Mirror Neurons, Empathy, and Morality

by practicalspactical

Why be moral? Why help?

Mirror Neurons imply something revolutionary, namely that we can actually feel the pain of others. Feeling this pain, we feel an urge to alleviate that pain. Mirror Neurons, of course, require actual vision of the Other in order to be triggered.

An example:

I was fiercely hungry after this morning’s class, and went to Dunkin Donuts to get a bagel and cream cheese. I took this food to Washington Square Park and sat down on a bench near the southern entrance. Across from me was someone I could only assume to be homeless (he was too poor to even afford a shirt.) As I ate, my reason pointed to the inevitable conclusion that this man across from me was most likely hungry. I felt a great guilt, though was unsure of my next move. Should I offer him my food or some of it? While I was not sure what I should do, it was clear what I felt — namely that this man was hungry, and I could fix that.

Luckily for my own mind, he came over to me and asked me if I had anything to eat (a rhetorical question, but a respectful one). Of course I did, and gave him what was left of my bagel. I doubt I would have given it to him unless he asked (which I justified on the basis that as a beggar, he chooses when to beg and when not to beg, and just like I would not go to a store that was not open, it would be rude to force this beggar to work (beg) when he was not choosing to.)

Now, in a world where mirror neurons do not exist (or where mirror neurons are not being fired because the Other is not present), are we still moved to act?

Even where I do not actually feel the pain of the other, I can use my reason to imagine the pain of the other, knowing that the circumstances indicate that the other is hungry, and knowing from my own experience what hunger feels like. At this point, I can also feel the pain of the Other. As a human averse to pain, I want to make this pain go away, and hence am moved to act.

So I know I want to act. Should I act? What about the hard-hearts? Perhaps there is a moral obligation to use our empathetic reason to feel the pain of others and use reasonable effort to alleviate that pain. If the question is Why Not? and I have no valid reason Why Not, perhaps I am required to act. 

I suppose this implies that where one can alleviate one’s pain, one must. With a second implication that one should fully rationalize all situations, and to not fully rationalize (and therefore empathize), one is being wasteful, careless, and cruel. To not help others when we can is a failure of instrumental rationality.

(Of course, maybe we aren’t obligated to satisfy our own desires.)

But if you want to satisfy your desires, all things considered, helping others is a requirement to that end. Not helping others ignores certain of our desires.

As an aside, one justification for not giving to beggars is that there are better institutions set up to deal with the problem of hunger. However, my guess is that people use that justification but then never take care to insure that those institutions are actually there and viable.

If you’re in New York, like I am, and you’re argument for not giving is similar to that one, perhaps you should give to an organization like the NYC Food Bank.