One of the themes that comes up a number of times in Freeman’s book, Gifted Lives, is morality. I’ve picked on this one to discuss, in preference to the others I haven’t so far touched on, because I have a quibble with her treatment of it.
For example, she picks up on the issue of moral character in her chapter on The Good Samaritan which tells Suzanne’s story. On the back of this story, she goes on to analyse the relationship between giftedness and empathy (pages 140-141):
The gifted, I suggest, have no greater claims to morality than anyone else, but what they do have is the capacity to intellectually understand moral conundrums in life and to perceive arguments for what they are, set in their social contexts. Suzanne practises a very high degree of Western morality, caring for others without obliging them to believe as she does.
She then makes a distinction that does not make complete sense to me (page 135):
Morality is as much a part of Suzanne as her gift of empathy. That is to say, she has principles by which she works, and at the same time a feeling for others with different views.
I need to unpick my unease with this distinction between morality and empathy. For a start, it seems more intuitively reasonable to see empathy as intertwined with morality rather than as something completely distinct, and this, for me, is not undermined by empathy – and its sister, compassion – being a feeling whereas morality is more language-locked, spelling out the ‘oughts’ which are underpinned by such fuzzy intimations as ‘fairness’ or ‘kindness.’
I’d like to take this further though. It will help if we start with Susan Neiman‘s discussion of Kant in her brilliant book, Moral Clarity (page 95):
Truth is a matter of the way the world is; morality is a matter of the way the world ought to be.
She is as aware an anyone, including Jonathan Haidt, that the idealism that stems from our sense of what ought to be can often be partially, and sometimes totally, lacking in empathy. He writes, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘, that, in his view, idealism, which he links with morality, has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).
The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.
Neiman tempers this with what for her is the other side of the coin (page 112):
. . . . contemporary suicide terrorists . . . are determined to kill others in the pursuit of their ideals. . . . . . But while focusing on the fundamentalist terrorists’ willingness to kill for ideals, we have paid to little attention to their willlingness to die for them.
The latter impulse she links to the desire for transcendence quoting Jessica Stern in support (page 113):
As odd as it sounds, a sense of transcendence is one of many attractions of religious violence for terrorists, beyond the appeal of achieving their goals.
So, there are clearly ways in which principles and values, abstractly conceived, can be antithetical to empathy and compassion. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy acknowledges that sometimes a client’s values are so different from the therapist’s that therapeutic work becomes impossible. This would presumably be the case in the unlikely event of a Western Liberal therapist treating a fundamentalist terrorist. It presumably does occur with the extremes of intractable narcissism and psychopathy.
In any case, I have come to prefer the word compassion because it has been pointed out that an effective torturer can use his ability to enter another person’s feeling state to enhance the pain.
Even when we see compassion at work, if the compass of the moral imagination is too narrow our compassion for one individual or group can cause us to inflict great cruelty on another. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the book more effectively than the ITV drama, spoke to this kind of complexity in human motivation and the entangled moral maze that can result.
It is probable, in the version of the story in Kate Summerscale’s book, that Constance Kent, the girl who finally confessed to the killing of her three-year old half-brother and who was aged 16 at the time of the murder, was motivated more by feelings of pity for what her younger brother, aged 14, had gone through than by some hatred of her own. Mr Kent had married again after the death of his first wife, and the children of his first marriage had apparently not fared well in the household of the second. William, the 14 year old, suffered the worst perhaps and Constance was very protective of him. It seemed almost certain that both Constance and William committed the crime together. Constance could never have done it alone.
At the original court hearing the case against her was thrown out, but six years later she confessed, insisting that she alone was responsible. Summerscale explains the likely reason for this delayed confession (page 301-302):
Though she had complained to her schoolfriends about how [William] was treated by Samuel and Mary [his father and stepmother] – the humiliating comparisons to Saville, the way he was made to push a perambulator around the village – she made no reference to this in 1865. She said of her father and stepmother, ‘I have never had any ill will towards either of them on account of their behaviour to me,’ carefully avoiding the ill will she might bear them on anyone else’s account. The answer to the mystery of Saville’s murder might lie in Constance’s silence after all; specifically, her silence about the brother she loved.
Constance gave herself up in the year before William’s twenty-first birthday, when he was due to inherit a £1,000 bequest from their mother. He hoped to use the money to fund a career in science, but was still hampered by the uncertainty and suspicion surrounding the family. Rather than both of them live under the cloud of murder, Constance chose to gather the darkness to herself. Her act of atonement liberated William, made his future possible.
So, it is obvious why empathy, and even compassion, in themselves, when divorced from some clear and wider standard, are not enough to ensure that cruel actions will not be committed and are therefore not the basis for a secure and adequate morality. But it is also true that all values are not good. How else would it be possible to say, ‘Evil be thou my Good’? Some compassion is far better than none, and some values are better than others. The question is how to ensure that receiving compassion is not conditional upon membership of an in-group and that values are not conducive to wrong-doing?
My own understanding, derived from Bahá’í scripture and supported by my reading of such searching thinkers as Robert Wright and Iain McGilchrist, is that only upon an unshakable sense of humanity as being one indivisible entity at the deepest level and upon our inextricable connection with all life, can a world enhancing morality be built. The best summary of all this entails comes probably in the statement from the Bahá’í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind:
The task of creating a global development strategy that will accelerate humanity’s coming-of-age constitutes a challenge to reshape fundamentally all the institutions of society. The protagonists to whom the challenge addresses itself are all of the inhabitants of the planet: the generality of humankind, members of governing institutions at all levels, persons serving in agencies of international coordination, scientists and social thinkers, all those endowed with artistic talents or with access to the media of communication, and leaders of non-governmental organizations. The response called for must base itself on an unconditioned recognition of the oneness of humankind, a commitment to the establishment of justice as the organizing principle of society, and a determination to exploit to their utmost the possibilities that a systematic dialogue between the scientific and religious genius of the race can bring to the building of human capacity. The enterprise requires a radical rethinking of most of the concepts and assumptions currently governing social and economic life. It must be wedded, as well, to a conviction that, however long the process and whatever setbacks may be encountered, the governance of human affairs can be conducted along lines that serve humanity’s real needs.
We have come rather a long way from considering whether the gifted are more likely to be moral than the rest of us, and where empathy comes into the equation. Even though Freeman was not centrally concerned with morality she did press an electrode somewhere in my brain when she made that comment about morality and empathy. I hope the tangled paths of thought it led me down have been of some interest to more people than just myself. Either way I feel a bit clearer on the issue, till the next time some button in my mind gets pressed.
There are other themes in her book that contribute to its interest. I summarised them in the first post in this series. I may come back to them at a much later stage. I have written quite enough already on this book, I think