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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Ibn Hazm: On The Sensation Of Love

 Love exercises an effective authority, a decisive sovereignty over the soul! 

Its commands cannot be opposed, its ordinances may not be flouted, its rule is not to be transgressed. It demands unwavering obedience, and against its dominion there is no appeal.

Love untwists the firmest plaits, and looses the tightest strands. It dissolves that which is most solid, undoes that which is most firm. It penetrates the deepest recesses of the heart and makes lawful things most strictly forbidden. 

For Rene Descartes, existence can be explained by the Cogito or ‘I think therefore I am’ and that despite no real guarantee that our perceptions of reality are authentic, the mere fact that we have a thought is enough to prove that we exist. However, the authenticity of this ‘thought’ or the reality of our perceptions and beliefs are indeed more relevant than a mere mental transaction, otherwise what is existence if we simply absorb and repeat information like mindless drones?

For me, existence is only real through love or moral consciousness, that the mind and body – extension and thought – as two distinct entities merge when we experience empathy. Unity is impossible without first separating yourself and like a switch, we are awakened to begin individually experiencing the external world and thus uniting with it. However, our socially constructed understanding of love enable people to posture archetypes of love and undermine the authenticity of the experience.

These sensations of experience are merely reflections of our own subjective reality and until we become conscious of why we experience those sensations, not only are we not essentially ‘alive’ but we are not experiencing love. Would Ibn Hazm agree? Read More

On Cowardice: The Crowd is an Untruth

It is no secret that I find cowardice repulsive and it can manifest in many ways; bystanders who watch others being abused and do nothing, liars who deceitfully apologise or simply excuse their bad behaviour by pretending there is some justification for it. They see existence as merely convincing people of what they are rather than confronting what they really are, a power-struggle where some cry to maintain power and control, others becoming fiercely angry all in an attempt to persuade others to believe what they want them to believe.

I find myself thinking that such people cannot be saved, that they have become so alienated from their own moral integrity that their social deception has evolved into self-deception; they now believe their faux image is reality. I have been tactful enough to make such people choose to keep their distance from me because, frankly, telling them directly only leads to trouble, but am I being too harsh when I say that they have no chance and are digging their own grave?

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On Trust: Book of Proverbs

Society is built on a network of social connections and these connections between people are secured together with trust. There are a great many liars, people who play social games to appear more moral than what they are and so it is easy for one to convince of their trustworthiness without any merit. Much like apologies, words like ‘you can trust me’ can be said, however trust itself is more than just words. It is tied to actions and built over a period of time, thus trust is practical and applied.

There are inherent risks when one trusts and these dangers are articulated in the preventative measures we take – such as controlling or watching movements – in order to mitigate the risk of betrayal. We do not have any way of guaranteeing authenticity of these connections and thus central to all of our interactions involves trust. We are vulnerable because we are removed from authority and the power to hold others accountable, which in ethical terms is a complex dynamic.

However, is trust merely an instrument that enables this implicit ‘cooporation’ where connections involve logical tests to confirm the trustworthiness of others, or is it possible to believe these connections are authentically true without holding to any evidential reason?

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Love: Time and Consciousness

According to Descartes, the behaviour of non-human animals are automaton and driven by physical responses. Humans have the cognitive capacity to experience the external world consciously, but there is a moment where – from a child who develops his automatic behavioural responses through social and environmental interaction in a determined landscape – transcends to form an ability to become self-aware, a mind now enabled with consciousness. Read More