Law in Contemporary Society
I am lucky, in that my name begins with a C and Eben edited my paper a long time ago. Still, it took me some time to inure myself to the scary red ink and actually digest his comments. His notes, along with this class, raise some issues I find both interesting and very complicated and I welcome your thoughts and help in sorting them out. (You can read his edits here - CarolineFerrisWhiteFirstPaper)

If I understand correctly, Eben sees empathy and empathic responses as one way of distinguishing between criminal/antisocial and social behavior. The ready distinction seems to be between those who feel for and can imagine the experiences of others, leading them to treat others with respect, and those who for whatever reason can't imagine the experiences of others, and so think only of their own interests and desires. But it's not always so clear: Eben points to the case of the empathic individual who nonetheless behaves antisocially, and the complex system of internal justifications this creates. Probably most people who commit crimes fall into this category.

This brings me to another concept from this class that has been gnawing at me: the idea that we all are a bundle of disparate selves, multiple personalities. Does this concept resonate with anyone else? Someone who is not suffering from some breakdown in empathy, but nonetheless hurts another person, must have something less than a fully integrated set of selves. Is that what is going on? Do we need to find a way to get our multiple personae to talk to each other?

Empathy also seems to be a way of thinking about the discussion at DoingWrongByNotDoing. Being open to the hurts of the world while simultaneously doing nothing about them is a toxic combination. I thought law school would toughen me up; instead I feel even more like a rod for every passing emotional lighting bolt.

It's getting late, and this is inchoate. I suppose what I'm really doing is asking for help resolving some of these ideas which seem connected to me, but whose connection I'm having trouble tracking.

-- CarolineFerrisWhite - 01 Apr 2010

With disparate personalities, which come in different forms and intensities, the goal is to achieve as much cohesion as possible. A lot of that comes with experience, maturity, compassion, humility, and self-contemplation. The many layers of personality could provide one (partial) explanation as to why crime rates are highest within the youth population. But I also think that the environment shapes and produces much of the polychotomy that can lead to aberrant behaviour. Thus, I do not think that the law should put too much, if any, emphasis on the good/bad distinction that you draw out. If the law is what it does, it can do that best without discriminating between the Holmes person citizen who merely cares about the law so that he doesn't break them (and when he does he regrets not the consequences of his actions but rather his failure to avoid his own punishment) and our moral citizen who shows remorse for his actions.

-- MohitGourisaria - 01 Apr 2010

Hi Caroline, >Being open to the hurts of the world while simultaneously doing nothing about them is a toxic combination.
This is so true, and I struggle with it also. I'm proud of what I have done with my life so far in terms of helping working people. However, there are many other causes in the world that are equally or more urgent. My personal fixations are on the war in Congo and sex trafficking. Seriously doing anything about these issues -- not even to the John Brown level, just say working for an NGO -- would require moving to other countries and enduring a physically uncomfortable lifestyle. I'm too chicken to do it. The most satisfactory advice I ever received on this subject was from my faculty advisor when I was an undergrad: give money. When I'm working, I put a regular monthly deduction on my credit card for NGO that work in these areas. Right now I have no income, but I still donate periodically. This is the best antidote I know to the toxic combination.

Speaking of John Brown: I always thought he was regarded as a major American hero. When I was in high school history class, I wondered why he didn't have a monument on the Mall or something like that. I assumed that most people also regard him as insane just because most people would be afraid do what he did. Since taking this class, some students and Eben have pointed out that mine is actually not the majority opinion, which has surprised me.

-- AmandaBell - 01 Apr 2010

You say a lot here, so I will only comment on the multiple personalities issue. I do not believe Eben was saying we should strive towards cohesion. I don't even think cohesion is possible. The goal is rather one of self-awareness. For example, since Eben mentioned this phenomenon, I did further reading on the topic and began to try to pay better attention to myself as I interacted with others, waiting to see if I could decipher different personalities emerging in different contexts with different people. I personally did notice changes-- but I won't go into them here. The next step would be to understand whyyy this or that personality was created or why it emerges in particular contexts. The result is learning how to better understand and then control oneself on a deeper level-- that is, to learn to exist with multiple personalities and use them to your advantage.

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 01 Apr 2010

Kalliope, I think self-awareness of the kind that you allude to eventually leads to cohesion or something like it. If I am aware of all my roles and personalities, and know which one to marshal in any given situation, then at the very least, I have a dominant personality that regulates those activities. The complex process of self-observation that you just described seems to involve a coherent "you" that watched, objectively, what went on, with all the other "yous". To me, that objective observer implies some over-arching personality whose goal is to integrate all the other personalities into a functional framework so that you get what you need (or don't go plumb mad). Can't that functional framework be seen as some attempt at cohesion?

-- KrishnaSutaria - 02 Apr 2010

@Kalliope - I agree that self awareness is key. I think if one is like me and finds acknowledging the various personae within to be a deeply unsettling experience, it has to go beyond just awareness. I have often chastised myself for my inconsistencies; perhaps the better solution is to embrace them. Krishna's concept of an over-arching personality seems to jive with the idea of embracing your inner selves, or at least finding a way to let them keep house together without burning the whole place down.

-- CarolineFerrisWhite - 02 Apr 2010

I also find the empathy aspect of our decisions troubling. I've tried to look at the biological and "natural" parallels with the animal world, and I am still can't understand why humans are more likely to help those they have never met. I think some of the motivation comes from the ideas of guilt and man's unique position on top of the food chain where we can help others at very little to no cost.

Humans have a self conception of "good" and "bad", and failing to help when we know of the severe injustices is a troubling thought most often associated with "bad". I can never lie to myself, and I do not want to look at myself as a bad or selfish person. Thus I often will give change to a homeless person or donate to a cause to mollify such cognitive dissonance. However, if I feel like my efforts are in vain, then I feel better about doing nothing and my inaction feels less negative.

The trickier question lies in when my affirmative acts are going to have known negative consequences, and I must decide whether the personal gains outweigh the societal costs. If I am breaking no laws, and I can make millions if not billions of dollars, why should I care what happens to people I will never meet?

-- MikeAbend - 04 Apr 2010


From an evolutionary perspective, it's unsurprising that human's are empathetic to individuals that they do not know.

Disclaimer: What follows is speculative, rough, "just so" story about human evolution. It's not meant to be "the truth," but simply a very possible account of how empathy for strangers might have come about in human social groups. Moreover, it's a very gene-centered account of evolution which opens it up to a whole host of criticisms.

There are different levels of empathy. Empathy for close family members is unsurprising evolutionarily--we share genes with our family members, behaviors that help spread those genes is evolutionary beneficial, so we care about the well-being of our family members. Many "less complex" animals display this type of empathy.

As cooperation became more important for survival, and, similarly, there were significant survival benefits for larger groups (something like gains from scale), the well-being of any individual became more and more dependant on individuals outside one's immediate family. The upshot: since cooperation amongst large groups became important or even necessary for survival, and empathy is necessary for cooperation, empathy became more prevalent.

Finally, as significance survival benefits accrued to larger and more complex societies, the need to cooperate--and thus the need for empathy--expanded to include individuals that we never met before.

Since human evolution , more so than many other animals, has been driven by cooperation and social groups, it makes more sense for us to be more empathetic.

This isn't to say empathy--or the morality that comes from it--is, at base, "secret selfishness." Many traits can simultaneously have an evolutionary significance and a "higher" significance--what might be called psychological or philosophical significance. For example, acknowledging the evolutionary significance of our sense of taste--to help us distinguish between poison and food, to help us eat high calorie foods, etc--does not take away from the enjoyment of a gourmet meal. Nor is it the case that we aren't "really" enjoying the meal just because there is an evolutionary explanation of our sense of taste.

-- ConradCoutinho - 06 Apr 2010

Conrad, I agree with your sense of how human evolution and empathy might be linked. There has been some interesting research on empathy and mirror-neurons in recent years. If the studies can conclusively show that mirror-neuron activity is the basis for our sense of empathy, your argument will have greater force. It would mean empathy was so necessary for our survival that our brains developed a special network of neurons to ensure we feel it even for strangers.

Caroline, to tie all this back to your initial concern that you feel like a "rod for every passing emotional lighting bolt", perhaps the science means that you are one of those people with a particularly strong mirror-neuron system, and in some sense, neither law school, nor anything else short of a lobotomy will change your ability to empathize the way you do! But it doesn't have to be a toxic thing - you might be able to see your "problem" as a skill to be nurtured and harnessed.

-- KrishnaSutaria - 06 Apr 2010


I definitely agree that empathy is necessary for cooperation and communication. However, I don't know if understanding another's perspective will lead me to make the "GOOD" decision when I stand to gain from a stranger's loss. Even if I know how a person will feel, is that going to stop me from exploiting them? What is the mechanism that makes me sacrifice my own best interest for the sake of a stranger?

-- MikeAbend - 06 Apr 2010

Krishna: Fascinating article on mirror neurons. Here's another mirror neuron article on mirror-touch synesthesia. There are people, mirror-touch synesthetes, who experience physical sensation simply by watching someone else be touched. This mirror neuron business helps me to understand a quirk of my father's. When I have a stomachache, he immediately goes and throws up. I couldn't bring my scraped knees and bloody cuts to him when I was little - he got woozy and had to leave the room. He's a trial attorney who loves his work; perhaps his empathic abilities have something to do with that.

-- CarolineFerrisWhite - 7 Apr 2012



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r14 - 13 Jan 2012 - 22:05:17 - IanSullivan
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