Selective Morality and Empathy … Us vs. Them Dynamics

Under the right conditions, anyone can be deviltouched.  At no point is this more evident than during times of crisis.  Human morality, it seems, extends only so far and only to those in the “us group“, especially during troubled times when survival appears to be on the line.  Consider the current humanitarian crisis in the United States regarding free speech, free press, and police brutality.  Regardless of facts – which are few and far between – lines have been drawn according to demographics.  Polls are showing racial hatred on all sides.  Justice, a purely theoretical construct to begin with, will never be attained due to the polarizing nature of group dynamics.  Every group views themselves as infallible and correct.  Blood is wanted for the sake of the sweet taste of iron.  Fewer and fewer people care about truth – also a theoretical construct due to the failure of human perception and bias – so long as their side is victorious.  The “us” group and the “them” group are growing more and more distinct and membership is being mandated by physical and societal force.

People commit great atrocities in the name of such group dynamics – especially if they have more power than the other group.  Consider the Holocaust or any other genocide in which artificial walls were constructed between those with power and those without.  Consider the institutionalized power struggle regarding wealth in America.  Consider the war on religion by many atheists.  Consider this study.  Consider, especially, the disgust of the neurotypical toward the mentally atypical.  Hundreds of thousands of mentally ill roam the streets as homeless individuals, but few neurotypicals care considering that they’d rather have the ill out of sight and out of mind than deal with those who are different than them (note this is not entirely unlike a similar struggle held by homeless LGBT individuals).

Neurotypicals wish to claim that they hold the moral high ground over the psychopath.  They claim that their life is enriched by their ethical code and by their feelings of empathy.  Empathy toward in-group members merely exacerbates the differential between in-group and out-group members.  I’ve referred to this article before, but I believe it deserves reference again – especially in light of recent events.

On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.) But the appetite for retribution is typically indifferent to long-term consequences. In one study, conducted by Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov, people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Some were told that a higher fine would make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence.

The out-group is rendered prostrate by the overwhelming desires of the in-group – regardless of the claimed morality tied to empathy.  This is an especially important point.  Empathy does not lead to morality – empathy combined with group dynamics can lead to especially heinous or self-destructive behavior.  I am scared shitless by the idea of the combination of empathy and group dynamics for this very reason.  I am a relatively prosocial psychopath, however I am in the out-group of all neurotypicals.  The empathy NTs hold toward other NTs that are slighted by some psychopaths cause my head to arise in the crosshairs automatically – regardless of the morality of mass stigmata placed on those with my condition.

Since everyone is in the psychopath’s “them” group, I believe these dynamics are less apparent and less destructive for the psychopath.  We are amoral and we are opportunistic.  We hold no one in our in-group and thus we have no one to empathize with (not that we could, anyway) and to use to justify pain inflicted upon others.  If we inflict damage it is because it benefits and us and us alone.

I end this post with an interesting snippet from an article I read recently.  It sums up the relationship between empathy, morality, and group dynamics.  It deals with the psychology of cannibalism.

As expected, other species are highest on the menu list — although even they are consumed in a specific order. First to go are the food animals, which were brought along to provide beef, milk or eggs. Next are work animals (mules, horses). At that point, the group goes to great lengths to eat every conceivable part of the animal, even boiling their hides as a source of protein. Pets are the last animals to be consumed, due to their “social compact” with their human owners.

After all other species are depleted, the group moves on to humans. And here’s where xenophobia comes into play. Members of different races, foreigners — anyone who is deemed an “outsider” by the community — are consumed first. Consider the Donner Party that was stranded while traveling West in 1846-47. The only individuals who were killed for food were two Native American guides—despite the fact that they had contributed a great deal to keep the group alive. At one point, the guides had even obtained mules and some emergency supplies.

Also, the survivors of the Andes plane crash ate the corpses of the pilot and crew before consuming friends and family. This was because the pilot and crew were “outsiders” who hadn’t belonged to the community — a feeling that was made even stronger by virtue of the fact that the survivors blamed them for the plane crash. They had, in a sense, ostracized themselves by violating their social compact with the group.

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