The Ethical Component of Empathy

Mary Whiton Calkins opens her 1918 The Good Man and the Good with the following observations:

What we most need to know about any man is surely this: whether he is good or bad. To be sure, we seldom put the question so crudely. Indeed we often affect a scorn for mere goodness, persuading ourselves that we are more concerned with a man’s breeding, his intellectual vigor, his artistic skill or his practical efficiency, but in the end we all admit, implicitly or explicitly, that we are more deeply interested in his honesty, his courage and his justice—in a word, in his goodness—than in his intellectual or creative endowment, his upbringing, or his possessions. All this amounts to saying that the most significant way of grouping human beings is as good or bad.9

Calkins describes an attitude she believes is commonplace, that people place a value on goodness itself. She implies that an ultimate evaluation of persons would be based on their goodness or badness, such that the good is conceived of as superior to the bad. It is implied that we must differentiate good from bad men just so that we may accept the good ones and reject the bad. This view seems intuitively correct; however, it doesn’t go far enough.

We argue that while we as subjects do seem to care about the goodness or badness of other subjects with whom we interact and empathize, this attitude is not enough to render the actions of an other, even if portrayed as evil, to be foreign to us. More basic than goodness or badness are the freedom with which we engage in ethical decisions, the comprehensibility of a desired end, and engagement in deliberation toward those ends. Still, we left off exploring Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenal body with the nagging suggestion that the fact someone has arms and uses them for mutually comprehensible purposes may not be enough for us to treat them as if they are a subject worthy of moral consideration. The key factor, though, is not a judgment of goodness or badness, but merely one about habit.

An implied conclusion of the previous section is that it is possible for us to treat other individuals as objects and not subjects. The so-called objective body, that is, a material thing without intention, is what we perceive when we see other people as an object to our subject. Rather than empathizing with them, we can take the stance that they are but objects to us. If other people are objects and not subjects, then we can justify doing things to them that we would never do to another subject—that is, a person engaging in meaningful existence in our shared world. But if we find some excuse to exclude them from the realm of subjects, then our moral duty toward them diminishes. An example of this phenomenon takes place at the end of the film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The intelligent chimp Koba tries to save himself by reminding the ape leader Caesar of the commandment, “Ape not kill ape.” Caesar responds, “You are not ape,” and tosses him off the precipice to his inevitable death.

The same kind of thing happens in Breaking Bad when Walt finds clever ways to take down members of various criminal organizations. In the first season, for instance, Walt eliminates quite a few drug dealers, using more and more sophisticated methods as he becomes accustomed to his new lifestyle. At some level, we decide this is fine: while we ourselves aren’t running around dissolving drug dealers in our bathtubs (“Cat’s in the Bag...”), we care more for the success of Walter White, the chemistry teacher, than we do for the lives of his new associates. We posit that this is because there is a general societal norm of treating criminals as objects. At a very basic level, of course, they maintain the same intentional relations with the world and therefore should be seen as other subjects, but this awareness is overridden by the habit of assuming that people like Emilio Koyama aren’t really humans and are therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. Along the way, however, something happens to our concept of what is good and bad. Sometimes Walt acts as if people we perceive as subjects of equal ethical standing must be treated badly in order to ensure his success. The most extreme example the show offers is the murder of Gale Boetticher (“Full Measure”).

The point of this analysis is not to determine whether the murder of Gale Boetticher is right or wrong. If we were to ask anyone who wasn’t currently ensconced in a blanket on their twenty-seventh straight hour of a Breaking Bad marathon, whether it’s okay to shoot your colleagues in the face to ensure your continued usefulness to an organization, the vast majority would reply in the negative. Even as we grapple with the horror of the act itself, though, we recognize that this decision is Walter White’s best shot at saving himself. This brings up another ethical trope, the intuitively valid ethical excuse, “It was either him or me.” We tend to think that an action is less blameworthy when it serves the sake of continued survival; we take survival to be a universal goal. If someone is a human, then they should aim at survival. (On the flip side, this is also why we think that those who sacrifice themselves for the sake of another or many others are morally superior beings.)

Gale Boetticher, on the other hand, is a lovely man with an aptitude for chemistry who poses no threat to Walter White except that he may be, in the eyes of Gus Fring, a possible substitute for him. We cannot excuse his murder under any guise: he is neither an object among subjects nor is he an existential threat. Still, we may find Walter White’s actions against him (and the unfortunate involvement of Jesse) justifiable in a sense.

The case of Gale Boetticher brings ethics into conflict with empathy, and the point we’ve been working toward in this chapter is that they are not the same thing. Rather, as was noted by the existentialists, we live in a way that now, more than ever, shows we are aware of our own paradoxical condition. Simone de Beauvoir claims,

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means... Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s.10

While empathy takes place on the level of the individual, ethics is supposed to provide universally valid principles for action. The reason that Gale Boetticher’s murder is so disturbing is that it forces us to come to terms with the fact of our ambiguous condition: we can no longer escape to the conceptual safety of either an empathic relation to Walter that would justify the elimination of his competitors, or to a universally valid ethical principle that would ban shooting nice chemists in the face. We feel committed to both viewpoints.

The goal of an existential ethics is to come to terms with this condition of ambiguity, wherein we find ourselves constantly demanding the transcendence of the subjective viewpoint while at the same time failing miserably at all attempts. The subjective viewpoint tells us that Walter White is an individual whose justification for murder we have taken on as we indirectly experience his life through the medium of TV. The abstracted, universal viewpoint tells us that he is morally reprehensible, and that by empathizing with him, we too are monstrous.

The advantage of an existential ethics, according to Beauvoir, is that it is the only way to account for the real role of evil in the world. In our ambiguous condition, we can empathize with Walter White, and in doing so become accustomed to the realization that he is not so different from us and that we too are capable of great evils. At the same time, existential ethics is not meant to justify evil; rather, it provides an optimistic counterpoint to the real existence of evil because it is only in response to real evil that an ethics is even necessary. As Beauvoir maintains,

Existentialism alone gives—like religions—a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which makes its judgments so gloomy. Men do not like to feel themselves in danger. Yet, it is because there are real dangers, real failures and real earthly damnation that worlds like victory, wisdom, or joy have meaning. Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.11

The failure we perceive in Walter White is his failure to survive without sacrificing Gale. Instead, he is in a position of treating Gale as an obstacle whose existence threatens his ability to flourish, and in that we perceive that there is some kind of real failure. Only in the face of this real failure do we attempt to escape by resorting to universal principles, and only with respect to the universal principles does his situation constitute a failure. Were the world actually governed by ethical laws, then no such failures would exist.

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