Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Moral Development and Disempathy

In a previous post, I conjectured that some Aspergians may have greater empathy skills than their behavior suggests:
One could theoretically be very good at seeing from the shoes of another, and yet act in a way that does not reveal such understanding. Loyalty to hidden ideology, or a fear of deviating from how I know to act, might sometimes motivate me to willfully ignore my empathic sensibilities.
This is an issue for not only Aspergians. Most people at some time or another decide to trample on the feelings of another. Rather than try and catalog all kinds of concious disregard for empathetic awareness, or disempathy, I'd like to explore more deeply the role of moral development in creating disempathy.

One widely accepted model for moral development (in individuals) runs roughly as follows:
  • We start out with simply avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Babies cry for milk and cry for a diaper change regardless of whether it's a convenient time for the parents.
  • Then we look slightly beyond ourselves and pay attention to the rules that the parents and other authorities use to control us. We also become susceptible to peer pressure, and try to fit in to win the support of friends.
  • Then we get kind of idealistic. We say, I'm going to be generous because I have high moral integrity and it is good and right to be generous. We become aware of "ethics" and some notion of a social contract. We (consciously or subconsciously) evaluate our behavior based on principles such as "what if everyone acted that way? Would life be nice then?"
Moral development ends approximately there, at least in this model. In my experience, the next developmental stage is a departure from traditional morality for the acquisition of complete moral relativism, or complemorelivism. In this next stage, "what is, is," people act as they act, and it is just an interesting natural phenomenon the way that people seem to prefer cooperation to open conflict. Intrinsic subjective values still exist in complemorelivism , and life is still rich with meaning, but The Force that drives everything hides deeper and deeper among the incentives and laws and ethics that we use to harness that force.

I will argue that disempathy flourishes not only in the first stages of moral development, but also in the final ones. I'll give some short examples of how adherence to moral principals in each stage may motivate disempathy. These examples do not imply that the actor is practicing disempathy, given the possibility that the actor has no empathy, and hence cannot be accused of disregarding empathy. However, assuming that the subject has empathy, these explain how moral principles may serve as one of several possible motives for disempathy.

In the first stages of moral development, the moral principle is to serve your immediate needs without regard for others. You're supposed to take that toy and not share it, without regard for the feelings of your playmates. Or, if you decide to share the toy, it's only because you fear harsh consequence of not sharing, such as a brisk spanking.

In the next stages, morality says that you should obey the authorities. If Mom asks you to go kick the neighbor's irritating-pissing-stinky-vicious-barking dog to death, you obey, regardless of how this will make your neighbor feel (not to mention the dog). Granted, this example may seem unrealistic, but that is only because Mom is usually operating on higher moral principles.

In the final stages, you adopt "ethical principals" of widely varying levels sophistication and focus. Examples at this stage tend to be more subtle. I will provide two examples disempathy surrounding the principled opposition to war, or killing in general:
  • You say, "War is wrong," and look down your nose at a soldier. You raise emotional walls against the soldier, and cling to your perspective rather than allow yourself fully consider the possible benefits of their work, or the force of personal experience that motivates the soldier. As a result, you may exercise disempathy by telling the soldier that you think his work is "wrong," even though this will make the soldier uncomfortable. Nevermind that you have great motives for telling the soldier this. Nevermind that you believe that the soldier or the rest of humanity could benefit from you spreading your ideas. This does not negate the fact that you are disregarding the soldiers feelings, and that this disempathy arises from your principled opposition to war.
  • On the highest level of morality (at least with regard to empathy), your opposition to war is not a principle in itself, but instead it arises from a deeper ethic: to maximize some measure of the general happiness of humanity. You may believe that you significantly reduce killing by somehow avoiding payment of federal taxes, to shrink the military budget. (See Henry David Thoreau.) You are aware of the financial, social, and legal difficulties that tax avoidance brings upon your family, but you believe that on net, tax avoidance will increase the overall well-being of humanity. Here you are practicing disempathy against your family, at least if they aren't enthusiastic about whole tax avoidance thing.
An individual becomes truly free to abandon disempathy for the sake of a particular relationship (possibly at the expense of other relationships) only upon their arrival at complemorelivism. This is not to say that all complemorelivists are good at empathy, or intent on using empathy to benefit others. Nonetheless, I have shown that adherence to "ethics" constrains an individual's positive use of empathy even as it requires the use of empathy.

3 Comments:

Blogger Persimmon Hill said...

By now my brain is all twisted up but I'll venture a guess that you're speaking about prag-ma-tism.

5:39 PM  
Anonymous goodbadi said...

How paradoxical--the anti-ethical side of ethics.

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In regards to..."Mom is usually operating on higher moral principles" Thank you.

kbs, a mom

7:26 PM  

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