Human Empathy as a Primary Source for Peace and Justice

The United States has reverted to a nativist approach to national and international politics. Moving towards this militaristic stance belies our long evolutionary history regarding the role our genes play in developing human empathy. Especially since peace rather than war and violence has been shown to be more fundamental to human life and more rooted in our earliest childhood and species development. Many respected social scientists have studied our ability to be empathetic towards one another, what they’ve found is that this hardwiring for compassion is deeply embedded into our human consciousness.

Fortunately, science shows us that we are fully ready for a better world. Not only can humans be empathetic, but that the hardwiring for empathy has played and continues to play an evolutionary role in our existence as a species. The foundation of lasting peace begins and ends with our ability to be empathetic. That is, if we can walk in each other’s shoes because we share so much experience and sameness, then we can limit the fear and anger related to our cultural and physical differences. Empathy is not only a foundation for peace it should also be a cornerstone of activism for social justice as well.

We’d be foolish not to recognize that there are many governments and nations that create policies which harm their citizens and non-citizens alike. The litany of human rights abuses are many, from denying access to healthcare, education, voting rights, the willful destruction of cultural identity and covertly or overtly performing numerous forms of ethnic cleansing. These ills lead to ongoing violence and a less safe world. However, if one reads the research of modern scholars such as Paul Bloom, Phil Zuckerman, and Steven Pinker, we can reasonably understand that civil societies that highlight empathy or have at their foundation a recognition of the greater good, enjoy the greatest social freedoms while at the same time produce government policies that support human justice.

Both Bloom and Pinker each have written extensively about our states of empathy. They’ve shown that our biology, acting though the basis of conscious social good, that we can be better then the pain and suffering caused by state sanctioned injustice or violence.

Bloom’s fundamental research with babies show that we have an innate knowledge of what can be best characterized as both sympathy and empathy starting in the earliest stages of psychological development. In Pinker’s fascinating research, he has shown that through our later evolution that he human genome has indeed been modified for less aggression. Such a decrease in aggression has helped human society even if there are states which even today still foment violence or social unrest.

Bloom’s findings are intriguing because they focus on four fundamental areas of early human thought, motivation and emotion related to morality and ethics. Unlike the doctrine which states we are born into sin, we may, in fact, be born into what can be considered evolutionary kindness. The first fundamental area of development is what Bloom describes as moral judgment, which gives babies the capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions.

The second area focuses on both empathy and compassion as Bloom’s insights show that even infants understand the pain caused by suffering of those around them and they have a desire to make this pain go away. In early child development, Bloom notes there is a rudimentary sense of fairness and a tendency to favor those who divide resources equally. By the second year of life, we have an exquisite sensitivity to situations where someone gets more than someone else. Finally, Bloom’s research shows that we have an innate rudimentary sense of justice, which highlights a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished.

From the perspective of a fundamental understanding of genetics and empathy development within a current and historical context, there is substantial documented evidence to support the idea that we indeed can be better than what our past dogma or trends towards fascism tells us.

It also appears that humans can act with goodness towards each other simply by highlighting and fostering this internal motivation for ethical fairness. Especially since so many of the planet’s current problems – from political and ethnic violence to violence against women, are based on some form of interpreting one’s experience and cultural history as justification for harming others.

Once we use external philosophy or other doctrine to identify others as less worthy we leave our common humanity in mothballs while simultaneously create self-fulfilling and self-destructive patterns that often lead to the acceptance of injustice as normalized behavior.

The biblical observation that peacemakers should be blessed and favored is not without merit. Indeed, such recognition has immense value for those who use their faith in the social quest for justice. But it isn’t necessarily exclusive or true that though religious faith that our species can or will be empathetic or peaceful. Not while so much violence and injustice can be traced to the teaching and dogmas of numerous theological traditions and their allied governments.

In Phil Zuckerman’s seminal work, Society without God: what the least religious nations tell us about contentment, he shares how many northern European nations which are secular in nature are the most peaceful both internally and externally. Their citizens feel safe, secure and believe that justice, access to health services and education are shared and equally distributed.  Such feelings of justice in turn create a cycle of social checks and balances that allow these nations to maintain social order through empathetic and fair social policies. This in turn supports human and civil rights which can indeed serve as a model for both empathy and justice around the globe.

In my own research on human empathy and social activism, I have found thousands of people who reject the idea of the divine, but are still motivated to do good in the name of social and environmental justice as well as human rights. Such nontheistic good work is indeed global. These activists are supporting communities in need; building drinking wells in Africa, saving the rain forests in South America, ensuring that religious and non-religious minorities have equal protection under international law across Europe and the Middle-East. They’re also working with prisoners in the U.S. and the UK, are healing the disabled in Asia, and are teaching children in war zones how to read. All to ensure hope remains a commodity that fosters compassion and peace in generations to come.

This does not mean one should reject a faith-based view of making the world better, it just means that if we look beyond both a faith perspective and “inter-faith” dialog, that there are many ways to do the work of peace and justice. Just as there are many ways to be kind and generous to others with or without specific religious belief or the generally accepted idea that only through theology can we be spiritual or good humans.

Science shows us that our intrinsic ability to be empathetic is hardwired. This empathy is indeed the basis of peace and understanding. Developing the human psychology for peace means that we change our social institutions, how we maturate and educate our children and how we ultimately view one another as members of the same human family.

It is this though empathic recognition, anciently adapted and through modernity socially instilled, that we can make the world a better and more peaceful place. Where we can seek and define justice not for one, or the many but for all. After all, an injustice somewhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Knowing and acting on this, while also recognizing our internal human capacity for empathy is essential for making the world safer, richer and kinder, irrespective of our personal experiences, ideas and motivations for peace.

What science has shown is that peace does not begin with the political. It begins with the personal. Humans are a social primate and as such we create ideas, philosophies and cultures, which are the result of millions of years of biological and social adaptation to our environment. For peace to flourish, it must be cognitively understood and accepted that using empathy rather than violence to resolve conflicts is the best-case scenario for our survival as a global people.

Once we realize how deeply empathy is ingrained in our human development, we can reject the voices and philosophies that move us towards militarism, tribalism and nativism. Those who work for peace do so without needing to justify their actions, however, those who make war or carry out human rights abuses certainly do so by denying our common genetic heritage to do good in favor of short-term social-economic or political dominance.

We should use what we are learning from our innate empathy, and from the social movements that teach empathy that both spiritual and secular activism strengthens our determination to be the best our instincts have to offer. In this case, we are building a powerful anti-violence and anti-war movement our local, state and national leadership should heed. Moving towards a march to war is pointless as the justification for conflict is at once illegitimate and also denies our common humanity. Such lust for war generates more wounded, killed and brings new levels of distrust and hatred against the United States.

Thumbnail image courtesy of David Goehring.

Dr. David Orenstein serves as the American Humanist Association’s representative to the United Nations through the DPI/NGO program. Dr. Orenstein is a full professor and Deputy Chairperson within the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at Medgar Evers College (CUNY). He is a national and international speaker on issues related to the freethought movement. As an anthropologist and scholar, his current writings focus on the history of evolutionary science as well as producing ethnography related to the role Humanist and non-theistic communities in the U.S. and around the globe play in civil and human rights activism. As an ordained Humanist clergy and human rights activist, he is published in academic journals and is an ongoing contributor to print and online magazines.
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