essay philosophy

Empathy and Equality

The concept of social justice, coupled with widening awareness of the egregious injustice that often exists in the world, occupies our public discourse more and more; the proposition that all of us deserve equity in treatment, opportunity, and rights simply by virtue of being human, and that a fair and just society is laudable and desirable, seems intuitive and natural – after all, you’d find very few people, particularly in democratic societies, who would openly disagree with these sentiments. But far from being “natural”, fairness is radical, and distinctly human.

We are fundamentally creatures of biology, which is to say, our genes are generally a major determinant of the life we end up living. Evolution drives the natural world, which is mercilessly efficient in preserving only the best-adapted genes: survival of the fittest directs life, not morality or justice. In spite of this, one could argue that a trend we see in our millennia-long history is an escape from genetic destiny – humans have flourished because of many non-hereditary factors, including technology and culture, and we have gradually minimized the importance of our genes to survival.

Today, while inherited traits like sex, skin color, physical abilities or disabilities, height, and body shape, form the basis for the explicit and implicit categories that divide humankind, and define many parameters of one’s life – your opportunities, access to resources, treatment by others, to name a few – most of us would say that disparities in society based on attributes we have no control over, is innately unjust. And yet, the hierarchies of class, caste, and slavery that we consider moral atrocities were actually deemed the natural order of things for much of humanity’s history, and the idea that all men are created equal was a somewhat radical, even controversial one, and one that only really picked up steam in the last two to three hundred years

It doesn’t seem a great stretch to imagine that language, key to most of human progress, was fundamental to this development. Language may be our most primal technology, the foundation of our collective memory, preserving culture and learning over generations, and the ocean in which our ideas and thinking itself swim. The richness of language and the detail it can immerse us in, allows us to develop empathy – understanding and sharing the feelings of others – in detail and at a high level. Humans are social creatures, and consequently wired (by our genes!) for empathy: by reading, listening and seeing, we are made viscerally aware of the pain of other humans (and even other species) in a manner and at a scale that is unprecedented in a natural world overflowing with suffering. Empathy is the first step on the road to justice, and human rights do not exist without our ability to empathize.

Without language, there is also no innovation, technology, or human prosperity, and without the prosperity humanity has enjoyed over the last century, it’s difficult to imagine a society prioritizing fairness. Prosperity and ingenuity has allowed us to transcend and reject the zero-sum game of evolution as the primary force behind survival of the species: instead of our genes adapting to their environment, we have used technology to change not only the world to match the genes we already have, but the very genes themselves. By stepping off the evolutionary escalator and foregoing the law of the jungle, plenty permits a place for empathy, and fairness.

On the face of it, the ubiquity of social media and the platforms that undergird our increasing connectedness should raise empathy and understanding around the world, acting as a catalyst for social justice, and while there is evidence of that, we also now understand that tribalism, identity politics, and deep division are the opposite side of the same coin. While we are empathetic creatures, we are also complicated and contradictory, motivated by oft-competing needs, instincts, and desires, and as history has shown, the extremist view today may be considered mainstream in a future era. Nonetheless, one can hope that as long as human empathy and the language to deepen it endure, the arc of the moral universe will continue to bend, however slowly, towards justice.