Empathy, Ethics and Morality
Most of us would agree that balanced concern for self and others constitutes a measure ofpsychological maturity and health.
Most of us would agree that balanced concern for self and others constitutes a measure of
psychological maturity and health. While other, mostly mammalian, species share our capacity
to live cooperatively and care for one another, only human beings are able to reflect upon this
attribute consciously, to develop it and direct it purposefully. It is our singular ability to think
about our own thoughts and behavior that sets us apart. We can learn to observe ourselves and
the ways we impact others unlike any other animal.
By making intimate experiences meaningful, psychoanalytic therapy helps people
exercise and develop this faculty. As self-awareness increases, symptoms are understood as
imperfect solutions to emotional concerns and begin to lose their power. Behavioral flexibility
Our very human capacity to feel and demonstrate concern for others is not innate. The
evolution of concern and its cousin, empathy, represent major developmental achievements in
the life and mind of an infant. Like the capacity to think, they do not simply appear
spontaneously. Concern and empathy emerge from within the omnipresent parent-baby matrix
that I’ve so often discussed.
From the moment of conception, mother and baby exist as a fused unit. In this merged
state, they constitute a mommy-baby enterprise, devised to insure infant survival. The maternal
preoccupation that drives this focused attention begins during pregnancy and continues well into
an infant’s neonatal life. An utterly dependent newborn has no idea where he stops and mommy
or daddy begin. In the safety of this merged state, he borrows strength from his parents, and
unencumbered, he thrives and grows.
Eventually, he begins to realize that he and mom are actually two separate beings. The
fusion illusion is now a lovely dream he has outgrown. Having served its purpose, our little one
now gazes into his mother’s eyes and sees another person, not an extension of himself, as he had
Paradoxically, just as he recognizes he’s not alone in the world as an all-powerful entity,
he experiences the boundary of his own solitude for the first time. He can know loneliness. He
can feel guilt. This psychological epiphany constitutes his very first existential experience, and
for the rest of his life he will oscillate between being alone within himself and being in
relationship with others. He will continue to seek the fusion and comfort he experienced as a
protected baby during moments of intimacy or times of distress. He will work to balance his
own needs with those of others.
Just as he recognizes his mother as a separate and significant other, he acquires the
capacity to feel concern for her. Of course he also feels anger, hatred and fear, but if mom is
consistently attentive and protective, love and concern will predominate. Just as his mother
receives and transforms his hungry rage into feeding satisfaction, she receives his concern-love
and returns it.
This reciprocal sharing of feelings marks the beginning of a child’s capacity for empathy,
the ability to project or locate a part of himself into another and subsequently feel something of
that person’s experience. This psychological achievement is profound, as it constitutes the
absolute bedrock of ethical behavior and morality.
Hiccups can occur during any phase of this developmental arc. If a mother is disengaged
or unable to tolerate and transform her baby’s intense feelings, they back up like undigested
food. Neglected babies suffer from prematurely disrupted merger experiences. Instead of
concern, they feel only terror and hatred from within a cage of toxic solitude.
If these events transpire, a baby is left with intolerable anxiety, because his very life is at
stake. At first he protests and cries. Eventually, if no one responds, he shuts down completely.
He has learned that his environment is not reliable, and he will never trust it again. His
developmental conveyor belt has broken down along with his budding ability to form healthy
attachments. If infants do not reach these imperative developmental milestones, if they fail to
develop the capacity to feel concern for others, the singular trait that makes us human, empathy,
never appears. Lacking intrinsic humanity, these individuals cannot recognize it in others and,
therefore, are not restrained from using people solely as objects for their own gratification.
The child psychoanalyst and pediatrician, Donald Winnicott, posited that a child who
initially received care only to have it abruptly withdrawn or withheld, may subsequently feel
himself entitled to what he has lost and behave in maladaptive ways to regain those losses. This
might explain the variations in degree between a person who commits an occasional unethical act
and one suffering from a pervasive personality disorder.
The absence of concern is the source of character traits referred to as psychopathic or
sociopathic. The icy cold and mechanical aura surrounding these people reflects their utter lack
of empathy or guilt and results from environmental failure, not inherent or constitutional evil, as
is commonly or conveniently supposed.
It’s not that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. They simply don’t
care. Their moral code is circumscribed by their own unmet infantile desires and needs. What’s
good for me is “good,” and what’s bad for me is “bad,” and what’s good or bad for you is of no
consequence. Viewed through a distorted lens, all people are seen as equally unreliable as
mother once was and deserve whatever cruelty they get.
Pop culture books that titillate with descriptions of sociopathy as evidence of demonic
evil are inaccurate. They do a great disservice by failing to concede the all too human and banal
genesis of this severe character disorder. It reflects an infant’s predictable reaction to
deficiencies in the parental surround required to sustain and nurture its mind-body.
Someone recently showed me a book that actually instructed people how to look for the
“evil next door.” It is facile and erroneous to believe that some people are born evil and must be
destroyed. The pretty blonde demon-child, Rhoda, featured in the 1960’s kitsch movie, “The
Bad Seed,” was an amusing caricature. A fortuitous lightening strike might have concluded the
movie, but it shed no light on a very complicated social concern. It is much more painful to
acknowledge that a great deal of sociopathy might be preventable. While individuals suffering
from criminal illness must be removed from society, it is imperative to remember that the cause
of their pathology is very complex.
Devoid of humanity, these people are grossly damaged. Because they never experienced
secure interpersonal attachments as infants, they are incapable of forming any relationships
defined by mutual concern or reciprocity. Their empathy software is missing. While the damage
inflicted by sociopathy on a nuclear family is tragically unquantifiable, the emergence of these
character traits in our social midst has tremendous import for society, government and culture.
In fact, these characteristics are clinically referred to as “antisocial,” and they range from
singular and transient traits to a full blown personality disorder, defined by a pervasive disregard
for, and violation of, the rights of others. Rooted in infancy and childhood, this pattern,
characterized by lack of remorse, deceit, aggressiveness and indifference, will continue into
Most people immediately envision psychotic serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted
Bundy when they think of sociopathy, but antisocial behavior is much more pervasive and
immediate. While there is a marked difference, however, between discrete antisocial “acts” and
the all-encompassing personality disorder, antisocial behavior drives white collar crime. Lack of
empathy or remorse and unrestrained greed has produced our current financial calamity, as it has
the ruinous savings and loan debacle and the earlier junk bond catastrophe. Lack of empathy or
remorse enabled tobacco company executives to lie to the public and Congress about the dangers
of smoking for decades, as people died by the thousands.
Politicians are notoriously antisocial. They often say and do anything to achieve their
aims, regardless of who is used or sullied in the process. This explains why statesmen rarely get
elected. Their honesty, empathy and sense of remorse prevent them from justifying any means
to accomplish their ends.
While most of us lie from time to time, we usually feel guilt. People with antisocial traits
do not. In fact, they are aroused and thrilled each time they “get away” with a transgression. In
effect, they are relentlessly punishing the environment that disappointed them as infants. Jeffrey
Dahmer, who also engaged in cannibalism, was enacting a distorted form of breast feeding,
actual human flesh symbolically representing nourishment he did not receive as an infant. But
gratification is fleeting, just as it is with binge shopping, because the emotional hunger is never
sated. The inner wound is never exposed and healed.
What are the implications for all of us? The seeds of both sociopathy and morality are
sown in infancy. A baby who received empathy can bestow it. A child whose mind-body needs
were not met adequately will live the remainder of his life like a machine, devoid of the traits
that make us most human. While a massive government bail out may preclude the immanent
implosion of our financial system, it will not prevent the next one. To accomplish that, we have
to repair the emotional potholes in our own streets.
Rather than looking for evil next door, it might be more productive to consider the ways
in which we, as individuals and members of society, can sponsor parents, helping them resonate
with their children more effectively, particularly during critical periods of infancy and childhood.
Early intervention is vital. When emotional integrity hangs in the balance, an ounce of
prevention is certainly worth a pound of cure.