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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Outgroup empathy

One thing I've wondered about medieval saints like Thomas Aquinas is how they could sign off on war or capital punishment or the murder of heretics. Today I listened to a talk by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker about the history of violence in which he maintained that violence is declining. He offered a number of theories as to why, and one was that of philosopher Peter Singer, who thinks that the inherent empathy humans have always had has been applied to larger and larger groups of others over time: from family, to clan, to town, to country, to all humankind, to nowdays even animals. At the end of Pinker's talk someone asked him if he thought the proliferation of technology has helped expand that circle of empathy. Pinker replied ...

Very much .... it helps us imagine what it's like to be someone else. I think when you read [about] these horrific tortures that were common in the middle ages, you think how could they possibly have done it, how could they not have empathized with the person that they're disemboweling? But clearly ... as far as they're concerned, this is just an alien being that does not have feelings akin to their own.

I wonder if this is so - I find it hard to let professional Christians like Thomas Aquinas off the hook for their harmful policies with the excuse that they were culturally incapable of empathizing with outgrouped others. But anyway, you can read an interesting interview with Pinker at Sam Harris' blog - Twilight of Violence: An Interview with Steven Pinker.


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