You should have empathy for bad people

Why we humans are empathic

Please take a discreet look at the people in your immediate vicinity and try to recognize their feelings. Can you read the looks on the tram? What do you see when you look around at the doctor's in the café or waiting room? Skeptical, curious, fearful, alert, bored, angry or amused looks? What do you feel when you notice someone is sad? How do you feel when you see an emotionally moving film or hear a poignant piece of music? Are you melting away? Well, then you've already won and, according to numerous, very simple tests that are circulating on the internet, you are empathetic.

Especially at Christmas time this causally human ability is appealed to, whereby the naturally positive word "compassion" is often equated with it. The Austrians are known to be donor-friendly and will probably be affected in view of the current tsunami disaster in Indonesia.

Empathy cannot be explained biologically as easily as we are used to from self-tests: In elephants, chimpanzees, ravens, mice and rats, one can observe quasi-sympathetic behavior, but by no means prove the ability to react sensitively due to the situation of a conspecific. The cognitive scientist Claus Lamm from the University of Vienna thinks that it is more about species-preserving behavior. In humans, it is already possible to demonstrate empathic reactions to fellow human beings, but even with them there is no center of any kind in the brain that one just has to switch on in the hard-hearted. Since empathy is the ability to recognize and empathize with other people's feelings, it activates in the head, which is also responsible for one's own feelings, says Lamm.

Feel pain

So if you perceive pain, then the insular cortex involved in pain processing is activated; if you feel the joy of your counterpart, the orbitofrontal cortex is active.

Of course, the question remains: Why is all of this so important? Evolutionary biologists have a very plausible explanation for the development of empathy: humans are not viable without them immediately after birth and use this passively learned ability in adulthood to have a basis for a social life in a complex world.

Empathy is therefore a prerequisite for cooperation, as the mathematician and science historian Karl Sigmund confirms. In game theory, which is relevant for the analysis of economic, social mechanisms, one must have an idea of ​​what the other player feels is favorable, he says. Sigmund refers to the famous "Prisoner's Dilemma", a mathematical game: Two people are accused of a crime and are interrogated separately from each other.

"To get out of here as a winner, you have to be able to predict how the other will behave," says Sigmund. "What people usually do very well." But is insight into what moves others already empathy? "It's the first stage of it," explains the mathematician. Only the next stage would be: "I feel with you." Because even the opposite of compassion - envy or malicious pleasure - presupposes insight into the situation of the other.

When a little heart almost explodes with joy

For Claus Lamm there is a wide range of emotions in response to another person's distinct sensations. An example: spectators laugh because they see a girl beaming with happiness and jumping for joy. His heroine, former first lady Michelle Obama, is just presenting her memoir Becoming met? Why are the people laughing in the background of the scene? Are you happy for the child? Or just for the simple reason that it's a funny situation?

In all considerations about empathy, however, politics also play a decisive role. Lamm believes that people are extremely dependent on their social environment. As a child he had "role models" in his parents, later he looked for these independently - and in doing so he might meet "world leaders" who skillfully manipulate him. You would address his feelings - including feelings such as fear of strangers.

Lamm analyzes that empathy for people in emergency situations can be suppressed because they are described as a group such as "the migrants", "the refugees", "the recipients of minimum income" and as a threat to social peace in their own country. From "Refugees welcome!" become "No refugees!", an excessive willingness to help turns into hatred. In both extremes you can see people's emotional immaturity.

High rush of compassion

In 2015, when large numbers of refugees came to Austria or Germany, many people were very empathetic. Where did that feeling go? Has the moral of this time been lost? One may be inclined to draw simple conclusions.

In any case, the philosopher Herlinde Pauer-Studer from the University of Vienna is skeptical that morality can be based on feelings and empathy, because "a high rush of compassion can turn in the other direction at any time". Pauer-Studer emphasizes that feelings are unsuitable as the basis for a social set of rules, "because they are not reliable and can be misused for political purposes".

For Pauer-Studer, the approach to morality represented by the Canadian philosopher David Gauthier, which ties in with Thomas Hobbes and the Scottish enlightener David Hume, is more convincing. Morality is therefore the sum of those conventions that result when we accept restrictions on unlimited egoistic utility maximization. Under the condition of socially given competition and scarcity of goods, people would, if they acted rationally, choose those rules that demand a concession that does not overburden them morally.

Such a rational decision lays down rules that create stable cooperation relationships, under which feelings of empathy and closeness to specific other people can develop. Normative institutions based on enlightened self-interest - in addition to morality, this also applies to the law - make it possible to balance people's natural partiality for their own benefit. And human rights find their place in such a framework. "Seen in this way, moral rights are normative parameters that we rationally agree on in the sense of a prosperous coexistence," says Pauer-Studer. And moral agreements and rules secured through people's own interests are more reliable than feelings in politically difficult times. (Peter Illetschko, December 24, 2018)