The Pinnacle of Empathy

The Pinnacle of Empathy

written by Ryan Schalk
May 01, 2021

Rich and Poor

I recently saw an online post that perfectly captured a certain kind of outlook that I find extremely harmful. The post said:

It's simple: poor people are poor because they spend their money; rich people are rich because they invest their money.

This is harmful because it completely inverts the actual causality at play. It places blame squarely on impoverished individuals, while ignoring all of the privilege1 inherent in wealth. Consider the language used here—"poor because they spend their money", and "rich because they invest their money"—even with the most charitable interpretation, these statements at best leave out the most important details of the whole picture. Let's adjust the wording:

Poor people have to spend most of their money; rich people are able to invest their money.

Even though this is still an oversimplification, it is much more accurate in the causational sense—"have to spend" and "able to invest". It's much more congruous with what we know about socioeconomic mobility. Even in most rags-to-riches stories, the individual in question was born with some exceptional talent or intelligence that allowed them to accumulate wealth. Shame on all of those poor people who weren't born geniuses—or, even worse, who were born with debilitating medical conditions!

Good and Bad

The above is generalizable to the moral realm of discussion. Consider a similar statement:

Good people are good because they choose to do good things; bad people are bad because they choose to do bad things.

I tend to take issue with this. At best, it's a tautology. At worst, it's a version of the same flawed logic applied above to the poor and the rich, muddling an important discussion: why are good people good, and why are bad people bad?

Well, we judge people based on their actions, and so the question becomes: why do people do what they do? Sure, we deliberate over possibilities and act in ways that seem rational to us at the time. Yet it has been shown again and again that we often don't have the full picture of why we made a particular decision. You aren't aware of every underpinning occurrence in your brain as you make decisions and take action on those decisions. We've all had times when we've thought, "That wasn't like me!" or, "I don't know why I just did that." That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make one wonder: how can we answer "Why did you do that?" in full?

Consciousness and Wanting

As it turns out, the fifty-thousand-foot-view answer is always, "Because I wanted to." You don't take any conscious action without wanting to.

There are ostensible counters to this claim—"I go to the gym, but I don't want to", "I want to quit smoking, yet I haven't", "I go to work every day, even though I can't stand my job." Let's be clear: you have competing desires all the time, but for you to actually act, your mind has to decide which of those desires wins out. You go to the gym because you want to be fit more than you want to continue sitting at home. You haven't quit smoking because you want the satisfaction of cigarettes more than you want to kick your habit. You go to work because you want enough money to feed and clothe yourself more than you want to take a stab at joblessness.

Not only can you do what you want, you must do what you want.

So, here's the rub. You can't choose what you want. You didn't craft your preferences before your own birth, carefully deliberating before deciding that chocolate ice cream should be your favorite food, or that you should have a sexual preference for blond men. More to the point: could you cut off your arm right now? Your response may be, "I could if I wanted to"—and that's exactly correct! But because you don't want to, you won't. Even more accurately: because you don't want to, you can't.

This is highly related to (perhaps even synonymous with) your conscious experience. A thought occurs to you, and you act upon it. Yet to have ultimate control over your thoughts is an impossibility, because that would require thinking your thoughts before you think them2. What are you going to think next?


Recall the statement I made above:

Not only can you do what you want, you must do what you want.

This is precisely what it means to have a will. It distinguishes conscious entities from non-conscious entities. A lifeless rock must do certain things—that is, precisely what the laws of physics cause it to do at any given time. We, too, are beholden to the laws of physics. Nothing our minds and bodies do are free from the effects of natural laws. Yet one of many things that distinguish you and me from a lifeless rock are our wills. We have desires; we act on those desires; and, perhaps most importantly, we have the subjective experience of performing those actions.

I've happily avoided using a certain phrase up until this point—but now I need to address it, lest it remain an elephant in the room. The phrase is "free will". What is free will? What exactly can a will be free from? As it turns out, "free will" has entered our vernacular mostly as a result of Christian philosophy. "Free will" has since been the theologian's retort to The Problem of Evil.

This is an idea that flies in the face of the discoveries of neuroscience and biology, but it actually doesn't matter whether this duality (that is, separation of mind and body) is possible. Let's grant for the sake of argument that we do actually possess a soul that allows us to transcend natural laws. Presumably, this soul is still subject to metaphysical causality—otherwise, we would be infinitely temperamental (more on this in the next section). Regardless, we find ourselves in the same position, unable to claim ultimate control over our actions, for we did not choose the kind of souls we would have.

If you were to truly trade places with a serial killer—I'm sorry to say, you would be a serial killer. You would have their soul, their genes, their memories, their mind, their beliefs, their desires. There's nothing "left over" with which to resist causality.

There is a poignant song by Oh, Sleeper that captures the paradox between "free will" and divine judgment:

Give me sand to build a home

And watch all the walls fall on me

I can’t change what I am

Lions always kill the lambs

Don't you see the irony?

If the blind can see you

And the lame can meet you

Will the dead embrace you

If you never gave them the means to believe?

Rationality and Positive Change

With that out of the way, I'm happy to say that having a plain old will, rather than a "free" will, is a very good thing! We wouldn't want to be free from causality in the first place, because it's what allows us to be rational people. As Sam Harris said in a recent podcast episode:

Reasoning is possible not because you’re free to think however you want, but because you are not free ... to be convinced by an argument is to be subjugated by it. It’s to be forced to believe it.

"Subjugated" and "forced" typically have negative connotations, but in this context they are liberating. A will not subject to natural laws is like an element of chaos, purely capricious, acting for literally for no reason at all. If you were to make an absolutely compelling argument to me, yet the argument had no causal effect on my beliefs, what would there be to celebrate? Where is the freedom in that?

Some people hear this line of argument and retort, "If we're not free to do anything, then why even try? How can people ever improve?" This is needlessly fatalistic. People can, and do, change all the time. This is what leads to all of our fascinating philosophical questions about personal identity (e.g. "Are you the same person you were last year?") Even though we are in lockstep with physical causation, what we do matters, insofar as something can matter. We have the power to help ourselves and to help each other, and one of the most effective ways to harness that power is to develop deeper understandings of what makes us tick.


Traditionally, the notion that we may be less free than we initially supposed is seen as a negative idea with nihilistic implications. But it's actually quite the opposite: understanding that individuals simply are who they are, without having willed themselves into a flawed existence, leads us to the pinnacle of empathy.

When we understand that individuals are beholden to causality, we see that "bad" people are victims of bad luck, while "good" people are beneficiaries of good luck. We are precisely the products of our genes and environment (and our souls, if you'd like)—nothing more, nothing less. I didn't choose my parents; I didn't choose to be born in the USA; I didn't choose to be born with XY chromosomes; I didn't choose to be born with the thought patterns my brain exhibits. Yet I am exactly the product of these facts (and the myriad other facts not listed).

These are the sorts of facts we should keep in mind when interacting with people whose beliefs and behaviors are vastly different than our own. There's a fine balance to strike. It isn't the case that individuals can magically change who they are, because that would mean instantaneously changing some combination of their culture, genetics, etc. It also isn't the case that they are totally incapable of changing. (Everyone can, in principle, change. Some people have much more wherewithal to do so.)

These lines of discussion tend to lead to questions about the individual vs. society. Whose fault is it that a bad individual is bad—the individual's or society's? It may be that "fault", "blame", and "responsibility" are shorthand words for concepts that don't have much basis in actuality (just because we have a word for something doesn't mean it corresponds exactly with reality!). But if those words mean anything, then fault and blame need to be defined in a broader context than the individual. Individuals are not blank canvases that paint themselves into existence. Acknowledging this is paramount in politics, law, and social work. This is summarized well in The Free Will-Determinism Debate and Social Work:

The free will-determinism debate is remarkably relevant to the practice of social work in at least two general ways. First, social workers repeatedly make assumptions about the determinants and malleability of clients' problems and shape interventions or treatment plans accordingly. Mental retardation, we may conclude, is a function of certain chromosomal abnormalities and is thus amenable to only a limited range of treatment approaches. Family discord, on the other hand, may emerge as a result, for example, of personality quirks of family members, the strain of a sudden illness, financial catastrophe, or certain learning disabilities. Poverty, we might argue, stems from individual lethargy, structural problems in our economy that lead to high rates of unemployment, or physical disabilities. How we respond to these problems—whether we focus our attention on environmental determinants, health problems, or individual character—frequently depends on assumptions that we make about the extent to which people's problems are the result of factors over which they have control.


This is all well and good, but there are people who do terrible things, who don't seem amenable to change no matter what we try. So, what do we do? I think Robert Sapolsky says it best:

The analogy I always use, which is so difficult for people to swallow when it comes to the criminal justice system, is that if a car has faulty brakes, you fix the brakes. If the brakes are not fixable, you put the car in the garage for the rest of time, and your primary responsibility is to make sure this car with the faulty brakes doesn't hurt anybody. But nobody is saying you're punishing the car. Nobody is accusing your car of having a moral failing. Somehow, we have to reach that mindset.

It's not obvious how to manifest that mindset in our legislature, but a good first step would be to influence our culture by adjusting our own ways of thinking. Rather than viewing an individual as "evil", and thus deserving of hatred, we can strive to think: "What rotten luck that this individual was born into such a harmful life. Let's look for ways to help them." Unfortunately, sometimes the car still has to be locked up in the garage; but punishing the car retributively is senseless.

An Empathetic Lens

At the pinnacle of empathy is the understanding that, although you and I are different in many ways, we share the "human condition", and all of the baggage that comes along with it. Unlike a hurricane or an avalanche or a vehicle with faulty brakes, we have the power of introspection3. And that introspection can only become more powerful as we deepen our understandings in biology, psychology, and sociology. Compassion flourishes when we view each other not as benevolent or malevolent ghosts in machines, but as biological creatures who sometimes get shafted by prior events beyond our control.

There is a beautiful line from Andy Weir's The Egg:

"Every time you victimized someone," I said, "you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you."

Of course, I do not believe this is literally true. But it's a beautiful lens through which to view our human interactions. That bad person could have been you—that would be you, were you to have the misfortune of their genes and environment. If our society does not recognize the role that luck plays in every person's life, then the unlucky individual is forever doomed to be victimized by the lucky ones.

Additional Resources



[1] This can be a contentious word, so mentally replace it with a different word, if you'd like. What I mean to say is that every person is born into a certain socioeconomic class, not of their own choosing; and for an impoverished individual to become rich, or for a rich person to become impoverished, is exceptional.

[2] This will be a familiar concept to anyone who has tried mindful meditation.

[3] Incidentally, this is essentially what modern compatibilists cite as our source of "free will"—I just don't think it makes sense to use so grandiose and religiously-rooted a term when "will" alone suffices. There is nothing we should care to be "free" from.

© 2021 Ryan Schalk