There's Nothing Weird About Having Empathy for the Boston Bomber

As a species, we don't really need "evil" anymore.

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Apr 20 2013, 11:12pm

You are probably not a psychopath or currently suffering from some other variety of mental illness or developmental disorder that limits your capacity for empathy. You have the ability to, put simply, put yourself in the shoes of another living human. That's good: humans evolved to have this capacity for empathy for a reason. Which sounds kind of like a tautology but really isn't: we developed the ability to feel for others to understand the actions of others, such that we ourselves can better survive and thrive on Earth and, you know, have babies and stuff.

It's not much more poetic than that. So, having empathy, you might be confronted with an uncomfortable feeling about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old Russian-born suburbanite currently struggling to not die in a very, very well-guarded hospital room in Boston. That feeling is feeling sorry for him, and it is most definitely not the feeling that you are supposed to have and you might have even kept it to yourself. See, feeling empathy for a suspected terrorist also feels like it should carry with it an absence of empathy for the many innocent people maimed or killed in the twin Boston Marathon explosions and the aftermath, though there's no good reason those two feelings should be mutually exclusive or contradictory.

There's another adaptive skill that humans have refined over the millenia: stories. Real villains are a construction of storytelling convenience; fundamental evil is a device, not a reality. Turns out generalising good and evil is handy for the persistence of the genetic code, at least historically. Psychology celeb Steven Pinker writes:

Intelligent systems often best reason by experiment, real or simulated: they set up a situation whose outcome they cannot predict beforehand, let it unfold according to fixed causal laws, observe the results, and file away a generalization about how what becomes of such entities in such situations. Fiction, then, would be a kind of thought experiment, in which agents are allowed to play out plausible interactions in a more-or-less lawful virtual world.

But, empathy. It's hard to have empathy with the broad stroke of "evil." Maybe as a de-generalising force, it seems contradictory to the above quote, but empathy is also a trait that allows the creation of better, more finely-tuned simulations/stories. And better simulations mean better chances of preventing things like this from happening again, rather than painting the bombers as fundamentally "bad," no matter how tempting that might be.

As a species, we don't really need "evil" anymore. That is, we can do better. We have evolved past it. We evolve better without it. 

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Empathy, however, is something we need. It helps us to be just, of course. Can a motive even exist without empathy? It's a trait needed not just for basic legal analysis, but to even say that we're dealing in actual justice. In the bit of internet researching I did for this post, I actually found arguments for a separation of empathy and the law: just the facts, your honor, as if empathy is something that exists purely in the domain of emotion.

There are apparently a good number of people who can't discern between mercy, sympathy, and attempting to understand the conditions that others exist within. Whether or not he's adhered to it since, President Obama urged empathy back in 2007:

We need somebody who’s got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor, or African American, or gay, or disabled, or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges.

This seems like as good a time as any to point out that the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts is Carmen Ortiz, a name you might recall from the case of internet activist Aaron Swartz. Under Ortiz' watch, Swartz was prosecuted to the maximum, to "send a message," in her own words.

Sending a message is, of course, not empathetic justice but borne out of politics, retribution, and, well, the desire to send a message. To others. In a way, it's the opposite of empathy. It uses its subject--who, in Swartz' case, committed suicide before being tried--as a token, not a person to be empathized with. If that was the case with an American hacktivist copyright criminal, expecting anything like empathy for a foreign-born domestic terrorist sounds like a joke. That doesn't mean we can't feel it, even if it also feels weird and wrong.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

More on empathy:

Can We "Scale" Empathy?

Philip K. Dick's 4-Dimensional Gun

Why We're Fascinated by Catastrophe

Inside the Empathy Machine: Going Face-in-Face with Megan May Daalder and Her Mirrorbox