Devoid of empathy.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
There are individuals on this planet who lack empathy. Most people, hopefully, feel a deep emotion of sympathy when they witness or hear about human suffering. However, there are others who do not experience any instinctive or emotional response to suffering, even if they are the ones causing it.
The absence of empathic responses does not mean that these individuals are only cold and calculating. While some may possess such traits, they may also be others who are driven by other emotional instincts such as self-interest, curiosity, vengeance, self-righteousness, delight, or the satisfaction of accomplishing a mission.
The ability or inability to feel empathy is not a binary distinction. Some people may feel little empathy, while others are profoundly affected by the pain of others. Additionally, it is not a one-dimensional spectrum. Some individuals may feel strong empathy for those close to them, but none for those they see as “other.” Furthermore, individuals may differ in whether they only experience empathy in the direct presence of suffering or if they are equally affected by third-hand reports.
Perhaps the reason some people completely lack the instinct for empathy is due to a simple hereditary flaw, similar to a flawed trait of kidney function. On the other hand, empathic receptivity may be influenced by culture or childhood experiences. The precise role of these factors and the proportion of individuals who are innately flawed in this regard versus those influenced by environmental factors remains unknown.
What we do know is that at various times and locations during the 20th century, for example, there were numerous instances in which people in positions of power or bystanders showed no emotional response to the suffering they caused or witnessed. Read this.
It is plausible to imagine that there are individuals who are missing empathy physiologically yet are genuinely good people in every other aspect. These individuals may develop different physiological pathways during childhood or as a result of their culture, leading them to dedicate their lives to the well-being of others. Similarly, there may be highly empathic individuals with psychological challenges that prevent them from helping others.
Furthermore, it is important to note that not all injustices and suffering in the world are the result of a lack of empathy. There are various other causes, including self-interest, unfounded fears about personal future, reluctance to allocate resources to assist others, and misinformation about global events and the reasons behind them. People involved may be capable of experiencing empathy but they might suppress it or simply not feel empathy in these specific cases.
While this depiction may appear bleak, there is hope in the idea that low levels of empathy are not necessarily innately determined. Recognizing these flaws in human personality allows us to work towards structuring society in a way that minimizes empathy deficiencies. We can also strive to protect individuals, despite the potential risks associated with a lack of care for their plight.
If we acknowledge our capacity for causing harm, we can implement appropriate educational and legal measures to prevent humanity from behaving the way it sometimes tends to behave.