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The Limits of David Brooks’ “Limits of Empathy”

By Jason Marsh | October 4, 2011 | 25 comments

Does empathy lead to altruism? The New York Times columnist gets it wrong.

Over the last few days, a lot of people have asked me about David Brooks’ Friday op-ed column in The New York Times on the “limits of empathy.” In it, Brooks argues that empathy is a “sideshow” to moral action. Considering the glut of recent books on empathy—such as Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy and Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization—Brooks writes that empathy “has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.”

Empathy, in other words, is little more than a fad.

Ramin Khojasteh

Instead, says Brooks, moral action stems not from empathy but from a “sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code.”

There’s some truth to this. Research has not proven that empathy guarantees altruism. Sometimes, research suggests, feeling empathy toward someone who’s suffering may actually inhibit action: You may be so overwhelmed by the emotional response that you want to tune it out or ignore it, lest you really start to suffer yourself. While empathy for another’s suffering may motivate some to take compassionate action, it could motivate others to run away from suffering as quickly as they can.

Plus, as Brooks notes, “empathy often leads people astray.” J.D. Trout makes this point convincingly in his Greater Good essay “More than a Feeling,” where he explains that empathy focuses our attention—and our wallets—on problems that hit us on a gut level, making us more inclined to respond to “the local misfortune, the present worry, and the psychologically salient, tragic individual.” One study found that people are more likely to donate money to an anti-hunger charity when it only tells the story of a single starving girl in Africa than when it features statistics on starvation in Africa—even when those statistics are combined with the girl’s story.

But Brooks is misguided, misinformed, or being needlessly provocative to discount or disparage empathy altogether. A considerable amount of research suggests empathy is an important ingredient to moral action, if not the only ingredient.

Studies have found that kids with more empathy are less likely to bully. One recent study shows that inducing empathy in white people reduces their feelings of prejudice toward African Americans and encourages more positive interracial interactions. And a seminal study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner looked for commonalities among people who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust; the Oliners found that the rescuers were deeply empathic—from a young age, they were encouraged by their parents to take other people’s perspectives.

In fact, in a review of decades of research on altruism, psychologist Daniel Batson, who has studied the topic himself for 40 years, writes in the Handbook of Positive Psychology that “considerable evidence supports the idea that feeling empathy for a person in need leads to increased helping of that person.”

Yes, in general, studies have shown that empathy doesn’t always lead to altruism—a lot can happen between the moment we empathize with someone and the decision to come to their aid—and that people sometimes help others without feeling empathy for them. There is certainly a mix of psychological and social factors that can motivate altruism.

But empathy is often a vital first step, not a misstep. Research clearly suggests that when we identify with someone, when we see the world through his or her eyes, we’re more likely to treat them with kindness—perhaps because they seem more human and their needs feel more real to us.

Given that he seems to follow the science (to a point), I’m not sure why Brooks chose to come down so hard against empathy. He can have a reactionary streak, to be sure, and this seems like an attempt to reject the growing interest in (touchy-feely) empathy in favor of good ole fashioned moral absolutes—a firm moral “code.”

But don’t members of al Qaeda have exactly the kind of code Brooks extols? What they don’t seem to have is empathy for their victims.

Perhaps, as Brooks suggests, empathy without a moral code is futile. But a code without empathy is dangerous.

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.

  

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“But Brooks is misguided, misinformed, or being needlessly provocative to discount or disparage empathy altogether.”

Or perhaps our Mr. Brooks is merely a very very very bad writer who makes a lot of money to spew meaningless centrist pap onto the NYT Op-Ed page once a week with the specific purpose of reassuring his richrichricher than you clientele that it’s ok for them to not give a crap about all those poor people out there.

Lou Doench | 7:03 pm, October 4, 2011 | Link

 

Hello Jason,
Thank you for your sane and coherent response to
David Brooks article. I was discouraged after reading
his op ed piece, so reading your response was a breath
of fresh air. I especially appreciate that you
acknowledged what may be accurate in his article,
and also exposed the flaws.
Empathy doesn’t always have to be followed
with compassionate action. Empathic listening in and
of itself can be healing.

Christine King | 9:13 am, October 5, 2011 | Link

 
Jason Marsh's avatar

@Christine King:
>>>Empathy doesn’t always have to be followed with compassionate action. Empathic listening in and of itself can be healing.<<<

I think that’s a great point, Christine, thanks for adding it. I know I’ve found that to be true in my own life, and lots of studies back it up. For instance, a study published last year found that managers who demonstrate empathy have employees who take fewer sick days and report greater happiness at work.

Jason Marsh | 9:36 am, October 5, 2011 | Link

 

I was irritated and discouraged reading David Brooks’s
article on empathy. He seemed to have gotten it
wrong in so many ways (though spot-on in others; for
example, I agree with him - and you - that empathy
is necessary but not sufficient).
Thank you for doing your part in setting the record
straight.
One of the confusing pieces is that there are many -
sometimes contradictory - definitions for empathy!
Having taught interpersonal communication skills
since 1998—I offer you a link to a video I did last
week titled “How to DO empathy”—in hopes that it
offers value to your readers.
Thank you for your good work.
~Alan Seid
Here’s the vid:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBjTsuhsaOY

Alan Seid | 9:41 am, October 5, 2011 | Link

 

I did get the impression that much of his wording
was reactionary toward the recent surge of
“science of empathy” infatuation that fevers the
public mind currently. 

But there is an important undertone to the
discontent that I think he failed to fully articulate. 
Rule based, normative morality is a
communitarian endeavor; It evolves through
groups collectively regulating their contextual
identity and, in a way, the voice of covenantal
morality, like the constitution, is notably
understudied in research in comparison to
empathy. 

The idea that individual’s orientation fixates their
morality is a sort of Left leaning concept of
morality to begin with, and it may be that their is
a great deal of confirmation bias in the nature of
studying empathy and its role in morality.

I think what we can constructively take from
Brook’s writing is that Covenental morality
matters;  Communitarian principles matter.  If you
think they don’t, ask the Dalai Lama; he may
espouse a universalist, mind-based notion of
morality, but I find that somewhat Ironic coming
form a guy in uniform…

Joel Finkelstein | 1:58 pm, October 6, 2011 | Link

 

Hi Jason, I first read your article, then read David Brooks’ one. I perhaps could preface my comment by saying that I am a big fan of the Greater Good website—keep up the interesting work! Though here I failed to see some of the things that you attributed to his article, and actually think that he made an interesting point.

You said: << But Brooks is misguided, misinformed, or being needlessly provocative to discount or disparage empathy altogether. A considerable amount of research suggests empathy is an important ingredient to moral action, if not the only ingredient. >> I didn’t read his article as “discounting or disparaging empathy altogether”; it seems to me that the main point he was making is that empathy is not sufficient for moral action, is now used a bit too much as a shortcut, and he wanted to bring back in focus the importance of moral codes. In particular, he said (emphasis from me): << Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days **empathy has become a shortcut**. >> providing important context for the sentence that you quoted <<It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. >>

Here are other important sentences related to this:
<< Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a **personal cost**.  >>
<< People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.  >>—in all these, he does acknowledge that empathy is necessary, just that it is not sufficient, as Joel Finkelstein has also pointed out.

The examples you gave with the kids not bullying, and the reduced racial tension are examples where there isn’t actually a personal cost for these behavior from empathetic people, and so don’t contradict what Brooks is saying [namely, empathy helps local acts, but moral code is more important in situation of personal cost, etc. etc.]. The one about helping the Jews is more interesting as there could have been risks for the helpers. There is still a question though whether empathy was the *only* common factor, or there were additional elements which also played a role.

I do agree with him that empathy has been used sometimes as a moral shortcut—influencing ‘feel good’ acts which are more temporary plasters rather than real solutions (and are used in marketing / consumerist / simplistic approaches). And so I do think that the question of ‘moral code’ and its role for enacting changes in the world to make it a better place is also important to consider and study.

Now there is also an unanswered question of where these moral codes are coming from (and how good they are—I am thinking here in particular about the harmful beliefs [to humanity’s well being] of some right-wing religious codes]), and also he has not talked at all about ‘happiness’, for which empathy apparently plays a crucial role, from my readings of this website [and I am definitely a believer in promoting empathy]. But it seems to me that your article was a bit on the defensive side about empathy…

I’ll finish with a question: what about the claims from Jess Prinz that he quoted: << in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. >>?

Simon Lacoste-Julien | 1:06 pm, October 10, 2011 | Link

 

Hi Jason and all, I appreciate this discussion and would like to make a few comments that I hope will further it. (Bear with the length. I think I’ll have to post in 3 parts and I trust you’ll read on only so long as you are engaged.)

Jason’s reference to Al Qaeda and “code without empathy” reveals a major shortcoming in Brooks’ position. Brooks – and we as a society – have a problem, but Jason does not offer a solution. To be clear, this is no knock on Jason. The issue is collective, cultural; we are embedded in a particular way of thinking about empathy and morality that has value but is limited in significant ways. Notice, Brooks’ beef with empathy is cultural: “It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories…”

Now, Brooks is as inarticulate as the next guy, speaking as he does about the pitfalls of “empathy without a moral code” (in Jason’s succinct words). This is basically impossible. Everyone has a moral code, however conscious and complex, and the salient question is: How empathetic is it? Or, how just and caring is it? (Justice and care being the masculine and feminine expressions of morality, respectively; it’s important to honor both.) 

Yes, there are all sorts of contingencies, exceptions, and mediating factors (e.g., socio-cultural forces) when it comes to understanding how empathy relates to morality. Brooks and Marsh agree on the research. Nonetheless, there is also a large body of research – mostly in the field of developmental psychology – that is being ignored, which demonstrates a positive correlation between them in the *normative* context of a general direction or teleology to human development. So, let me offer this psychological perspective:

Empathy is a state of consciousness that in my view consists of both cognitive perspective taking and emotional/affective dimensions. Cognitive and emotional intelligence are two among many intelligences, or lines of development, that grow “upwards” along a scale of consciousness (we grow “up” not “down”). Morality is the intelligence that helps us answer the question, “What should I do?” What is right action? And that must depend on who/what I am aware of (cognition) and in no small part depends on how I feel about this person/situation (emotion). (Brooks is right to elevate moral code to a “source of identity,” but he neglects to mention that one’s sense of self is sourced in multiple distinct yet related intelligences/capacities that develop – and often develop unevenly, which adds an important layer of complexity and explanatory power to our conceptual framework.)

States of consciousness, by definition, are fleeting. We can be empathetic one moment and self-centered the next. But notice; even self-centeredness is a kind of empathy, albeit a rudimentary capacity to care for only oneself. As a relatively stable but still dynamic and holistic pattern (i.e., a structure) of being this narcissism is both wonderfully appropriate for the youngest of children and essentially a psychological disorder (with potentially profound negative social consequences) when displayed in adults. In general, human development is characterized by a decline in egocentrism and a corresponding increasing (empathy) capacity to take the perspective of, and compassionately feel for, the “other” (now seen/felt as oneself). As we grow our self-identity our moral depth and span – our circle of justice and care – expands, from egocentric “me” to ethnocentric “us” to worldcentric “all of us”… to possibly higher or deeper, wider, more inclusive structures of morality that care for not just human but all sentient beings.     

So, we have these basic structure-stages or developmental *levels* of consciousness through which multiple *lines* or intelligences develop. And we have *types* of consciousness (e.g., masculine/feminine) and *states* of consciousness (e.g., empathy). With these distinctions, or conceptual lenses, we can begin to be much more articulate and make moral judgments like:

{Part 1 of 2—please see next comment}

Jordan Luftig | 12:15 pm, October 13, 2011 | Link

 

Al Qaeda’s morality is ethnocentric, and as a terrorist network, unhealthy ethnocentric at that. This latter point is crucial, for there is nothing inherently wrong with ethnocentric morality, and we should support its healthy manifestations, whether the context is religious, political or otherwise. Naturally, there are limits to a conformist identity, a conventional rule-role mentality, a moral stance of obedience to authority, etc. But we must meet people where they are (if we, the postmodern progressives among us, want to live up to our claim of being tolerant and inclusive) and encourage healthy, stage-appropriate expressions of morality (while also using this foundation to support our moral stance and decisively discourage unhealthy moral actions). Further, healthy ethnocentric identity/morality is a necessary stage and platform for one’s potential evolution into worldcentric ways of being, into a conscientious self-identity, a capacity to “norm the norms” of society, an embrace of the relative value of each of every (healthy) perspective and mode of being.

Put provocatively, all else equal, moral (and intellectual) relativism is better than moral absolutism – it’s “more” moral – because the former transcends and includes the latter, which is ethnocentric (e.g., literal interpretations of the Bible, American Exceptionalism). “Transcend and include” describes human developmental when all goes well. All has not gone well.

First, we live in a modern society whose worldview of scientific materialism either flat-out rejects the inner life of mind/psyche/soul or “colonizes the lifeworld” and reduces our subjective 1st-person experience of meaning, purpose, value, etc. to objective 3rd-person terms. So we either explain (away) empathy or we fail to even study and value empathy in the first place, instead advancing and living according to a selfish “survival of the fittest” understanding. (All this is a knock on scientism not science; and praise of GGSC.)

Second, we live in a postmodern society whose worldview of pluralistic relativism actively rejects the developmental research I am drawing upon or unconsciously represses the evolutionary (and truly progressive) understanding I am advancing based on it, because any talk of stages and levels smacks of hierarchy, which is (mis)understood to be inherently oppressive and dominating, and in any event goes against moral egalitarianism. But there is a difference between natural and dominator hierarchy, the former being the very form that healthy development takes: every successive level transcends and includes the prior level. Morally, “Me” is transcended and included by “Us,” which is transcended and included by “All of Us.” Linguistically, letter to word to sentence to paragraph etc. is a natural hierarchy and you can no more get a sentence without words or words without letters than you can get a mature worldcentric human being without his or her having grown up through ego- and ethnocentric stages of development.

And what if we are unaware of this developmental pathway or remove it from our (cultural pur-) view!?

Hierarchy is inevitable and in its healthy form is natural and vital to life; hierarchy is really “holarchy” or the very creative process that gives rise to increasing degrees of holism, of both the inner life of consciousness and the outer world of material form. (Logically, if I value egalitarian “linking” over hierarchical “ranking” then that is my values hierarchy; no moral code or values-based worldview is better than any other, except the one I am advancing. Oops!)

{Part 2 of 3—see brief conclusion below}

Jordan Luftig | 12:25 pm, October 13, 2011 | Link

 

In a word (or long sentence grin, our dysfunctional political culture is a result of the stunning successes of the Sixties in creating a pluralistic society inclusive of “all of us” (now magnified by the democratizing effects of Internet technology) but progressive leaders being limited by their relativistic and egalitarian mindset, and thus seeing no way to integrate the multiplicity of voices/interests according to either their health/un-health or their relative degree of consciousness and care; leaders therefore still playing the ethnocentric “us versus them” game and having no compelling way to either discourage regressive displays of narcissism or encourage the positive attributes of being, let alone their most healthy, evolved manifestations, as a basis for our moral and social order.

These concepts, distinctions, and contradictions I disclose carry all sorts of implications that not only help describe our current political and cultural situation, they might also afford us prescriptions to help heal and transform society. Importantly, neither are these ideas (or any system of thought) immune to misuse and abuse. We must make moral judgments and take moral actions with a critical, self-reflective eye. But let me stop here. These are big topics that deserve more nuance and sensitivity than I can convey here. I simply wanted to get a few ideas on the table and then be responsive to whatever responses emerge from my share.

Jordan Luftig | 12:27 pm, October 13, 2011 | Link

 
Jason Marsh's avatar

@Simon Lacoste-Julien: Thanks for the very thoughtful reply. You’re right that, in much of his column, Brooks doesn’t seem to suggest that empathy is completely irrelevant to moral action—which is why I was so surprised that he dismisses it as a “sideshow” to morality in his concluding paragraph.

In general, I think many of his observations about empathy are accurate, yet he somehow follows those observations to conclusions that are more extreme and even derisive than I think are warranted—not just the “sideshow” comment but the claim that empathy’s a “shortcut… a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.” There’s often nothing “delicious” about empathy; it can be uncomfortable or even downright painful. That’s what feels “needlessly provocative” to me: He seems to be throwing unnecessary jabs at touchy-feely liberalism. A more reasoned (and, in my opinion, less ideologically motivated) analysis would acknowledge both the potential effects and the limitations of empathy without denigrating it. It would acknowledge that empathy is but one ingredient in the recipe for altruistic action, albeit (in my opinion at least), an important one.

I’m not arguing against the importance of a moral code, per se, though I do maintain that a moral code alone does not guarantee altruistic action, either. In fact, as I wrote, a moral code without empathy could be dangerous.

And I think you also raise a great point about whether empathy truly inspires moral actions when they come at a “personal cost.” The example of Holocaust rescuers—from the Oliners’ research—suggests it does, but the other two examples I provided don’t really speak to that question. However, there are many studies that do suggest empathy can make us act against our own self-interest to help others. Dan Batson has conducted some of these, including one in which participants watched a peer receive electric shocks. Sometimes the participant was made to empathize with this person in distress. Also, regardless of whether they were induced to empathize, sometimes the participant was forced to watch the shocks, while other times he or she had the option to leave.

When participants were forced to watch the other person, they often volunteered to take her place, whether they felt empathy for her or not. But when they were given the option to leave, those people who had been encouraged to empathize with the victim were more likely to help than the non-empathizers.

I think this suggests that when we help others, it can often be an attempt to relieve our own discomfort at seeing another person in distress—it’s self-interested, and if we have another way to relieve this discomfort, like by leaving the situation, we’ll take it. However, when we genuinely empathize with the person, we’ll help them even if it cuts against our own self-interest. People in this study had the chance to leave an uncomfortable situation, but because they empathized with the person, they were more likely to stay, endure their discomfort, and even offer to take the shocks themselves. This seems to contradict the idea that empathy fails to motivate moral action when it comes at a “personal cost.” The exact opposite seems to be true here.

I’ll stress: None of this research is conclusive. But there’s certainly enough evidence out there to make me question Brooks’ thesis, and much of his argument.

Thanks for your positive feedback about Greater Good, Jordan, and thanks again for enriching the conversation here. Please keep the insightful comments coming!

Jason Marsh | 6:01 pm, October 18, 2011 | Link

 

Jason, thanks grin I was very interested in, and really appreciated your review of, Pinker’s new work. If I can carve out some time I’ll post some comments.

Jordan Luftig | 4:33 pm, October 25, 2011 | Link

 

Here is a very good related talk on the topic of empathy: “The Empathic Civilisation” by by Jeremy Rifkin— http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g .

Simon Lacoste-Julien | 2:57 pm, October 27, 2011 | Link

 

I think that one of the central issues of the past
2000 years is how empathy potentially challenges
the Darwininian natural selection process of human
evolution.  Empathy is the beginning- whether we
allow empathy to provoke sympathy and/or
compassion is the heart of the matter (pun
intended).  There is a great battle being ensued by
Libertarians and Fascists to maintain our Survival
of the Fittest roots- and see
empathy/sympathy/compassion as a weakness to
be avoided.  Like the study of beauty, the study of
empathy is a door which leads to many, many
more doors.  Brooks would have those doors shut.

Francis Di Donato | 7:13 am, November 1, 2011 | Link

 

This is one of the best discussions I’ve seen on the Greater Good. But the depth and subtlety of some of the longer posts is, in a sense, completely unwarranted. David Brooks is not a moral philosopher; he is a propagandist for the oligarchy. The most appropriate response to David Brooks is not a treatise on the evolution of consciousness (which I enjoyed, by the way), but a questioning of his socio-political motives.

The corporate elite that has profited so handsomely over the last thirty years is finally being challenged by a genuine grassroots movement (as opposed to the “astroturf” movement of the Tea Party). The Occupy Wall Street protest, by highlighting the rapacity of the oligarchy with unexpected effectiveness, presents a genuine threat to the elite’s stranglehold on our politics, economics, and - most importantly, perhaps - the value system that undergirds them. Increasing numbers of ordinary Americans are finally beginning to realize that both political parties have sold them down the river. Defenders of the status quo - this unholy alliance between corporate greed and political ambition at the expense of the public good - will resort to whatever tactics are necessary to beat back this threat to their hegemony.

A few of the earlier posts, particularly the very first by Lou, seemed to acknowledge this dimension of Brooks’s article. The last thing the corporations want is an empathetic society. As their errand boy (readers of Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone will be familiar with more colorful descriptions), Brooks will happily sell ideas more consonant with materialistic individualism. He may take a more cerebral approach than the religious right (which is equally happy to ignore the true message of Christianity) but they all serve the same masters.

So let us not lose sight of the forest in the trees. To spend all our time debating the finer points of morality is to grant Brooks - and the system he represents with such dangerous innocuousness - a tactical victory he does not deserve. We, as readers of this blog, believe in empathy and compassion. We want to see those qualities transform our world. Anything, and anyone, clearly opposed to those qualities is a threat to the harmonious reality we seek. We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to perceive that threat clearly.

I am sorry if such conflictual language does not sit well with some readers. We have all read the mindfulness tips designed to counteract the fight-or-flight response. But there is a time for meditation, and a time for action in the real world. The gloves are about to come off in the class war that has been silently raging for far too long. The future of our society and our ecosystem will turn on the choices we make.

Higher Plane | 6:26 pm, November 1, 2011 | Link

 

Thank you, “Higher Plane,” for pointing out something that seemed obvious to me when I read Brooks’ piece.  It is the old “values” argument of the right (but please note, they get to define the “values,” usually based on an idealization of the U.S. in the 1950’s seen from a white middle- or upper-class perspective).
I would like to point out to Brooks that a moral code or standard was the reason the Nazi soldiers shot the prisoners while they wept.  They allowed their code of obedience and duty to the Fuhrer and the Fatherland to override their empathy.  That is the danger of a morality that is not rooted in empathy.

Sharon Forrest | 9:45 pm, November 1, 2011 | Link

 

@ Higher Plane: Poignant perspectives. Compelling narrative. I resonate w/much of it. And I’ll be curious to get your thoughts:

You advise us to not lose sight of the forest for the trees. I believe a vision of the evolution of consciousness IS the forest. To be clear, it’s a new or emerging forest, as grasping the spectrum of consciousness, and in turn, abiding by the ethical imperative to promote its (everyone’s) health, represents a qualitative evolutionary leap, a “creative advance into novelty” to quote Whitehead. You either see it or you don’t. But once you see it there’s no going back, and it becomes clear how and why a developmental vision and metanarrative and moral framework are needed for the health & transformation of society.

How do you propose to question Brooks’ socio-political motives if not through application of a developmental vision that makes judgments based on the relative degree of consciousness and complexity of his motives? Or, do all motives, values, ideas, morals, and worldviews possess equal depth? What makes one better than another?

The disaster of rational self-interest is not that it promotes individualism at the expense of the common good, it’s that self-interest can become license for narcissism when egalitarian frameworks have been placed at the center of American thought & culture, when that culture therefore has no way to discourage, encourage, reward, or reform (as the case may be) moral motivations based on their level of consciousness.

In other words, the dignity of rational self-interest, and of democracy, is that these are the economic and political expressions of worldcentric consciousness. In the absence of a moral authority—in the form of a clear & compelling developmental framework on which to order society—there is no way to protect the level playing field Sixties-era progressives gave us; no way to protect the worldcentric basis of democracy and economy from actors who are not as caring and inclusive and would take advantage of their freedoms.

Without a developmental framework, progressives have no way to get beyond the individual self-interest / rights / opportunities vs. collective empathy / responsibility to the common good debate. These are value-neutral drives that every society has to balance; one is not better than another. This is the same as the debate between liberty and equality, which exist in irresolvable tension; the same debate/tension that exists between the libertarian instinct and the socialist instinct.

Put differently, the problem—from a progressive point of view—is: the goodness of democracy cannot only be majority rule through “one person, one vote” (ethos of the Sixties). It must also be the disproportionate amount of influence one person can have with his or her vote (ethos of the 1%). In a matured democratic society, then, you need a developmental framework to prevent the rise of the 1% (or counteract it) and tip the scales in favor of the common good.

I think most progressives have caught on to the 1st step required for enacting positive social change. That is, overcome materialism. E.g., extend the domain of scientific inquiry into the realm of interiors, of consciousness (every exterior has an interior).

It’s the 2nd step that eludes us: recognize that interior consciousness evolves. 

It is not the 1% we are up against. Among the 1% are pioneers of corporate social responsibility, worldcentric leaders of organizations committed to the triple bottom line. Among the 1% are the Buffets & Gates of the world; worldcentric beings with a global philanthropic commitment to social justice and a willingness to pay a fair share of taxes.

We are up against the 1% whose behaviors are obviously egocentric, which is fine for the youngest of children but in adults is essentially a psychological disorder )with devastating social consequences).

We are up against a culture that refuses these distinctions.

We cannot tell up from down.

Jordan Luftig | 4:18 pm, November 2, 2011 | Link

 

Jordan - Well, since you asked….

I re-read your earlier posts to make sure I understood what you meant by an “evolution of consciousness.” That language is potentially tricky, for to me an evolution of consciousness has a rather different meaning (to which I will return later).

As a practical matter, since the disease that afflicts our body politic has become an existential threat, I am not sure that such a formal framework - despite its theoretical merit - is really necessary or even helpful. Let’s face it: we’re having enough trouble getting the populace to understand the simple fact that they are, not to put too fine a point on it, being screwed. We don’t need to complicate matters by requiring people to contemplate their level of consciousness. A country that is still arguing with itself about such basic questions as a woman’s right to control her own reproductive health, whether climate change is anthropogenic, and whether evolution is just another “theory” about the origins of man simply isn’t ready for that kind of discussion.

Moreover, one could be forgiven for pointing out that the developmental hierarchy you outline - this transition from egocentrism through ethnocentrism to worldcentrism - is simply a restatement of the desire for more empathy in human affairs. The average voter can understand that much more readily. That dog will hunt.

Nor should we forget that self-interest can result in eminently sound social decisions when it is of the (seemingly rare) rational variety. One of the great mysteries of our time is why we seem to have forgotten such simple life lessons as not peeing in our own pond. Why do the oil companies not care about contamination of drinking water? Do these executives not have children or grandchildren? Do they think they can buy themselves a clean, private, alternative ecosystem? Aren’t selfish (egocentric?) genes supposed to concern themselves with such matters?

I think you give too much credit to the progress made in the 1960’s. Let us not forget that this was the decade of the Vietnam War and other acts of American oligarchic aggression around the world. Martin Luther King was murdered just as he intended to turn his attention to economic injustice. The steps toward egalitarianism that you perceive ought not, in my view, be taken as the defining ethos of a generation when so much else was clearly very, very wrong.

Similarly, I am not at all comfortable with your admiration for Bill Gates. Microsoft has consistently pursued extremely aggressive business practices across the globe, and is constantly under investigation for fair trade violations (to say nothing of privacy issues).

Now, to return to the issue of consciousness. For me, the evolution of consciousness has a far more fundamental meaning than an enlargement of the “field of concern” of the conscious mind. We are getting into speculative territory now, but the next phase in human development is the recognition that our thoughts and emotions are not merely mental, interior events, but powerful forces that impinge upon our outer, physical reality. In New Age terms, I am referring to the proposition that we create our own realities with our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

No, the average man in the street isn’t ready for that concept, either. But once that breakthrough has been made - and it is a perception that can only come from actual experience, not from reading a self-help book - then there really is no turning back.

As for what such a concept means for our understanding of politics, I suspect it would turn our current beliefs about power, and hierarchies of authority, completely upside down. In theory, if we all create our own realities, then what happens on a larger scale is a collective creation. When the vast majority of humanity lives in ignorance of its true creative power, and consequently engages in destructive thoughts and emotions with regularity, the collective creation is not likely to be pretty.

Higher Plane | 7:42 pm, November 4, 2011 | Link

 

Higher Plane, thank you, I appreciate the time and care you put into your reply.

Fair points about Gates, the 1960s, and rational self-interest. Whereas I was privileging a particular perspective to illustrate a point and advance my larger point, a more balanced and inclusive view would certainly include the perspectives you’ve taken. The picture is complex, more complex than I get across in this forum, or even see in the first place.

Likewise, treating the evolution of consciousness in terms of an expanding circle of justice and care was a pragmatic choice that is obviously a reduction in itself (and so I presented the larger framework, too). My choice is actually born of countless hours trying, in various discourses, to translate new and complex concepts into terms that are accessible, and perhaps even entertaining, to a mainstream audience. In fact, I often try to altogether avoid using developmental models or not talk explicitly about hierarchy for just this reason. In this forum I was introducing the formal theoretical framework to facilitate a discussion that, in turn, might give me/us ideas about how to translate a developmental vision into language, metaphors, analogies etc. that bridge the meaning-making gap between such a vision and the mainstream.

It’s an exhilarating and maddening catch-22! In a way I realize that I’m speaking to a particular audience, the 25% or so of adults who can take a postmodern perspective (e.g., meaning is context-dependent, interpretation is intrinsic to reality, multi-perspectivalism is therefore natural and necessary) and see not just its strengths but also its limitations—since the latter, and the dissonance that comes with it, is what brings the possibility of further evolution into a more complex mode of thinking and being. So, I get your point about the mainstream grin But, even though hard data is difficult to come by (and somewhat beside the point), the history of revolutionary change in America suggests that a tipping point is reached when approximately 10% holds a new vision of society (if this vision possesses “the right idea”; is morally binding and truly progressive).

Finally, I’d want to hear more about your understanding of the next phase of human development. With that said, as you’ve written it here, I think it’s quite problematic. So permit me to comment based on what you’ve written, prior to any elaboration you would give.

The idea that we create our own reality has some truth in it—we can indeed self-author our lives and creatively enact reality through conscious intent and action. However, it’s simply not the case that we create our own reality independent of the “selection pressures” of either the many cultural contexts in which we are embedded (and would do well to reflect on and disclose) or the various social systems in which we are enmeshed. As its often presented in the New Age culture, the idea that we create our own reality can/does lead to blame (including self-blame) when the world doesn’t respond to our desired creations. Also, it can/does produce narcissism, insomuch as “I” alone have this power and do not have to take others into consideration (“We”) or what is going on in the world (“It/s”). And so on. The idea does not hold up to postmodernity’s demand for intersubjective grounding (and can therefore house hidden forms of oppression and discrimination). And it all but eliminates the need to consider and meet modernity’s demand for objective (“it/s”) evidence. So, although I’m all for (re)introducing post/modern society to the importance of consciousness per se, I don’t think we’re likely to get very far with this idea as its usually understood and used.

Thanks again for your presence and thoughtfulness. Be well.

Jordan Luftig | 5:43 pm, November 7, 2011 | Link

 

great and helpful discussion

Asala mp3 | 11:09 am, November 11, 2011 | Link

 

Jordan - Your comments are stated with your characteristic thoughtfulness and civility and require a response. However, since we may be trying Jason’s patience by taking the discussion off on a tangent, I have made a suitable entry on my own blog (link at sig.). Predictably, of course, I disagree with you on several fronts, but I would appreciate your feedback nonetheless.

It will make a refreshing change to see a genuine comment on the blog, as opposed to the kind of mindless spam that has just been posted between us. (Note to administrators: that person had a field day today….)

Higher Plane | 6:47 pm, November 11, 2011 | Link

 

Of course we do what you are saying “The idea that we create our own reality has some truth in it—”

Without it you are basically lost art you?
What would the reality be then? What your government tells you? Television? People surrounding you?


Come on, create your own!

mortgage calculator | 10:31 am, November 13, 2011 | Link

 

Empathy being a fad is a little black and white for me. I do agree that there is some validity to his thoughts that moral action stems from a “sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code.”, it’s not totally true. Humans and animals in general have an internal genetically based / instinctual programming to feel a sense of empathy.

Las Vegas Shows | 10:43 am, November 13, 2011 | Link

 

Higher Plane, I read your blog post and enjoyed it very much. I hope to get around to posting a response on your blog soon.

Jordan Luftig | 12:55 pm, November 15, 2011 | Link

 

First, we live in a modern society whose worldview of scientific materialism either flat-out rejects the inner life of mind/psyche/soul or “colonizes the lifeworld” and reduces our subjective 1st-person experience of meaning, purpose, value, etc. to objective 3rd-person terms. So we either explain (away) empathy or we fail to even study and value empathy in the first place, instead advancing and living according to a selfish “survival of the fittest” understanding. (All this is a knock on scientism not science; and praise of GGSC.)

Second, we live in a postmodern society whose worldview of pluralistic relativism actively rejects the developmental research I am drawing upon or unconsciously represses the evolutionary (and truly progressive) understanding I am advancing based on it, because any talk of stages and levels smacks of hierarchy, which is (mis)understood to be inherently oppressive and dominating, and in any event goes against moral egalitarianism. But there is a difference between natural and dominator hierarchy, the former being the very form that healthy development takes: every successive level transcends and includes the prior level. Morally, “Me” is transcended and included by “Us,” which is transcended and included by “All of Us.” Linguistically, letter to word to sentence to paragraph etc. is a natural hierarchy and you can no more get a sentence without words or words without letters than you can get a mature worldcentric human being without his or her having grown up through ego- and ethnocentric stages of development.

And what if we are unaware of this developmental pathway or remove it from our (cultural pur-) view!?

Hierarchy is inevitable and in its healthy form is natural and vital to life; hierarchy is really “holarchy” or the very creative process that gives rise to increasing degrees of holism, of both the inner life of consciousness and the outer world of material form. (Logically, if I value egalitarian “linking” over hierarchical “ranking” then that is my values hierarchy; no moral code or values-based worldview is better than any other, except the one I am advancing. Oops!)

Igrice | 1:52 pm, November 18, 2011 | Link

 

Sometimes I wonder if progressives are like mice
in a
mouse run provided by Right Wingers whose only
goal is to prevent the discussion of what is really
going on.

And we being so intellectually and morally
captivated, run and run.  Meanwhile, they get to
rob the bank.

The real discussion should be: why should people
living the “good life” be forced care about anyone
else?  The answer should be because they are
schmucks if they don’t.  And they should be reviled
and left to live their greedy little lives in isolation. 
And if they keep doing it, they should get their
greedy asses kicked all over the place.  This might
seem crude, but the daily lives of the upper 0.1%
are grotesquely crude in comparison.

Francis Di Donato | 11:14 am, December 22, 2011 | Link

 
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