Tag Archives: human wellbeing

Limits to my Empathy

Whatever source or imperatives a person wishes to attribute to her/his personal ethics, I believe the one thing we can all readily agree on is that the ability to empathize with others–i.e. being able to see an issue from another person’s perspective–is an indispensable component of any practical moral framework (unless you want to be clever and claim that your moral framework is not to have any empathy towards others; to which I say, touché good sir/madam, but I hope you’ll still agree that it would be best for your continued existence if other people at least feel some level of empathy towards your person, especially when they decide not to callously kill you on sight).

Like most people, if asked I would rate myself as a very empathetic person.  I would even compile a list of all the empathetic things I do for others in my daily life, because, in some sense, being selflessly courteous is often accompanied with the selfish interest to be acknowledged for one’s good deeds (even if we go out of our way to deny and suppress this egocentric impulse to our conscious selves).  I also happen to be of the opinion that when it comes to people who are not afflicted with any sort of crippling mental disorder (referring to those who honestly lack the mental faculties to have any reasonable degree of responsibility for their actions), just about everyone is empathetic to a large extent (though the means by which this empathy is expressed often various from person to person).

No, I do not believe that people are inherently good and generous.  Nor do I believe that we’re inherently bad or apathetic.  I see human behavior as largely adaptive to its varied environments.  This means I see no necessary contradiction in a man being a loving husband and father in one instant, and a murderer in another; different situations (different environments) tend to yield different results and behaviors for many of us (albeit such overly dramatic dichotomies in behavior are rather rare for most of us).

When I see someone hurt on the street, I’ll offer my help.  When I see stray cats or dogs wondering around hungrily, I’ll leave food and drink on my patio for them to find.  I empathize with parents who wish to see their children come home safely at the end of each school day.  All of this is innate, instinctive, to my conscience.  However, it’s also all local to my existence.  Because when I see a TV ad urging me to make a small, financially negligible, donation for a starving child oversees, I do feel a deep concern for the bruised faces shown on the screen, but I never feel any great moral obligation to make a donation.  The fact that a large portion of the clothing and luxury items I enjoy are assembled by exploited workers, in ethically questionable conditions, makes me cynical of the economic system I’m contributing to with my purchases, but it ultimately doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the luxuries any less (and purchasing more when I need to; thereby directly sustaining the vicious cycle).  So, while I actively care about moral situations that lie in my immediate proximity, I only abstractly care about all the more numerous moral dilemmas that lie outside of my personal interactions.  Which is to say, I don’t really care at all, because to only empathize with something on principle–without being willing to engage the issue in question with real, tangible solutions–is the equivalent of doing nothing at all (other than to inflate my egocentric sense of personal impeccability).  I’m aware of this moral shortcoming on my part, and the ethically indefensible position of my “apathetic-empathy”, yet, I still don’t really care enough to bother changing my behavior.  In truth, I only care about the fact that I don’t care about not really caring on any meaningful level.  And, although it sounds self-serving to say, I’m convinced that this is a common sentiment among most people (in particular those of us residing in what is commonly referred to as the first world).

My point isn’t to encourage people to do more about the sufferings and injustices in the world.  In my honest opinion, quite a few people who care strongly about a humanitarian issue end up becoming so engrossed in the presumed righteousness of their position they let their empathy and passion cloud their objectivity and rationality (I offer the various sociopolitical movements of the 19th and 20th Century as an example of this problem).  I simply want to acknowledge a fact about my character that, while not admirable in any sense, appears to be impermeable to any sincere change.  And I haven’t figured out yet, whether or not I really care about this fact.

Depression Impression

This is a topic I have been wanting to touch on for some time, but usually found myself pausing as it proved difficult to articulate what essentially comes down to a concerned observation on my part.  (I suppose one could consider this post an attempt to verbalize a matter that’s been unsettling me in hope that it will make more sense once I finally manage to focus it together in a coherent prose.)

Throughout the years of schooling and tutoring, I have noticed several trends and patterns emerging.  Notwithstanding the ever-fluid fashion sense of adolescent youths, a concerning trend I repeatedly take note of is how as time goes by the number of people being prescribed antidepressants continues to increase exponentially.  This trend is also true of colleagues, supervisors, family members, close friends, and casual acquaintances.  And demographic studies seem to confirm my observation that it is indeed the case that over the last three decades the number of people being treated for depression, and prescribed antidepressant, has continuously risen (at least in the U.S.) with no signs of leveling off.

One possible explanation for this is that only recently people have been willing to seek proper treatment for their depression than ever before, which would make the increase in prescribed antidepressants a positive development as it indicates that a greater number of individuals in need of medical/psychiatric care are receiving it.  However, although I would love nothing more than to wholeheartedly embrace this optimistic outlook on the observed trend, I can’t help but feel that it serves to overlook a rather important anomaly in the pattern:  namely, if there are now more people than ever seeking and receiving treatment for their depression, why is the rate of depression at a seemingly never-ending rise?  In other words, if we are being proactive by treating depression head-on, shouldn’t we see a correlating decrease in depression with the increase of prescribed antidepressants (i.e. the exact opposite of the trend we’ve been seeing over the last 20-30 years)?

As a point of preemptive clarity I feel the need to state how I hope this post doesn’t come across as the scribbling of an internet conspiracy theorist, raving against “Big Pharma” and “the ills of modern medicine”.  I also feel somewhat silly having to actually say this, but (again, just for clarity’s sake) I’m not opposed to medications, or vaccinations, or hospitals, and I have no issue giving due credit to the advent of modern medical science as an irrefutable component that has shaped the overall rise in improved health for the large segment of the globe that has enjoyed it for the better part of over a century.  But none of this has anything to do with the issue that is blatantly staring at me when it comes to depression and the increased dependency on antidepressants I see with the people around me (which seems to mirror the data gathered on the national population as a whole).  Furthermore, given this observed trend, I can’t help but ask myself to at least consider that something important is being overlooked.  Perhaps the possibility exists that it might not always be the depression itself that is the causal depressor to the afflicted individual; that, in at least some of these cases, the depression itself is a psychological response to an unaddressed stress factor that’s being overlooked because we are more content with just medicating people and sedating them into bliss, rather than considering the possibility that a deeper–possibly environmental or societal–problem exists here.

Like I said before, I am not an opponent to medicine or medication, but I can’t ignore the fact that I keep seeing more and more people around me resorting to antidepressants to treat their distress, with no apparent long-term plan or indication for these pills to actually subside and eliminate the cause of their depression.  What I’m saying is that if we are going to numb a portion of people’s neurological senses, we better be damn sure that what we are doing is actually treating the cause of people’s suffering, rather than just assume we’re on the right track and continue to prescribe medication that is simply not bringing about the expected result (i.e. actually reducing the number of people afflicted with depression).

The Canard of Potential

It often seems that there are some people who no matter how hard their life gets, no matter how much they are repeatedly exploited by the entities that surround them, never fail to keep moving forward through their suffering and humiliation; focusing on nothing else but a private conviction that somehow future circumstances will provide the means by which they will escape their lowly situation.

It is popularly referred to as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit to always advance forward against the hostile odds of life.  And many individuals proudly carry the torments of their life’s struggles as badges of honor.  However, despite the endless amount of cheer and hoot about how such determination is always deserving of the utmost praise from all factors of society, it can’t go without notice that those who cheer and hoot the loudest about the great virtuousness of the lowly man are almost always those who stand well above his “noble” rank.  To put it in another way: it seems very strange to me how it’s those who wield the most power and influence, in (at least) the public sphere of the sociopolitical scene, who are the most vocal about their sympathies for all those in society who are by default the most powerless.  I would think that if the status of the impoverished and voiceless was so admirable to the socially affluent, the latter would be doing more to bring themselves to the former’s virtuous level.

The rhetoric of elected officials is easy to understand in this matter; they need to get elected, to get elected they need votes from the electorate, the people are the electorate, hence the politician will praise the virtue of the common people from dawn ’till dusk (except those people who lie outside of his/her political base of course , they can thoroughly go to hell for all anyone cares).  But it isn’t just politicians who follow this “virtue of the lowly” narrative, it is just about every information source operating.  And the one thing that is constantly being reiterated is how those who may be at the bottom now need not worry, because as long as they work, and sweat, and struggle, they will eventually have the opportunity to escape their status–they have potential.  They have the potential to do better, to become more, to achieve something, to be masters of their own destiny.  And those for whom the message is meant to resonate with the most, those who wish for more in life because they honestly do not possess the means by which to live comfortably, will embrace the validity of their yet untapped potential.  “I may be at the bottom now, but eventually I will get my due,” is the popular sentiment of the potential-laden man.

About a century and a half ago, when the southern portion of the United States briefly seceded from the Union in order to form the Confederate States of America, many (if not most) of the white residents living in the new territory gladly signed up to fight for the cause of the Confederacy against those pesky Yankees.  What was the cause?–The right to own and keep the country’s black population as slaves.  At this point I’m imagining a crowd of my southerners screaming in anger, “No!  No!  No!  It was not about slavery, it was all about state sovereignty.  They were fighting against the intruding Federal government, trying to control the South’s economy and way of life.”  Indeed, they were fighting for state sovereignty and states rights.  Unfortunately, the primary right our southern states wanted to retain full sovereignty over was the right to keep black people as property, hence it is fair to say that the economic system they wanted to protect was one that rested on the enslavement of other human beings.  (Which is why every one of the individual Confederate State constitutions explicitly mention the right to retain slavery as a valid form of commerce.)  However, it needs to be remembered that a great deal of the fighting population of the Confederate Army were non-slave owning white men, who were too impoverished to ever be able to set foot in the hallowed farming grounds of the pseudo-aristocratic plantation owner who benefited most from the South’s peculiar institution.

Which ought to leave one wondering, why did so many men readily die for a system that offered them no direct benefits?  The simple answer is that our forebears were racist fools, who no matter how illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and economically broken they were kept by the system they so cherished, they could not let go of the deluded idea that all of these negatives were unimportant as long as they could lay claim to the coveted price of being called white.  For as long as they had that, they still had potential for more.  The fact that this potential had no chance of being realized, that by all accounts they–and their direct descendents–have always and will always die just as illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and broken as they had lived, makes no difference in the great scheme of such a mindset.  Because the power of potential is not to lift one’s physical self from the obstacles in one’s depressing environment, but to lift one’s spirit and numb the physical body from the pangs of life’s depressing obstacles–that is to say, it holds no real powers at all.

The individual’s hope in her/his potential is the greatest placebo a mind can fall prey to.  Rather than motivating a person to reach higher, and strive for better, it makes her/him content with the lowly position s/he is inhabiting now, on the indolent basis that “my time will come eventually, after all, I have the potential to do better.”  It makes one cope with personal setbacks and failures, and even nourishes a certain level of pride in both, spiritually feeding on the mock appreciation heralded at the paupers’ “noble suffering” by the physically well-fed princes.  All the while life goes by, as we sit back daydreaming about alternate existences we could have pursued but didn’t, and never will.  If I could think of one sentiment to erase out of the human consciousness it would be our liege to the hope of potential.

A Word on Assisted Suicide

The desire to both alleviate suffering and protect life are two ethical principles upon which much of modern society shapes its moral values around.  However, there are several situations that present a clear conflict between the desire to alleviate suffering and the desire to protect life.  The debate over assisted dying is probably the most difficult of these (from a moral standpoint) because it involves a person whose suffering is so great that she or he wishes to just end her/his life as a final recourse to the pain, often even if there exists the possibility that medical attention can either save or prolong her/his life.  The ethical dilemma of whether such a person’s wishes should be respected, or whether the ability to save a life at all costs ought to take precedents is not a simple issue to resolve through purely philosophical musings.

Just about everyone can image a scenario in which an individual’s physical pain is so great that it would seem downright cruel to force her/him to continue to be tormented just to appease our collectively idealized standard over the sanctity of life.  Certainly one could make the case that even a painful life is better than no life at all, but the caveat that cannot be ignored is the question of by what right any one of us can demand for a person to continue to live in agony to preserve our ideals about the greater value of life.

“What if the person’s pain is causing them to speak from hysteria and fear?  What if they would have changed their mind about wanting to die?”  What if is a line of reasoning that though interesting is destined to remain unresolved by virtue of its phrasing.  Case and point, what if the person ends up living only a few months longer, all in agonizing pain, only to die anyway?  You could have spared them these final moments of unspeakable pain, but didn’t.  Does that seem more morally sound than letting them die?

A conflict does arise of whether anyone else’s opinion besides the suffering individual’s should be considered (such as family members not willing to let their loved one die at any cost if it can be avoided).  This is the part of the assisted suicide debate where it becomes difficult to insist on a clear course of action.  It’s redundant to state how almost no one wants to see someone they love suffer.   Now add on the caveat of not just having a loved one die, but to actually assist in the process.  I recognize that this is undoubtedly too great a burden for many to go through, seeing as how I, too, would no doubt be torn to my core if such a decision faced me.  However, I still have to maintain that, as heartbreaking as it is to consider the torment that someone will suffer at losing a loved one, I still don’t see how the alternative is any better (i.e. how much the individual her/himself is currently physically suffering, and how s/he must continue to do so partly because I cannot take the mental anguish or moral burden of assisting in her/his death).

Being a person who does feel a great deal of empathy for his fellow man, I see the many moral difficulties that arise from the debate over assisted dying from both sides of the argument.  I also understand that many such cases will have different circumstances that call for different considerations.  But I simply cannot bring myself to insist that a suffering person (whether their pain has a physical or psychological source) must continue to exist in torment in order to appease any personal moral hangups I have on the topic.  And I find it hard to see an intellectual means to get around this problem without descending into gross oversimplifications on a very sensitive issue.