Ethics without empathy
15 Jan 2011
The University of Michigan News Service reports, depressingly, that today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 80s and 90s.
If that’s true, it does not bode well for the future of the service professions.
I must confess to a certain temptation to dismiss the study as being in the spirit of the old guy across the street when you were growing up, who would yell at you to get off his lawn when you were playing street hockey. Unfortunately, the study involved almost 14,000 students over the last 30 years, which seems to be a statistically significant sample. The study found that students today are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”, and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me”.
The implications of this for service professions is difficult to underestimate. Being a good lawyer, or doctor, or priest – indeed, anyone who assists people with personal goals – requires an ability to imagine how things look from the client’s perspective. Coming up with a solution depends heavily upon understanding the client’s situation from his point of view, and feeling a degree of concern. In that way, the inability to empathize with clients is a serious competence issue.
It also presents a serious governance issue. I have said in the past that ethics is about the members of a profession acting in ways that suggest the member is trustworthy. That goes beyond reading a code of professional responsibility, and trying not to break any of the rules. It depends on understanding the reasons for the rules, and making judgment calls concerning right conduct when presented with a particular set of circumstances.
If a professional can’t understand the ways in which others might consider his behavior less than trustworthy, the professional is more likely to succumb to unethical behavior.
There is no clear solution. The researchers have not yet done any investigation into the causes of this drop in empathy. They do suggests that the reasons might stem from society becoming desensitized to the suffering of others, as a result of exposure to violence in the media. There is also a passing reference to the ephemeral nature of online connections. Neither of these things are likely to change in the foreseeable future.
There may also be some value in exploring empathy as part of a course in client interviewing. It may be that a partial solution might lie in moving away from rule-based understanding of professional responsibility, and moving more toward an understanding of professional responsibility as being founded on behaviors. Right conduct, however, is learned over a lifetime – not in a semester in law school.
In the end, I suspect that this is symptomatic of wider issues in society, and again, I find myself tempted to issue the clichéd call for the unity of humankind.
Fortunately, history teaches that the law has often been a force for positive change in society. Let’s hope it’s still up to the challenge.