Slavoj Zizek: A Soft Focus on War -- In These Times
Mind Over Meds -

Some Thoughts on Miki Kashtan's Article: Empathy and Good Judgment

I really appreciated Miki Kashtan's argument yesterday in her post on empathy, emotion and reason:

The concern about empathy reflects a long tradition of valuing rationality, and the Enlightenment’s imperative to overcome instincts, passions, and emotions through exercising reason. This exclusive focus on reason applies across the board: to moral theory, to the law, to professional conduct, and to our assessment of our own choices and decisions.

I want to challenge the idea that we make better decisions without emotions.

Kashtan goes on to talk about the cross-wiring of human mental and emotional systems being explored by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, author of the very readable and thought-feeling provoking book, Descartes' Error.

I happened upon Damasio's work many years ago when I became interested in the emerging field of neuro-psychoanalysis. His work and others inspired a huge shift in the way I felt-thought about who I am and how I experience being human -- alone and in relationship to other people and to nature. I think about the systemic interconnectedness often, but perhaps not often enough. That in itself speaks to the way that threads of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" are so tightly woven into the rug of assumptions on which we daily stand, and from which we make meaning of our experiences.

That's why I'm especially grateful when other people revitalize discussion of this fundamental relationship of feeling and reason as mediated by the brain, and continue to explore contexts in which such an idea can be played with more consciously. Kashtan has done this by relating this broader discussion to the possible values of empathy as a key emotional capacity to advance social and political transformation.

Kashtan makes reference to the backdraft discussion that occurred when Barack Obama suggested that empathy is a desirable capacity for a Supreme Court judge. The fiery debate that later shot its flame toward Sonia Sotomayor left hot evidence of the national feeling about reason versus empathy in our judicial system. (See her article for some great links about this.)

I, along with fellow grassroots activists for environmental justice, encounter similar resistance to the emotional roots of reason all the time. Recently activists got some suggestions from a federal agency that offered this bullet point on public comment writing:

“Leave the heart out". The agencies are looking for facts and will ignore emotion.

They didn't leave us totally without official avenues for emotional expression, however, suggesting that we take the emotional stuff to our Senators and Representatives. Not a totally bad idea, I suppose, unless your Congressperson happens to be among those who have publicly devalued the "heart" of the matter or demonstrated profound lack of empathy.

Here's the problem I have with such categorical dismissals of empathy, of resistance to matters of heart-mind. If cognitive and emotional systems are in fact cross-wired in the brain, the natural consequences of that structure -- most of which (for most of us) are beyond conscious control -- continue to operate nonetheless. Without awareness of this, humankind can continue to believe that it's possible to carve out territories of reason and feeling that can actually be enforced. This illusion makes it possible to believe in such things as righteous exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, oppression and killing.

When we choose, on the other hand, to cultivate awareness of our inherent heart-mind wiring, we free ourselves up to look inside, to explore how we identify ourselves, and how we relate to fellow beings and to the Earth, our home. Then we can begin to insist that we be allowed to speak both heart and mind -- any time and any place -- to mediate, as Kashtan suggests, the unconscionable suffering of people and nature:

The gift of empathy is that it integrates mind and heart in the very same act as it brings together self and other. When we ignore empathy, we pay an enormous price in the form of depression, apathy, victimization, and anger on an individual level, and crime, neglect, alienation, bullying, even war, on a societal level. When we cultivate empathy, our emotional health improves, and in addition also our sense of hope, and our capacity, both individually and collectively, to act as moral agents in addressing the enormous challenges facing us today.

If we can help each other get that far, maybe we can entertain an even wider-scale, collective integration of spiritual dimensions with those of body(brain)-mind-emotions.