I often read the “Gray Matter” section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times (7/10/15). I was interested in the three scientists who have found that empathy is a choice, a skill that can be learned–that it is not an irrational or purely emotional response to a sad situation. They conclude that empathy, which I would describe as the ability to understand a situation as if it were happening to you, is highly rational. And often, our willingness (or unwillingness) to empathize with others is driven by our assessment of what it will cost us to permit ourselves to care. This economic aspect of empathy also figures, unexpectedly, in the scientists’ finding that empathy is often constrained when racial, ethnic or gender differences are present. This finding leads the authors to ask, if empathy can be learned and is a matter of choice, “what is the relationship between empathy and morality?”
What has shocked the nation and the world as it observes the culture of violence in the U.S., is the unbroken connection to the economics of race and empathy. Dylann Roof managed to shock even those Americans who typically permit themselves no empathy for black people, as a category. How did he do this? Perhaps because his act of murder seems ruthlessly calculated to demonstrate the relationship between empathy and morality–that there can be no morality without empathy. Dylann Roof made a choice to abjure empathy–not even the shared act of prayer could alter his decision.
Elsewhere we learn that high officials in the American Psychological Association, the largest organization in the profession, collaborated with the Pentagon in “abetting the torture of terrorism suspects.” One of the chief collaborators was the APA’s director of ethics. Apparently, the Department of Defense “paid handsomely for experts who could give the torture program a veneer of legitimacy.” There have been no prosecutions of the torturers. Guantanamo Bay is still operating. It is unlikely that there will be a prosecution of any APA collaborators. But Dylann Roof, lone wolf perpetrator of a cultural imperative, will pay for his faithfulness.