On our (in)humanity

Two recent stories in the news caught my eye on the two sides of human beings. The first is a shocking episode of two young boys in England, brothers aged 10 and 11, who brutally beat two other boys of roughly the same age. The details of the case are horrific, as the brothers robbed the boys, threatened to kill them, forced one of them to engage in a sex act, and then for over an hour stomped and beat them with broken glass, bricks, sticks, and pieces of a ceramic sink. Both victims survived, but barely.

Contrast that story with the outpouring of support for Haitians suffering from the recent earthquake. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, as of January 20 private citizens and companies had donated $305 million to support relief efforts there. The wide chasm between these two stories encapsulates the tremendous pliability of human behavior. On the one hand, we have an enormous capacity for brutality toward each other, as seen in the many examples of interpersonal violence, the number of wars on the planet, or even through the more subtle, systematic violence of extreme poverty and exploitation.

However, consider the Haiti example again. Why do people selflessly give to strangers that they will never meet and who can never repay them? One could argue that the motives are varied. Perhaps if donations are not made anonymously, then it is not completely selfless to showcase oneself as philanthropic. Or, some people may be motivated to donate as an investment in some eternal reward or good karma. Another alternative, though, is that empathy is automatic and at least partly instinctive. As evolved, intelligent, intrinsically social primates, we are equipped with a capacity to ‘read’ the thoughts of others, including their emotional states. When we see others suffer, even through television images, we can instantly transport ourselves into their mindset. This makes us want to do something about it.

So, what’s the bottom line? I think it’s this. In our toolkit of human behavior, we may be predisposed to be wary of strangers and outsiders, which can lead to distrust, indifference, or interpersonal or intergroup violence. However, we also have a tremendous capacity to care for the welfare of others, even complete strangers, and at least part of this seems innate (more on this later). Therefore, we simultaneously carry the potential to be empathetic and brutal at the same time. As Gandhi once wrote, “No one should dogmatize about the capacity of human nature for degradation or exaltation.” The good news is that the empathy is there within us. We only need to do a better job of cultivating it.

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