Evil as the Absence of Empathy

We live in a world … hardened and distorted by hate. We communicate in the language of fear and violence. Human beings are no longer viewed as human beings. They are no longer endowed in our eyes, or the eyes of those who oppose us, with human qualities. They do not love, grieve, suffer, laugh or weep. They represent cold abstractions of evil. The death-for-death means we communicate by producing corpses.

— Chris Hedges

In 1946, Dr. Gustav M. Gilbert, a psychologist fluent in German, was assigned by the U.S. Army to study the minds and motivations of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg tribunals. The following year, his Nuremberg Diary was published, containing transcripts of his conversations with the prisoners. (Excerpts here).

In words consistent with what I have read of, and about, Gustav Gilbert, he is portrayed in the 2000 TV film Nuremberg, as telling the Head Prosecutor Robert Jackson (Alex Baldwin): “I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants: a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

“Absence of empathy” is likewise, I submit, “the one characteristic that connects” most of the immoral and misbegotten tenets of Bushism: that dogmatic mix of market absolutism, libertarianism, corporatism and simple greed that falsely describes itself as “conservatism,” and which I choose to call “regressivism.” “Absence of empathy” is the essence of evil which, if unchecked and unreversed, is certain to bring about the demise of the American republic as we know it, just as it led to the fall of the Third Reich.

In contrast, empathy, the capacity to recognize and cherish in other persons, the experience, emotions and aspirations that one is aware of in oneself, is the moral cornerstone of progressive politics. It is a principle recognized and taught in all the great world religions, reiterated by numerous moral philosophers, and validated by the scientific study of human personality.

Empathy is the foundation of the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. In that most-quoted New Testament verse, the golden rule, Jesus said: “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31, also Matthew 7:2). Also, “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39, also Leviticus 19;18). Both commandments imply recognition in others of the human dignity and worth that one recognizes in oneself. In a word, empathy.

The golden rule is echoed in the moral teachings of Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And as Mohamed taught in his last sermon, “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.” (Mohamed, last sermon). And Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, taught “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary.”

And yet, how much empathy is to be found among self-proclaimed “Christian” end-times preachers, such as James Hagee and Tim LeHaye, who eagerly anticipate “the rapture” and the eternal torment and damnation that awaits virtually all of humanity, as punishment for the sin of failing to agree with the preachers’ theology? How much empathy is evident in the late Jerry Falwell’s on-air remark to Wolf Blitzer, about Islamic militants, “If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord,” and Ann Coulter’s infamous outburst, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” Because they explicitly renounce Jesus’ injunction to “love thy enemies” these hate-mongers are, in a literal and moral sense, “anti-Christs.”

Regressivism and the Absence of Empathy

Empathy is conspicuously absent in the off-hand remarks of George Bush, his family, and his political allies. For example,

  • Bush himself, to an ordinary citizen after a campaign event: “Who cares what you think?” And to Bob Woodward: “History, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”
  • The President’s mother, Barbara Bush, on Good Morning America: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths. Oh, I mean, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” (March 18, 2003).
  • Dick Cheney, in an exchange with ABC reporter, Martha Raddatz:

Raddatz: Two-third of Americans say [the Iraq War] is not worth fighting.

Cheney: So?

Raddatz: So? You don’t care what the American people think?

Cheney: No….

  • John McCain: “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” And in response to the news that cigarettes are a major US export to Iran, McCain remarked that it might be “a way of killing ‘em.”
  • Former Senator Phil Gramm, economic advisor to John McCain, in an interview with the Washington Times, remarked that the American economy is in “a mental recession.: “We’ve sort of become a nation of whiners,” he added.

The foundational doctrines of regressivism are equally devoid of empathy. For example, Ayn Rand: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy.. the process of setting man free from men.” (The Fountainhead) And “Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” (The Virtue of Selfishness)

Furthermore, “economic Man” (Homo economicus), a central concept of neo-classical economic theory favored by regressives, is an uncompromising egoist, whose sole motivation is to “maximize personal utility” or “preference satisfaction.” A “perfect market” of fully informed, non-colluding, uncoerced “economic men,” free of government interference, the theory tells us, will invariably produce better results for all than any governmental system yet devised. Never mind that “economic man” and “the perfect market” are fictions, that never have been and never can be realized in any human society. (For a defense of this claim, see my “Beautiful Theory vs. Baffling Reality”).

The unfounded yet undiminished right-wing faith in the “wisdom” of the free-market and in the superiority of the pursuit of individual “utility maximization” as the engine of social progress, was starkly summed up by “Gordon Gekko” (Michael Douglas) in the 1987 movie, Wall Street: “Greed … is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

In fact, history teaches us that greed is not good, and greed does not work. Homo economicus is, in fact, a moral monster, for he is a being devoid of empathy and even of conscience. A mere bundle of “consumer preferences” can not add up to personhood, much less moral agency. When greed (call it “the profit motive”) reigns supreme, “others,” be they employees or fellow citizens, are reduced to impersonal objects. If these “others” are employees, they are regarded as units of “human capital” to be replaced by less costly “units” (e.g. “outsourced”) whenever possible. And if they are fellow citizens, they are prospective customers, to be relieved through “creative marketing” of their disposable wealth. Human, social, environmental “external costs” be damned. Witness the tobacco industry.

A “society” of private, egoistic, “utility maximizers,” devoid of empathy and unregulated by law and popular government, without shared values, loyalties and aspirations, is no society at all. It is a Hobbesian state of nature – a “war of all against all,” wherein life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan

As we are now discovering, to our great regret and sorrow.

Progressivism and Empathy

In stark contrast, empathy — awareness of the needs, sufferings, aspirations, rights, and dignity of others — is the unifying theme of the progressive agenda, and of the history of political/economic liberalism (in the traditional sense of the word). The elite and wealthy delegates to the Continental Congress, when they demanded recognition of their rights, did not fail at that time to acknowledge the rights of all persons:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

True, at the outset the full “rights” of citizenship were restricted to white, male, landowners. But through time and constant struggle, those rights were extended to include all adult citizens, regardless of gender, race or creed. These struggles, which continue today, were led by “liberals,” and resisted by self-described “conservatives.”

Joe Conason eloquently describes these struggles and achievements:

If your workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if you enjoy a forty-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to protect your rights — you can thank liberals. If your food is not poisoned and your water is drinkable — you can thank liberals. If your parents are eligible for Medicare and Social Security, so they can grow old in dignity without bankrupting your family — you can thank liberals. If our rivers are getting cleaner and our air isn’t black with pollution; if our wilderness is protected and our countryside is still green — you can thank liberals. If people of all races can share the same pubic facilities; if everyone has the right to vote; if couples fall in love and marry regardless of race; if we have finally begun to transcend a segregated society — you can thank liberals. Progressive innovations like those and so many others were achieved by long, difficult struggles against entrenched power. What defined conservatism, and conservatives, was their opposition to every one of those advances. The country we know and love today was built by those victories for liberalism — with the support of the American people.Big Lies, p. 3.

That public support and the consequent liberal reforms issued from empathy: from the awareness throughout the general public that oppressed minorities and economically and educationally disadvantaged individuals, possess the same sentiments, needs, aspirations and rights that more fortunate citizens recognized in themselves.

Regressivism as Psychopathology

Empathy is never totally absent in any functioning human being. A recognition that other persons with whom one deals have functioning minds with ideas, emotions, and aspirations is implicit in game playing, in negotiations, and even ordinary conversation. Self awareness, even that of a thoroughly egoistic, narcissistic and sociopathic self, can only arise out of childhood interaction with others. The self is a social construct.

Thus even such sociopaths as George Bush and Dick Cheney will acknowledge that the bombs dropped on Iraq cause “collateral damage” and thus profound suffering to innocent civilians. They likewise are aware of the suffering in New Orleans caused by the mismanagement of the Katrina disaster. They are, after all, at least minimally sane. Such an awareness of others that is also devoid of feeling we might call “abstract empathy.” The misery to innocent others that they cause simply does not matter to the Busheviks. They do not care, unless these moral atrocities exact political costs to themselves.

This “abstract empathy” is not the sort of “empathy” that Dr. Gustav Gilbert found absent among the Nuremberg defendants. The empathy that he had in mind combines awareness with feelings of concern and with respect for the rights and integrity of the other.

In contrast, the regressivism of the Bush-Cheney administration would have us ignore the economic, social and environmental consequences of unregulated commerce, and also have us dismantle Social Security, impoverish public education, tolerate inadequate health care for millions of our fellow citizens, abolish fundamental constitutional rights, and engage in aggressive wars against unthreatening countries, all of this with minimal regard for the human misery caused by these policies. To do all this, requires a deliberate stifling of feelings of empathy, and what David Hume called the “natural moral sentiment” of benevolence: a genuine concern for the well-being of others.

Regressives who support such policies are, at worst, simply amoral: without moral restraint, “rotten to the core.” At best, they are profoundly mistaken: possibly fundamentally decent individuals, trustworthy, law-abiding, charming friends, devoted spouses and parents, but bewitched by false dogmas. The former are, by and large, beyond redemption and are best isolated from political influence and from positions of public responsibility. The latter might be amenable to evidence and rational persuasion.

How can such an ideology captivate and take political control of a nation once renowned and admired for its generosity and compassion and for its devotion to democracy and human rights?

In part, the rise and dominance of regressivism is the result of a deliberate and opulently funded public relations campaign, supported for the past forty years by wealthy individuals and corporations. This campaign included the establishment of ideological “think tanks” such as The American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the abolition of The Fairness Doctrine and the consolidation of most of the mass media into six “conservative” mega-conglomerates, enormous expansion of corporate lobbying of Congress, and a vastly increased corporate involvement in campaign financing, of both major parties. With conservative Republicans in control of the White House for all but eight of the past twenty-eight years, the federal courts have become dominated by right-wing judges.

With these formidable propaganda resources, the resurgent Right has exploited “natural sentiments” equally fundamental to human nature as empathy; namely, ethnocentrism (identification with and loyalty to “our group”) and its negative complement, xenophobia (fear, distrust, and hatred of “outsiders”). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 intensified these prejudices, objectifying and depersonalizing the new enemy (so-called “Islamo-Fascists”) while, at the same time, neutralizing empathetic sentiments toward the residents of these “alien” nations.

With the captive media exploiting and intensifying public fear of “terrorism,” the Bush regime formulated, and the intimidated Congress readily assented to, assaults upon our traditional civil liberties such as the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, and now the revised FISA Act.

Finally, regressivism feeds upon greed: the relentless corporate drive for still more profits and political control, and the perpetual cultivation of consumer demand by the multi-billion dollar advertising and public relations industries.

But greed is pitiless and blind to the side effects (“externalities”) of the unconstrained appetite for the consumption of consumer goods and for profit: effects such as poverty, pollution, disease, and the “collateral damage” of war upon innocent civilians.

A political economy based upon unregulated greed has been tried numerous times in the past, and has failed in each and every occasion: the French and Russian Revolutions, the era of the robber barons in the late Nineteenth Century, the Great Depression of the Thirties. They failed because when greed rules, the nation’s wealth inevitably flows from those who produce the wealth to those who own and control the wealth until, eventually, the toleration of the increasingly miserable masses for this economic injustice collapses, and the oligarchic regime is overthrown.

Once again, regressivism is on the brink of collapse.

  • Time magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation reported last week that 85% of US population is unhappy with the US economy.
  • In April, 80% of Americans believed that the “country is moving in the wrong direction.”
  • “During the first six months of 2008, 343,159 Americans lost their homes, up 136% from 145,696 recorded during the same period in 2007.” (CNNMoney.com).
  • An alarming and under-reported increase in unemployment and inflation is underway. (US government cost of living statistics do not include food and fuel prices).
  • The latest Gallup Poll reports that Democratic party affiliation leads Republican by ten points (47% to 37%).
  • George Bush’s approval ratings are at an all-time low at 28% (disapproval from 61%-69%).

This public sentiment should suffice to overthrow any regime that maintains power “with the consent of the governed” and subject to recall by election. Under normal circumstances, these statistics would indicate a landslide repudiation of the regime in the coming national election.

But these are not normal circumstances, for this regime is supported by a formidable array of resources: virtually unlimited financial support, a captive media including a cadre of right-wing pundits, a proven ability to rig elections along with a refusal of the media to investigate and report election fraud, oppressive laws, a ruthless GOP campaign organization unconstrained by facts, fair-play, or even on occasion, by the law. All these resource might once again overwhelm the “consent of the governed,” and prolong the regressive regime for another four or even eight years. But eventually, it must fall. The longer it holds on, the greater the misery and repression that will ensue, and the more violent the eventual overthrow.

Best to end it now.

But it will take an extraordinary effort by an overwhelming number of ordinary citizens to bring it off. There are no guarantees.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin and is the co-editor of The Crisis Papers. His e-mail is: gadfly@igc.org. Read other articles by Ernest, or visit Ernest's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Giorgio said on July 26th, 2008 at 5:39pm #

    Excellent article!
    A valuable addition to other forerunners, like:

    1) Beware the Psychopath, Son by Clinton Callahan
    2) The trick of the Psychopath’s trade by Silvia Cattori
    3) Twilight of the Psychopaths by Kevin Barrett
    4) Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil by Andrew

    As the article concludes:

    “All these resource (i.e. psychopathic resourcefulness) might once again overwhelm the “consent of the governed,” and prolong the regressive regime for another four or even eight years. But eventually, it must fall. The longer it holds on, the greater the misery and repression that will ensue, and the more violent the eventual overthrow.

    Best to end it now.

    But it will take an extraordinary effort by an overwhelming number of ordinary citizens to bring it off. There are no guarantees.”

    And the only Sane Person I see in the immediate horizon that could bring it off is: RON PAUL!!

  2. Richard W. Posner said on July 26th, 2008 at 11:22pm #

    This is doubtless one of the finest essays I have read in a very long time. It does an amazing job of pulling together numerous aspects of the cycle which human history has followed since Cro-Magnon overwhelmed Neanderthal.
    The author recognizes the fact that those who obsessively seek unlimited wealth and power are without empathy, they simply do not care. This is so accurate and so clearly at the root of human suffering. It is almost as if there was a recessive but persistent gene, coded for evil, which evolution has been unable to select out in spite of its obvious negative implications for the survival of the human species.
    The responsibility for the catastrophic state we now face, which includes the climate induced extinction event we have triggered, is placed squarely where it belongs, in the lap of “that dogmatic mix of market absolutism, libertarianism, corporatism and simple greed that falsely describes itself as “conservatism,” and which I choose to call “regressivism.” These are the carriers of the recessive gene I imagined above and the author is absolutely correct to group these various disciplines together. I have come to think of them as the “Supremacists”. Throughout history they have risen repeatedly and repeatedly been beaten down only to later rise again. Their goal is to live in a world with two races of people, the Master Race and the slaves. Their philosophy, taken to its logical extreme, is simply the last one alive is the winner.

  3. DavidG. said on July 27th, 2008 at 12:02am #

    That greed is a moral cancer is beyond dispute. That we live in a fragmenting world that worships greed is beyond dispute. That the few control the many for their own ends is beyond dispute.

    That we humans will bring about our own demise is also beyond dispute.

    Hopefully it will come soon!

  4. Donald Hawkins said on July 27th, 2008 at 12:18pm #

    Thank you Ernest great writting and let’s not give up just yet.

  5. Donald Hawkins said on July 27th, 2008 at 5:27pm #

    I watched the Senate the last few day’s and childlike is a good word and not to bright is another way of looking at it. In the face of human civilization standing a very good chance 99 to 1 that we will not be here in a hundred years unless we make choices now and what I saw on the floor of the senate was not empathy or even common sense but this childlike way of thinking using words and ideas that a child would use when faced with a problem

  6. Bob said on July 28th, 2008 at 5:01pm #

    What a piece! Long winded, not a single rational thought, utterly devoid of intellect, childish. Need I go on?

    I could have written this piece in in a few words.

    Bush, Cheney,corporations and the neocons are evil, and their followers are stupid.

    There you have it, every thing else you wrote was drivel. Speaking truth to power takes courage. What you do is call people names who won’t retaliate. What you do is easy, you risk nothing. Go to Burma and openly criticize the regime (without the expectation that the US will intervene to protect you). If you don’t like Burma, pick Saudi Arabia, pick Southern Lebanon and criticize Hezbolla, the Gaza strip and Hamas, I seriously doubt you’d have the courage. You’d be risking your life, and I doubt you would be willing to do that!

    Lastly your knowledge of economics and history are a joke.

  7. AE said on July 28th, 2008 at 9:18pm #

    Bob, you are a moron. Touche, eh? Incidentally, I’ve been in southern Lebanon and criticized Hezbollah in very friendly and civil discourse. Try to understand the article before you display your vast ignorance.

  8. Bob said on July 29th, 2008 at 5:53am #

    AE, cute response.
    Oh by the way I think your not telling the truth about Lebanon. But if you did, talking amongst friends and becoming a public critic are two different things. If you did go to Lebanon, you must be sympathetic to Hezbollah, and politely criticizing a friend, is not quite advocating their demise. My point stands it’s easy to publicly call someone like VP Cheney evil, you have nothing to fear. But fighting real evil, like Hezbollah, or Hamas that takes courage. Which is what you don’t have!

    Secondly if you can’t recognize that the article is filled with drivel, then who is the ignorant one?


  9. JBPM said on July 29th, 2008 at 11:09am #


    Why is it whenever an American criticizes Cheney or Bush, folks like you immediately castigate us for not criticizing a foreign leader? First of all, isn’t it possible to do both? And secondly, as an American, my first responsibility is to criticize MY OWN government, particularly because that government is ostensibly one that is “of, for, and by” me and the rest of the American people.

    And now that we have Americans being killed because they are “liberal” (i.e., the Tennessee Valley UU Church shooting) can we please end the bullshit about being able to speak our minds without having anything to fear? Thanks to a decade of rhetoric painting all of us who question and criticize the government as TRAITORS and TERRORISTS, our ability to question and criticize without fear has been eroded. That was the point, though, wasn’t it?

  10. Richard Posner said on July 29th, 2008 at 10:01pm #

    Bob is a Troll. His kind is best ignored. He has no intention of engaging in any intelligent or rational discussion with anyone. It seems impossible to find any progressive websites that are not plagued by these willfully ignorant bottom feeders. Their only purpose in posting is to cause disruption in otherwise useful discussion and debate. By responding to his provocations you give him exactly what he wants. Disregard him completely.

    “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

  11. Brian Koontz said on July 30th, 2008 at 6:12am #

    The Bush regime may fall (through it’s heir McCain), but it makes little difference. The Left has already lost the war against the elite for control of the American people – they will either vote for McCain or Obama. Either will result in a corporatist imperialist monstrosity. Both candidates are receiving vast corporate funding because they serve those interests.

    Focusing on “taking down Bush” is sad and ineffective. Either fundamental changes to the American system (as well as others) will take place or the world is doomed.

  12. Richard Posner said on July 30th, 2008 at 9:49pm #

    I can see no good coming from or to America in the foreseeable future. Put a fork in it, it’s done.


    “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.”

  13. Giorgio said on August 1st, 2008 at 7:50pm #

    Thank you, RP, for the link. I have posted my petition to end the rule of the World by these PSYCHOPATHS…
    Furthermore, I would suggest in this petition that the UN headquarters should be moved out of New York permanently, and placed in some other Nation, eg. South Africa.