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Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Empathy for “Entities”?

July 29th, 2010 3 comments

The controversy continues, as it must. I recently explored the issue of late-term abortions through a sort of thought experiment, asking whether anencephalics were “human” in any meaningful sense. A couple of posts later, and after a discussion about the point here at home and an internet-mediated exchange with Andrew Sullivan (see here, here, here, and here), I answered my own question — they are human and entitled to respect.

My readers mostly disagreed. Here are some of their responses to my rethinking:

“I think your initial comment was correct, and that you are silly to back down to Andrew Sullivan’s emotional bleating. What makes us human is our brain. A “baby” with no brain isn’t human in any real or significant sense of the term.

“Aborting such an entity raises none of the moral questions raised by aborting a fetus that already has the cognitive equipment of a human, or which will have such cognitive equipment in the near future.

“Yeah, the entities look vaguely human, but they have no brain, dude. They’re not entitled to any respect or empathy, because there’s nothing there to empathize with. You might as well have empathy for your desk lamp.”

This next reader agreed, eloquently:

“[I]…disagree with Sullivan. It’s important to distinguish between empathy, which requires something similar enough that we can imagine what it is like to be that other, from the emotional response to something that is physically similar to us. People cry at funerals, but that corpse is not another person. People sometimes imagine what it is like to be dead and in a coffin, but that of course is a pretense. The fact that our animal brains are cued by a corpse’s appearance to the person who once was doesn’t change that fact. Nor is a brain-dead corpse a person, even if the heart and lung are kept beating by modern medical technology. For all it might look like the person who once was, it isn’t. Nor is an anencephalic infant a person. In all three cases, the appearance of another human organism can tug at our heartstrings and cause us to imagine there is someone there. But there isn’t.”

Finally, this reader, who expressed disappointment in my change of heart:

“I found your original post refreshing and rational….”

“[I]t seems like you’re backing down now. All I can say is I wish you wouldn’t. You shouldn’t have to back down from asking a thoughtful question.”

Thanks to these readers and to others for their comments. Just a few additional thoughts seem in order.

I’d like to think I didn’t “back down,” which suggests some kind of intimidation. (Is anyone really intimidated, short of a threat of litigation or violence, on the internet?) No, I had a change of heart, upon reflection. My earlier position was lifted, more or less intact, from my days as a philosophy student. But I’m no longer than person, and —  when pushed — I discovered that my views had changed, probably without my realizing it. I will confess that when I originally wrote that anencephalics weren’t human in the sense that mattered to me, it didn’t feel…right. There’s a difference in making a logically sound argument and believing it in your bones.

Nor did I — or do I — apologize for asking the question. Just because I ended up answering it differently than I or my readers expected doesn’t mean it was wrong to ask it. Judging from the intellectual firestorm this issue has generated, it seems that my raising it was a great thing.

Of course, I’ve gone back to read my “change of heart post” with Talmudic scrutiny. And I find that I never said that I had “empathy” for anencephalics; the readers’ comments suggest why that term isn’t descriptive. I did say that they are entitled to respect, and I’d say that whether or not I thought they were “human.” As I also stated in that later post (and with apology for quoting myself):

“[P]art of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.”

Finally, I want to bring this conversation back to the women carrying these unfortunate offspring. I think we can agree that they are entitled to respect and empathy. (Here’s Sullivan’s collection of the stories, current as of about a week ago, just in case you need an empathy boost.) Their view of an anencephalic is entitled to respect, and to our deepest empathy: Can any of us really know how we’d feel (or act) in such a situation? And how might we want our own decisions treated in such a case?

As an staunch member of the pro-choice community, it’s important to keep in mind that some have made moving decisions not to abort, even in these cases. Most seem to do so for religious reasons, but…whatever. There should be enough respect go to around.

Empathy and Activism: A Look at Senator Cornyn’s Own Judicial Record

July 16th, 2009 No comments

During the Sotomayor hearings, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has been among the most aggressive questioners. He seems particularly overwrought about the nominee’s statements that her experience as a Latina would somehow affect, or even improve, her decision-making. (Of course, the would-be justice has run as far from those comments as possible.) He and other conservatives also worry about “activist judges” who “legislate from the bench.” It’s amazing he can express these concerns without blushing.

As I noted when this issue broke, there are several ways to interpret the “wise Latina” comment. The most benign is that all of us are a product of our environment and experience; our empathy should be for all litigants, but we’re not, and shouldn’t pretend to be, robots. (That said, Sotomayor’s performance so far has been that of Automaton Lawyer.)

Cornyn, though, is having none of this; empathy isn’t and shouldn’t be part of decision-making. NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd is at her skewering best in yesterday’s take on the Republican Legion of (White) Super-Attackers. Smashing the tennis ball with deadly accuracy, she nails every line and corner of the court:

“A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not know that a gaggle of white Republican men afraid of extinction are out to trip her up.

“After all, these guys have never needed to speak inspirational words to others like them, as Sotomayor has done. They’ve had codes, handshakes and clubs to do that.

“[P]resident Obama wants Sotomayor, naturally, to bring a fresh perspective to the court. It was a disgrace that W. appointed two white men to a court stocked with white men. And Sotomayor made it clear that she provides some spicy seasoning to a bench when she said in a speech: ‘I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging, but I accept there will be some based on gender and my Latina heritage.’

“Republican Lindsey Graham read Sotomayor some anonymous comments made by lawyers about her, complaining that she was “temperamental,” “nasty,” “a bit of a bully.” Then he patronizingly lectured her about how this was the moment for “self-reflection.” Maybe Graham thinks Nino Scalia has those traits covered.

“But the barbed adjectives didn’t match the muted performance on display before the Judiciary Committee. Like the president who picked her, Sotomayor has been a model of professorial rationality. Besides, it’s delicious watching Republicans go after Democrats for being too emotional and irrational given the G.O.P. shame spiral.

“W. and Dick Cheney made all their bad decisions about Iraq, W.M.D.’s, domestic surveillance, torture, rendition and secret hit squads from the gut, based on false intuitions, fear, paranoia and revenge.

“Sarah Palin is the definition of irrational, a volatile and scattered country-music queen without the music. Her Republican fans defend her lack of application and intellect, happy to settle for her emotional electricity.

“Senator Graham said Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had ‘a meltdown’ — a word applied mostly to women and toddlers until Mark Sanford proudly took ownership of it when he was judged about the wisdom of his Latina woman.

“And then there’s the Supreme Court, of course, which gave up its claim to rational neutrality when the justices appointed by Republican presidents — including Bush Sr. — ignored what was fair to make a sentimental choice and throw the 2000 election to W.

“Faced with that warped case of supreme empathy, no wonder Sotomayor is so eager to follow the law.”

*********

Cornyn’s own record as a Texas Supreme Court Justice reveals a similar “supreme empathy” — to insurance companies. In the area of tort law, he consistently sided with majorities that eviscerated long-standing rules and principles, consistently to the advantage of defendant businesses and the insurance companies that ultimately would have had to account for the losses.

These decisions, often by the barest of majorities, were not in cases that any other state supreme court would have agreed with. In the 1992 case of Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262 (Tex. 1992), Cornyn and three other justices held that a supermarket wasn’t necessarily liable for a slippery condition that its own employee had created. Maybe the employee didn’t know the spray he’d used had landed on the floor. The flabbergasted dissenters pointed out that the majority’s decision, in addition to being at odds with settled and uncontroversial law in Texas as well as everywhere else, effectively told employees and store owners to “look the other way.”

The majority also tripped the plaintiff up on a procedural error, one that the dissent noted was now applied only to those bringing suit, not to those defending: “Today the court… extends a dual standard of justice–an easy requirement for defendants, an inexplicably strict one for plaintiffs.” (Mauzy, J., dissenting)

This willingness to use arcane procedural rules to defeat claims sometimes meant that valid cases never got a hearing. In the inexplicable H.E. Butt Grocery Co. v. Warner, 845 S.W.2d 258 (Tex. 1992), Cornyn wrote only for himself (but as the majority because of an oddity of Texas law) in tossing out a case involving a woman who’d slipped and been injured allegedly because of an ill-conceived “bag your own chicken”1 promotion. Despite the clear description of the dangerous condition set forth in the complaint, then Justice Cornyn found that it hadn’t provided legally sufficient notice of the problem. I leave to the law-curious among you the details, but this telling comment from the dissent bears quoting:

“”The majority opinion defies modern rules of pleading, which require only that a plaintiff put the defendant on notice of the claim. [This] retrograde analysis runs counter…to modern tenets of procedure….”

Empathy for insurance companies and judicial activism: Not just for leftists, apparently. Cornyn’s decisions spawned dissents that were downright angry and accusatory. Here’s a good place to finish, again stemming from a pro-insurance decision by a Cornyn-led majority:

“When an unequivocal constitutional command and  concern for the insurance industry collide in this Court, the outcome is no longer in doubt. [T]oday’s decision is but one example of the court’s recent indifference to precedent and its commitment to wholesale revision of Texas law.” (Doggett, J., dissenting)

  1. Ick.

A Different Look at Gender and Sex

July 6th, 2009 No comments

In reading and thinking about the Naz Foundation decision, I came across this enlightening piece. After describing several stories from Indian lore involving gender transgression of one sort or another, Devdutt Pattanaik writes:

“How does one interpret these stories? Are they gay stories? They certainly shatter the conventional confines of gender and sexuality. Ancient Indian authors and poets without doubt imagined a state where the lines separating masculinity and femininity often blurred and even collapsed. Though awkward, these were not stray references. Such tales were consistent and recurring, narrated matter-of-factly, without guilt or shame. Such outpouring has its roots in Indian metaphysics.

“As the wheel of rebirth turns, Indians have always believed, the soul keeps casting off old flesh and wrapping itself anew. Depending on one’s karma, one can be reborn as a tree, as a rock, as a bird, a beast, a man, a woman, a man with a woman’s heart, a woman with a man’s heart, even as a god or demon…endless possibilities exist in the infinite cosmos. The wise see masculinity and femininity as ephemeral robes that wrap the sexless genderless soul. The point is not to get attached to the flesh, but to celebrate its capabilities, discover its limitations, and finally transcend it.

“The question before us is: does the human mind have the empathy to include gender and sexual ambiguity in civil human society? It does. In every Yuga [roughly: era or epoch JC] new rules come into being that redefine world order. Mahabharata mentions a Yuga when there was no marriage — women were free to go with any man they chose. This changed when Shvetaketu instituted the marriage laws. We have lived through a Yuga where we left unchallenged laws of old imperial masters that dehumanised and invalidated sexual minorities. This has to change —hopefully now.”