous with 5 minutes’ thought, but that’s the strength of the meme; it’s absorbed before it can be thought about, and becomes one more brick in the wall of confirmation bias. Memes are the brain candy of the present age. If you’re up for some exercise, read on:

EmilysQuotes.Com - need, religion, morals, right, wrong, empathy, wisdom, unknown

I seem to see this thing sprouting like a fungus all over my message feed from my atheist/agnostic friends on every holiday. It shows up as often as the War of Christmas and is even more full of bullshit.

Pared down to basics: morality is empathy, not religion. So religion is unnecessary. YAY! Atheism FTW!

Now let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset: It IS possible to discover and do morally right actions from empathy. Not only is this pretty much everyone’s shared experience, it’s right out of Jesus’ mouth: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” Matthew 7:9. Empathy is important, because for most of us, it’s an instinctive spur to do right and avoid evil. Our basic empathy, augmented by our moral training (more on that later) is our first, reflexive defense against doing evil.

No, the problem with empathy as morality is quite simple. It’s big enough and troubling enough that most people can’t see it. Those who can are forced to realize how fatally it compromises their whole claim to be moral — to be “good without God,” to use one of their favorite phrases — and are forced into either moral McCarthyism, or into a statement of faith.

The problem, most simply, is this: why have empathy at all, when it doesn’t benefit me? It’s a very simple question, but it has no simple answer.

Faced with this question, the morality-is-empathy crowd have a truly limited number of options. The first and dumbest is to go into circular reasoning: “Why have empathy if it doesn’t benefit me?” “Because other people matter.” “Why should I think that?” “Empathy!”
It should be Logic 101 that empathy cannot be the reason people should have empathy.

The next response is moral McCarthyism: threats and bullying. “You have to have empathy for other people because otherwise we will all think you are a disgusting human being and shun or destroy you.” This may of course work to compel someone’s behavior, but it’s just a threat to hurt someone if they don’t obey you. And of course, it’s just as compelling a reason to limit one’s empathy. After all, one of the most common threats leveled at people who refuse to conform to the shunning of nonconformists is that they themselves will be shunned.

Finally, the person who believes morality is empathy may simply respond, “Because empathy is the highest good.” But that is an a priori statement of faith. Why should truth not be the highest good? Or wealth? Or power? Or any number of things, including God? There is simply no way to connect empathy and morality without a statement of faith to someone who denies that empathy is a moral necessity. You either have to convince me that showing empathy to another person is best for me (in which case I will demand evidence) or that showing empathy to another person at my own expense is morally required, in which case, you are demanding I have faith in something you cannot demonstrate.

Over and above this, simply having empathy doesn’t make you moral, any more than exercising makes you healthy and strong. Exercising can be fun, and so can empathy. There are any number of moral duties that are easy and delightful to follow: it’s easy to give your own child bread when he asks. It’s delightful to love your lover. It’s easy and necessary to give to the honorable and serve the great. But beyond that, let’s be honest and admit that, like exercise, empathy is hard. It hurts, if you want to extend your empathy. And untrained empathy, like untrained exercise, can hurt you worse than doing nothing: Exercise too hard and fast, and you can injure yourself. Empathy without knowledge would stop you from imposing discipline on your children. If you have empathy for only one set of people, you’re a bigot. If you have empathy entirely without limits, you can’t even turn over a criminal to the police, or save an abuse victim from an abuser (I have never known an abuser who did not feel very strongly, that s/he had every right to do as s/he did).

So we have to be trained to use empathy with wisdom. It begins in childhood when we are asked that dreadful and incessant question: “How would you feel if it were you?” Our empathy, in the beginning, is just as good, and bad, as our senses of balance and fine motor control. It has to be improved over the years with just as much play, practice, and getting it wrong as we spend learning anything else. Obviously, a lot of our training takes place under threat. If we do not show empathy, others will not show it to us. Eventually, we learn the empathy we did not start with and begin to feel pain on behalf of others.

Unfortunately, this is when we begin to fall for a counterfeit and believe that our present feelings are as good as absolutes. And when you discuss morality, you must refer to an absolute. Because if that’s NOT what you mean, then all you’re saying is, “I am now acting in accord with what I feel is right because the majority of people I choose to care about also feel that it is right.” In other words, your morality is picking an in-group and going with it. It is a mere appeal to authority vested in whatever cause or god you choose to bow to. In other words, your empathy has become religion.

And you cannot solve this problem simply by saying: “More empathy.” I repeat: if your empathy is not limited by a structure, then you are left without argument as soon as Rocket the Raccoon says, “No, you don’t understand: I want it MORE than he does. I want it more, sir.” It’s laughable.

There must be a place outside feeling that tells us when to obey our empathies, and when to resist them. Sometimes (teaching our children what to eat, for example) that can be science, because science is a useful absolute in those cases. But where can we turn to when science has no answers for us? When we must decide whether it’s good to trust a person, or not? Whether we can afford to extend charity, or not? Whether we can maintain a friendship, or not? Science has no answers for us, here. So we must turn to another absolute.

Many friends have explained to me, with moving sincerity, that though they acknowledge that morals are relative, they have morals, real morals, which they will defend through hardship and pain. I have no doubt this is true. I have seen it. They are sincere. And yet, all that they are saying is that their morals are as they are today. Today their morals are this. Tomorrow, they may be that. Between two moral codes there can be no judge. There can, of course, be war. What else could there be? If there is no moral code aside from empathy, then the only thing left is to change your opponent’s feelings, by force if necessary. Reasoning with him or her is impossible, because moral improvement is impossible. Only moral change exists. Morality that rests on empathy is mere fashion. And against the tyranny and onslaught of fashion, the Absolute is our only defense.