The Paradox of Empathy: Is Good Behaviour Selfish?

Most everyone agrees that a just society promotes equality among its citizens, but blood is spilled over what sort of equality is morally preferable ~ Paul Bloom

Honour is a rather fickle word. As one raised in a country that promotes the individual character, I find the tribalism and public shaming aroused by the misconceptions surrounding honour to be incredibly confronting, particularly since it allows biased men to believe they are permitted or authorised to behave badly, especially towards women. Honour killings, acid throwing, FGM to name a few. Gangs that deal drugs and commit heinous crimes still have a code of “honour” between them and so it raises the question on whether the idea of honour is just moral romanticism. Honour is one of many words – including empathy and love – that we need to question. If we think about extreme political violence and the dehumanisation of groups of people, such as when millions were murdered during the holocaust, it was the false propaganda used against them that targeted empathy – Jews were “bad” because they hurt children and stole money – and so it was empathy that allowed the entire population to believe that they were doing the right thing by killing the “bad” people.

Psychopaths are incredibly successful in manipulating and targeting the empathy in others in order to obtain a desired and often violent outcome, but far greater in our society is the narcissist that – while mostly nonviolent – often target those who are highly empathetic knowing that performing on social cues, they will receive what they desire in return. If a narcissist only cares about admiration, money, sex, and freedom or entertainment, their true character is easily exposed by taking away the very thing they seek and so they become enraged, vengeful and malicious. Narcissists are the individual equivalent to political entities who dehumanise groups, because they do not actually care about others unless they obtain something from them and in the process dehumanise the worth of the other person.

There is a word in Turkish that hasn’t the English equivalent called vicdansız and it translates to someone who is unconscionable, yet, unlike this lack of conscience used to explain psychopaths in criminal law, vicdansız is a type of remorseless behaviour where someone is unable to see their own wrongdoing in all situations, not just criminal and therefore more aligned with narcissism. I realised, however, that an empathetic person who intends to do and seek goodness can actually do more damage without realising, perhaps while assuming they are doing good in much the same way as a narcissist is often unaware. As such, there is a distinction between ethical behaviour and selfish behaviour that needs to be addressed. A good action with selfish intentions does not necessarily undermine the good act, but it resists the authenticity of the act making it ethical, yes, but selfish at the same time. What does that exactly mean?

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Magnificent Medieval Münster

“Ah, excuse me?” I said to the naked man who just walked into the sauna. He spins around, muttering “yes?” and I can see it from the corner of my eye swinging like a grandfather clock, despite trying to look away.

“Do you mind? Cover yourself up please, we are in a public place.”

He responded in bad English. “In Germany, we are no clothes in Sauna, yes?” He seemed genuinely surprised at my discomfort. The first live penis I have ever seen just happened in a sauna in Germany, so surprised was the least of my emotions.

I love saunas. I join gyms that I know has one just to gain access to it, but in Australia we wear swimsuits and cover ourselves with towels. It was pointless trying to make a point about decency, I was after all in his country, so I quickly got up and left, speed-walking back to my hotel room to have a cold shower. The male form is pretty disgusting, although this eighty-something year old man was probably not the best visual introduction to it.

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On Love, King Suleiman, and the Old City of Istanbul

“Mum, he doesn’t speak English?” I sent on WhatsApp with a confused 😕 emoji face. She is trying to set me up as I prepare for my visit to Turkey.

“Sorry,” she responded (#sorrynotsorry). She is desperate to see her youngest daughter marry. Both my parents live in Adana and for them, love is simple, practical. “You complicate everything!” she often says. “You look too deep and think too much!” She  has never understood me when I say I am searching for love, someone that I love and respect, which is a pretty challenging feat given that my standards are almost biblical.

Maybe she is right, that maybe I think too much, but it seems like all the men I meet are liars, superficial and vain, and if not, cowardly and afraid of going against the grain of social cliches, my pessimism only deepened by those who, after being viciously sexist or violent, insincerely apologise before going on to pretend that they are feminists and congratulating themselves as though they are good people. It feels as though I will never meet a man I respect.

I switch off my phone and place it in my bag as I arrange my luggage in the overhead lockers on the plane, on my way to Istanbul. I hate flying. Short flights. Long-haul flights. I quit my job recently because it required me to regularly travel across Australia. This flight was particularly bad, as though the unpleasant and exhausted flight attendants believed that ignoring your requests with an indifferent smile was equal to customer service and I spent half the time worried I might do something wrong that would permit their wrath. Read More

On Friendship

I believe that the key to a good life all begins by understanding the nature of friendship. Friendship is tied by love and as I have iterated previously, my understanding of love is moral consciousness. There is only one type of love and that is we give love to all of humankind. Empathy. Respect. But, friendship is a relationship that is furthered by being responsive to another’ merits. While the depraved in our world become friends with those who make them look good and thus propelled by an underlying narcissism, genuine friendship is a relationship with who the other is, what the other person does (the fruits of their labour) and the decisions that they make in life. Read More

Belgian Chocolate… and other things

Worming my way through the crowds, the night now well and truly ready for the fireworks planned during the Flower Carpet festival. The theme? Mexico. The beautiful colours of yellow and orange light up the cobblestone centre of Grand-Place or Grote Markt in Brussels, where I had spent earlier that morning having breakfast observing the numerous trucks beeping in and out and unloading shipments of flowers.

I squirm my way past men holding their DSLRs and women tightly gripping the hands of their children, some holding beers and others eating. I look up at the City Hall balcony full of people, the building lit up with blue and green and pink and I don’t know how to get up there. They look unordinary; delegates, wealthy businessmen, women wearing gowns, that sort of thing, but the view from up there would be incredible. There is just too many people and I think that if the fireworks don’t start soon, I may want to head back out of the crowds and to the Le Comptoir de Mathilde for some Noix Noisettes, hot chocolate prepared in little square pieces with a spoon stuck inside that you simply dip into warm milk and mix so the chocolate melts into it. Read More

Film Review: Catch-22

Denial. Deep down most men are embarrassed at themselves and their condition, they know that they are unhappy, ashamed of the bad decisions that they have made that instead of admitting and changing, they continue, prolong, persevere until finally their efforts to convince others that they are happy makes them believe that they must be doing the right thing. He finally succumbs to madness.

Those of us who cling onto life, who value the goodness of justice and of righteousness, we see this madness everywhere, in everyone, the lies and falseness, the pretending, and despite the attempt to escape from the jaws of its hopelessness, the existential abyss is always ready to consume our every effort to channel moral goodness and what is right.

“Me: happy happy happy. Dead. You: worry worry worry. Dead. Don’t drag me into your shit.”

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