Right vs. Wrong: No Shortcuts Allowed!

Q: Dear Dr. Hurd: Is it true, as some people believe, that you don’t need religion to know right from wrong, that all you need is empathy?

A: Religion is faith-based and refers to the supernatural. How is one to ascertain right and wrong based on faith and mystical belief? We don’t do that with other things. We don’t use faith and supernaturalism to build bridges and skyscrapers; we don’t use faith and supernaturalism to cure illnesses; we don’t use faith and supernaturalism to transmit information via satellite and cable and Internet.

Why should it be any different with ethics?

You figure out what’s right and wrong by reference to a certain standard. Whether you admit you’re using that standard or not, you’re still relying on one. I might claim, “Ethics is just a feeling. I know instinctively what’s right.” I can claim that all I wish, but the moment I start making a decision about what’s right or wrong, I’m relying on some kind of ethics.

“Empathy” is a vague and inadequate standard for deciding what’s right or wrong. First of all, most people incorrectly define empathy (assuming they even define it at all). Most assume that empathy is being kind and nice towards others. This isn’t what empathy is. Properly and clearly defined, empathy refers to the ability and willingness to see things from another’s point-of-view. A writer considers his audience. A stage performer considers her voice level or instrument factors. A spouse willingly considers his partner’s point of view because it’s rationally self-interested to do so. Empathy is certainly a nice way to be, but it’s also a necessary way to be, assuming it involves a relationship or context pertaining to one’s interests.

Vagueness is not the only problem with using empathy as a standard of right and wrong. In contemporary society, empathy refers (often unadmittedly) to self-sacrifice. The unspoken, and sometimes spoken, idea behind contemporary “empathy” is “sacrifice for me” or “sacrifice for others” or else you’re mean and immoral. You see this in politics every day of the week. You didn’t vote for Obama? You lack compassion and empathy; you’re mean and immoral. You don’t support higher taxes on the wealthy? You don’t support socialized medicine? You’re mean and immoral.

It happens in daily life, as well. A spouse or a friend says (or implies) to another, “You won’t sacrifice for me? You’re mean and bad.” Of course, my sacrificing for you means that you selfishly benefit. Somehow, it’s OK for the beneficiaries of the sacrifice to be selfish, but not for the providers of the sacrifice. It’s self-refuting and illogical on its own terms, but these fallacies are never exposed. Why? Because people are too afraid or too timid to admit it. Those who claim lack of “empathy” defined as self-sacrifice have got their victims just where they want them. Nothing stops people dead in their tracks like the mere threat of being called “selfish.” It’s the worst thing imaginable, unless or until you realize such an approach to morality is a sham designed to allow some to manipulate others into doing what they want them to do. It’s a shame, and I can tell you it’s the root of most of our social and interpersonal/family/relationship problems.

In one respect, I’d stand with the religious people who’d say, “Empathy is not a standard of ethics.” But I part company with them the moment they say, “God is the source of ethics.” When somebody says this, I don’t even know how to reply. What is God, and how do you know what ethics is, in relationship to this totally faith-based supernatural notion? That’s the whole point. You’re supposed to take it on faith, as self-evident, with no questions asked. In this respect, the faith-based supernaturalists are relying on intimidation and a “don’t you dare question this” kind of mentality just as much as the more secular moralist types who bray about compassion and empathy, for the sake of Obama or the State.

In order to figure out right from wrong, you have to use reason. This presupposes that there is an objective reality, that your reasoning mind has a certain nature (i.e., the ability to form concepts above and beyond the merely perceptual level), and that objective principles can be established. I agree with Ayn Rand (and Aristotle) that reason is the distinctively human means of survival and knowledge, including the establishment of a code of ethics. That code of ethics is rational self-interest. Empathy (as I defined it here) is certainly a useful tool and skill in attaining rational self-interest, but it’s not an unthinking demand to sacrifice your happiness for the sake of others. Nor are faith-based supernatural beliefs which others who have those beliefs are entitled to impose on you just because they say so.

Subjectivist, postmodern “empathy” gurus and traditional religionists share one important error in common. They each try to bypass reason and logic as a means of determining what right and wrong actually are. Just as you cannot fly or invent airplanes, develop antibiotics, program computers, build bridges or spaceships by this means, it’s equally futile to try and determine right and wrong by faith, whim or the imposition of unearned, neurotic guilt.

Reason is the distinctively human means of discovering truth and determining what’s true, what’s right and what’s moral. No shortcuts allowed! You indulge in them at your own peril.


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