The Gadfly Bytes --
Evil as the Absence of Empathy
The Crisis Papers.
July 22, 2008
"We live in a world ... hardened and distorted by hate. We
communicate in the language of fear and violence. Human beings
are no longer viewed as human beings. They are no longer endowed
in our eyes, or the eyes of those who oppose us, with human
qualities. They do not love, grieve, suffer, laugh or weep. They
represent cold abstractions of evil. The death-for-death means
we communicate by producing corpses."
In 1946, Dr. Gustav M. Gilbert, a psychologist fluent in German, was
assigned by the U.S. Army to study the minds and motivations of the Nazi
defendants at the Nuremberg tribunals. The following year, his Nuremberg
Diary was published, containing transcripts of his conversations with
the prisoners. (Excerpts
In words consistent with what I have read of, and about, Gustav Gilbert, he
is portrayed in the 2000 TV film “Nuremberg,” as telling the Head Prosecutor
Robert Jackson (Alec Baldwin), “I told you once that I was searching for the
nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy.
It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants: a genuine
incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence
“Absence of empathy” is likewise, I submit, “the one characteristic that
connects” most of the immoral and misbegotten tenets of right-wing
dogmatic mix of market fundamentalism, libertarianism, corporatism and simple
greed that falsely describes itself as “conservatism,” and which I choose to
call “regressivism.” “Absence of empathy” is the essence of evil which, if
unchecked and unreversed, is certain to bring about the demise of the
American republic as we know it, just as it led to the advent of the Third
In contrast, empathy, the capacity to recognize and cherish in other
persons, the experience, emotions and aspirations that one is aware of in
oneself, is the moral cornerstone of progressive politics. It is a principle
recognized and taught in all the great world religions, reiterated by numerous moral
validated by the scientific study of human personality.
Empathy is the foundation of the moral teachings of Jesus of
Nazareth. In that most-quoted New Testament verse, the golden rule, Jesus
said: “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."
(Luke 6:31, also Matthew 7:2). Also, “thou shalt love thy neighbor as
thyself.” (Matthew 22:39, also Leviticus 19;18). Both commandments imply
recognition in others of the human dignity and worth that one recognizes in
oneself. In a word, empathy.
The golden rule is echoed in the moral teachings of Islam: "None of you
[truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for
himself." And as Mohamed taught in his last sermon, "Hurt no one so that no
one may hurt you." (Mohamed,
last sermon). And Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, taught
“What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the
whole Torah; the rest is just commentary.”
And yet, how much empathy is to be found among self-proclaimed “Christian”
end-times preachers, such as James Hagee and Tim LeHaye, who eagerly
anticipate “the rapture” and the eternal torment and damnation that awaits
virtually all of humanity, as punishment for the sin of failing to agree
with the preachers’ theology? How much empathy is evident in the late
Jerry Falwell’s on-air remark to Wolf Blitzer, about Islamic militants,
“If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord,”
and Ann Coulter’s infamous outburst, “We should invade their countries, kill
their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” Because they explicitly
renounce Jesus’ injunction to “love thy enemies” these hate-mongers are, in
a literal and moral sense, “anti-Christs.”
Regressivism and the Absence of Empathy.
foundational doctrines of regressivism are devoid of empathy. For
example, Ayn Rand: "Civilization is the progress toward a society of
privacy.. the process of setting man free from men." (The Fountainhead)
And “Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others
nor sacrificing others to himself.” (The Virtue of Selfishness.)
Furthermore, “economic Man” (Homo economicus), a central concept of
neo-classical economic theory favored by regressives, is an uncompromising
egoist, whose sole motivation is to “maximize personal utility” or
“preference satisfaction.” A “perfect market” of fully informed,
non-colluding, uncoerced “economic men,” free of government interference,
the theory tells us, will invariably produce better results for all than any
governmental system yet devised. Never mind that “economic man” and “the
perfect market” are fictions, that never have been and never can be realized
in any human society. (For a defense of this claim, see my
“Beautiful Theory vs. Baffling Reality”).
The unfounded yet undiminished right-wing faith in the “wisdom” of the
free-market and in the superiority of the pursuit of individual “utility
maximization” as the engine of social progress, was starkly summed up by
“Gordon Gekko” (Michael Douglas) in the 1987 movie, “Wall Street:” “Greed
... is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and
captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms
-- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward
surge of mankind."
In fact, history teaches us that greed is not good, and greed does not work.
“Homo economicus” is, in fact, a moral monster, for he is a being devoid
of empathy and even of conscience. A mere bundle of “consumer preferences”
can not add up to personhood, much less moral agency. When greed (call it
“the profit motive”) reigns supreme, “others,” be they employees or fellow
citizens, are reduced to impersonal objects. If these “others” are
employees, they are regarded as units of “human capital” to be replaced by
less costly “units” (e.g. “outsourced”) whenever possible. And if they are
fellow citizens, they are prospective customers, to be relieved through
“creative marketing” of their disposable wealth. Human, social,
environmental “external costs” be damned. Witness the tobacco industry.
A “society” of private, egoistic, “utility maximizers,” devoid of empathy
and unregulated by law and popular government, without shared values,
loyalties and aspirations, is no society at all. It is a Hobbesian state of
nature – a “war of all against all,” wherein life becomes "solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short." (Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan).
As we are now discovering, to our great regret and sorrow.
Progressivism and Empathy.
In stark contrast, empathy – awareness of the needs, sufferings,
aspirations, rights, and dignity of others – is the unifying theme of the
progressive agenda, and of the history of political/economic liberalism (in
the traditional sense of the word). The elite and wealthy delegates to the
Continental Congress, when they demanded recognition of their rights, did
not fail at that time to acknowledge the rights of all persons:
these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal;
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights;
that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
True, at the
outset the full “rights” of citizenship were restricted to white, male,
landowners. But through time and constant struggle, those rights were
extended to include all adult citizens, regardless of gender, race or creed.
These struggles, which continue today, were led by “liberals,” and resisted
by self-described “conservatives.”
Joe Conason eloquently describes these struggles and achievements:
workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being
forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if
you enjoy a forty-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to
protect your rights -- you can thank liberals. If your food is not
poisoned and your water is drinkable -- you can thank liberals. If your
parents are eligible for Medicare and Social Security, so they can grow
old in dignity without bankrupting your family - you can thank liberals.
If our rivers are getting cleaner and our air isn't black with
pollution; if our wilderness is protected and our countryside is still
green -- you can thank liberals. If people of all races can share the
same pubic facilities; if everyone has the right to vote; if couples
fall in love and marry regardless of race; if we have finally begun to
transcend a segregated society -- you can thank liberals. Progressive
innovations like those and so many others were achieved by long,
difficult struggles against entrenched power. What defined conservatism,
and conservatives, was their opposition to every one of those advances.
The country we know and love today was built by those victories for
liberalism -- with the support of the American people. (Big Lies, p. 3)
support and the consequent liberal reforms issued from empathy: from the
awareness throughout the general public that oppressed minorities and
economically and educationally disadvantaged individuals, possess the same
sentiments, needs, aspirations and rights that more fortunate citizens
recognized in themselves.
Regressivism as Psychopathology.
Empathy is never totally absent in any functioning human being. A
recognition that other persons with whom one deals have functioning minds
with ideas, emotions, and aspirations is implicit in game playing, in
negotiations, and even ordinary conversation. Self awareness, even that of a
thoroughly egoistic, narcissistic and sociopathic self, can only arise out
of childhood interaction with others.
The self is a
Thus even such sociopaths as George Bush and Dick Cheney will acknowledge
that the bombs dropped on Iraq cause “collateral damage” and thus profound
suffering to innocent civilians. They likewise are aware of the suffering in
New Orleans caused by the mismanagement of the Katrina disaster. They are,
after all, at least minimally sane. Such an awareness of others that is also
devoid of feeling we might call “abstract empathy.” The misery to innocent
others that they cause simply does not matter to the Busheviks. They do not
care, unless these moral atrocities exact political costs to themselves.
This “abstract empathy” is not the sort of “empathy” that Dr. Gustav Gilbert
found absent among the Nuremberg defendants. The empathy that he had in mind
combines awareness with feelings of concern and with respect for the rights
and integrity of the other.
In contrast, the regressivism of the Bush/Cheney administration would have
us ignore the economic, social and environmental consequences of unregulated
commerce, and also have us dismantle Social Security, impoverish public
education, tolerate inadequate health care for millions of our fellow
citizens, abolish fundamental constitutional rights, and engage in
aggressive wars against unthreatening countries, all of this with minimal
regard for the human misery caused by these policies. To do all this,
requires a deliberate stifling of feelings of empathy, and what David Hume
called the “natural moral sentiment” of benevolence: a genuine concern for
the well-being of others.
Regressives who support such policies are, at worst, simply amoral: without
moral restraint, “rotten to the core.” At best, they are profoundly
mistaken: possibly fundamentally decent individuals, trustworthy,
law-abiding, charming friends, devoted spouses and parents, but bewitched by
false dogmas. The former are, by and large, beyond redemption and are best
isolated from political influence and from positions of public
responsibility. The latter might be amenable to evidence and rational
How can such an ideology captivate and take political control of a nation
once renowned and admired for its generosity and compassion and for its
devotion to democracy and human rights?
In part, the rise and dominance of regressivism is the result of
deliberate and opulently funded public relations campaign, supported for the
past forty years by wealthy individuals and corporations. This campaign included the establishment of ideological “think
tanks” such as The American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation,
and The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the abolition of The Fairness
Doctrine and the consolidation of most of the mass media into six
“conservative” mega-conglomerates, enormous expansion of corporate lobbying
of Congress, and a vastly increased corporate involvement in campaign
financing, of both major parties. With conservative Republicans in control
of the White House for all but eight of the past twenty-eight years, the
federal courts have become dominated by right-wing judges.
With these formidable propaganda resources, the resurgent Right has
exploited “natural sentiments” equally fundamental to human nature as
empathy; namely, ethnocentrism (identification with and loyalty to “our
group”) and its negative complement, xenophobia (fear, distrust, and hatred
of “outsiders”). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 intensified
these prejudices, objectifying and depersonalizing the new enemy (so-called
“Islamo-Fascists”) while, at the same time, neutralizing empathetic
sentiments toward the residents of these “alien” nations.
With the captive media exploiting and intensifying public fear of
“terrorism,” the Bush regime formulated, and the intimidated Congress
readily assented to, assaults upon our traditional civil liberties such as
the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, and now the revised FISA Act.
Finally, regressivism feeds upon greed: the relentless corporate
drive for still more profits and political control, and the perpetual
cultivation of consumer demand by the multi-billion dollar advertising and
public relations industries.
But greed is pitiless and blind to the side effects (“externalities”) of the
unconstrained appetite for the consumption of consumer goods and for profit:
effects such as poverty, pollution, disease, and the “collateral damage” of
war upon innocent civilians.
A political economy based upon unregulated greed has been tried numerous
times in the past, and has failed in each and every occasion: the oppressive
dynasties that brought on the French and
Russian Revolutions, the era of the robber barons in the late Nineteenth
Century, the "Roaring Twenties" that precipitated the great depression of the Thirties. They failed because when
greed rules, the nation’s wealth inevitably flows from those who produce the
wealth to those who own and control the wealth until, eventually, the
toleration of the increasingly miserable masses for this economic injustice
collapses, and the oligarchic regime is overthrown.
Once again, regressivism is on the brink of collapse.
80% of Americans believed that the “country is moving in the wrong
the first six months of 2008, 343,159 Americans lost their homes, up
136% from 145,696 recorded during the same period in 2007.” (CNNMoney.com).
alarming and under-reported increase in unemployment and inflation is
underway. (US government cost of living statistics do not include food
and fuel prices).
latest Gallup Poll reports that Democratic party affiliation leads
Republican by ten points (47% to 37%).
sentiment should suffice to overthrow any regime that maintains power “with
the consent of the governed” and subject to recall by election. Under normal
circumstances, these statistics would indicate a landslide repudiation of
the regime in the coming national election.
But these are not normal circumstances, for this regime is supported by a
formidable array of resources: virtually unlimited financial support, a
captive media including a cadre of right-wing pundits, a proven ability to
rig elections along with a refusal of the media to investigate and report
election fraud, oppressive laws, a ruthless GOP campaign organization
unconstrained by facts, fair-play, or even on occasion, by the law. All
these resource might once again overwhelm the “consent of the governed,” and
prolong the regressive regime for another four or even eight years. But
eventually, it must fall. The longer it holds on, the greater the misery and
repression that will ensue, and the more violent the eventual overthrow.
Best to end it now.
But it will take an extraordinary effort by an overwhelming number of
ordinary citizens to bring it off. There are no guarantees.
Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge