The Kernel of Human (or Rodent) Kindness

Henry Garrett

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

Morality exists only because we evolved the capacity to empathize. And empathy provides the best guide to moral action. But there are those who say that empathy is too selective to play such a central role in our moral system.

People tend to empathize more readily with those who look, sound and behave like themselves. We feel the pain more acutely of those who resemble us. How then can empathy serve as a moral guide when it is morality’s role to lead us away from cruelty toward people outside our own group?

To answer this objection, we can look to our fellow animals, many of whom share our capacity for empathy. If a rat sees another rat drowning, for example, it will forgo a chunk of chocolate to save its imperiled friend. Its actions are guided by its empathy.

Scientists at the University of Chicago further explored the nature of empathy in rats. They found that a white rat raised among only white rats will do nothing to save a black rat from a trap. Rats, like humans, can be biased in how they act on, or don’t act on, their empathy.

In a variant of the experiment, a white rat raised among only black rats would save a black rat from a trap — but would fail to save other white rats.

And a white rat raised among black and white rats rescued rats of both colors. The researchers found that it is not the rat’s color that determines which type of rat it will show empathy for, but the social context in which it was raised.

In short, rats do not show empathy because of an innate recognition of similarity in physical appearance. Likewise, when human empathy can be partial, it is because the experiences of people from some groups are hidden from our view, which limits our empathy toward them.

It’s vital to recognize that prejudice is not baked-in: It is the result of our ignorance. A failure to learn about people (or rats) of different kinds can mean that we fail to recognize their pain as genuine pain. Empathy can be switched off.

Empathy by itself is not enough. It becomes an accurate guide for moral action only when combined with knowledge of people of all different backgrounds — knowledge that can be attained only if you are willing to actively listen to people whose voices have been silenced.

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