Empathy, Ethics and Morality

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Most of us would agree that balanced concern for self and others constitutes a measure of psychological maturity and health.  While other, mostly mammalian, species share our capacity to live cooperatively and care for one another, only human beings are able to reflect consciously upon this attribute, to develop it and direct it purposefully.

It is our singular ability to think about our own thoughts and behavior that sets us apart.  With focused attention, we can learn to observe ourselves and the ways we impact others unlike any other animal.

Introspection and self awareness

By making introspective experiences meaningful, psychoanalytic therapy helps people exercise and develop this faculty.  As self-awareness increases, what we once perceived as pathological symptoms become better understood as creative, but imperfect, solutions to emotional concerns.  Slowly, they begin to lose their power.  Behavioral flexibility increases.  The jaws of our psychological traps release their painful grasp.

Our very human capacity to feel and demonstrate concern for others is not innate.   The evolution of concern and its cousin, empathy, represent major developmental achievements in the life and mind of an infant.  Like the capacity to think, they do not simply appear spontaneously.  Concern and empathy emerge from within the omnipresent parent-baby matrix that I’ve so often discussed.

The origins of empathy in infancy

From the moment of conception, mother and baby exist as a fused unit.  In this merged state, they constitute a mommy-baby enterprise, devised to insure infant survival.  The maternal preoccupation that drives this focused attention begins during pregnancy and continues well into an infant’s neonatal life.

An utterly dependent newborn has no idea where he stops and mommy or daddy begin.  In the safety of this merged state, he borrows strength from his parents, and unencumbered, he thrives and grows.

The fusion illusion

Eventually, he begins to realize that he and mom are actually two separate beings.  The fusion illusion is now a lovely dream he has outgrown.  Having served its purpose, our little one now gazes into his mother’s eyes and sees another person, not simply an extension of himself, as he had had imagined.

Young man with a skull
Young man with a skull

Paradoxically, just as he recognizes he’s not alone in the world as an all-powerful entity, he experiences the boundary of his own solitude for the first time.  He can know loneliness.  He can feel guilt.

This psychological epiphany represents his very first existential experience, and for the rest of his life he will oscillate between being alone within himself and being in relationship with others.  He will continue to seek the fusion and comfort he experienced as a protected baby during pleasurable moments of intimacy or times of distress.  He will work to balance his own needs with those of others.

Just as he recognizes his mother as a separate and significant other, he acquires the capacity to feel concern for her.  Of course he also feels anger, hatred and fear, but if mom is consistently attentive and protective, love and concern will predominate.  Just as his mother receives and transforms his hungry rage into feeding satisfaction, she receives his concern-love and returns it.

Reciprocity and empathy

This reciprocal sharing of feelings marks the beginning of a child’s capacity for empathy, the ability to project or locate a part of himself into another and subsequently feel something of that person’s experience.  This psychological achievement is profound, as it constitutes the absolute bedrock of ethical behavior and morality.

Hiccups can occur during any phase of this developmental arc.  If a mother is disengaged or unable to tolerate and transform her baby’s intense feelings, they back up like undigested food.  Neglected babies suffer from prematurely disrupted merger experiences.  Instead of concern, they feel only terror and hatred from within a cage of toxic solitude.

If these events transpire, a baby is left with intolerable anxiety, because his very life is at stake.  At first he protests and cries.  Eventually, if no one responds, he shuts down completely.  He has learned that his environment is not reliable, and he will never trust it again.  His developmental conveyor belt has broken down along with his budding ability to form healthy attachments.  The expectancy of neglect or abandonment has become a significant part of his emotional template.

Developmental milestones and boulders

If infants do not reach these imperative developmental milestones, if they fail to develop the capacity to feel concern for others, the singular trait that makes us human, empathy, never appears.


Lacking intrinsic humanity, these individuals cannot recognize it in others and, therefore, are not restrained from using people solely as objects for their own gratification.  Rampant white collar crime in the banking and mortgage industries exemplify this dynamic most palpably.

Psychopathy and paradise lost

The child psychoanalyst and pediatrician, Donald Winnicott, posited that a child who initially received care only to have it abruptly withdrawn or withheld, may subsequently feel himself entitled to what he has lost and behave in maladaptive ways to regain those losses.  This might explain the variations in degree between a person who commits an occasional unethical act and one suffering from a pervasive personality disorder.

The absence of concern is the source of character traits referred to as psychopathic or sociopathic.  The icy cold and mechanical aura surrounding these people reflect their utter lack of empathy or guilt and result from environmental failure in infancy, not inherent or constitutional evil, as is commonly or conveniently supposed.

It’s not that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong.  They simply don’t care.  Their moral code is circumscribed by their own unmet infantile desires and needs.

What’s good for me is “good,” and what’s bad for me is “bad,” and what’s good or bad for you is of no consequence.  Viewed through a distorted lens, all people are seen as equally unreliable as mother once was and deserve whatever cruelty they get.

Pathology is not evil

Pop culture books that titillate with descriptions of sociopathy as evidence of demonic evil are inaccurate.  They do a great disservice by failing to concede the all too human and banal genesis of this severe character disorder.  It reflects an infant’s predictable reaction to deficiencies in the parental surround required to sustain and nurture its mind-body.

Someone recently showed me a pop-culture book that actually instructed readers how to look for the “evil next door.”  It is facile and erroneous to believe that some people are born evil and must be destroyed.

The pretty blond demon-child, Rhoda, featured in the 1960’s kitsch movie, “The Bad Seed,” was an amusing caricature.  A fortuitous lightening strike might have concluded the movie, but it shed no light on a very complicated social concern.

It is much more painful to acknowledge that a great deal of sociopathy might be preventable.  While individuals suffering from criminal illness must be removed from society, it is imperative to remember that the cause of their pathology is very complex.

Empathy and human attachments

Devoid of humanity, these people are grossly damaged.  Because their ability to form secure interpersonal attachments was impaired in infancy, they are incapable of trusting others or forming any relationships defined by mutual concern or reciprocity.

Their empathy software is missing.  While the damage inflicted by sociopathy on a nuclear family is tragically unquantifiable, the emergence of these character traits in our social midst has tremendous import for society, government and culture.

In fact, these characteristics are clinically referred to as “antisocial,” and they range from singular and transient traits to a full blown personality disorder, defined by a pervasive disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.  Rooted in infancy and childhood, this pattern, characterized by lack of remorse, deceit, aggressiveness and indifference, will continue into adulthood.  It can be managed, never alleviated.

White collar crime

Most people immediately envision psychotic serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy when they think of sociopathy, but antisocial behavior is much more pervasive and immediate.

While there is a marked difference, however, between discrete antisocial “acts” and the all-encompassing personality disorder, antisocial behavior drives white collar crime.  Lack of empathy or remorse and unrestrained greed has produced our current financial calamity, as it has the ruinous savings and loan debacle and the earlier junk bond catastrophse.

Lack of empathy or remorse enabled tobacco company executives to lie to the public and Congress about the dangers of smoking for decades, as people died by the thousands.  More currently, it enabled a cabal of government and corporate oligarchs to swindle its way into our current disastrous economy.

Politicians are notoriously antisocial.  They often say and do anything to achieve their aims, regardless of who is used or sullied in the process.  This explains why statesmen rarely get elected.  Their honesty, empathy and sense of remorse prevent them from justifying any means to accomplish their ends.

The function of guilt

While everyone lies from time to time, we usually feel guilt.  People with antisocial traits do not.  In fact, they are aroused and thrilled each time they “get away” with a transgression.

In effect, they are relentlessly punishing the (maternal) environment that disappointed them as infants.  Jeffrey Dahmer, who also engaged in cannibalism, was enacting a distorted form of breast feeding, actual human flesh symbolically representing nourishment he did not receive as an infant.

But gratification is fleeting, just as it is with binge shopping, because the emotional hunger is never sated.  The inner wound is never exposed and healed.  Psychoanalysis uncovers and treats the original trauma.

Societal implications

Death and life
Death and life

What are the implications for all of us?  The seeds of both sociopathy and morality are sown in infancy.  A baby who received empathy can bestow it.  A child whose mind-body needs were not met adequately will live the remainder of his life like a machine, devoid of the traits that make us most human.

While a massive government bail out may preclude the immanent implosion of our financial system, it will not prevent the next one.  To accomplish that, we have to repair the emotional potholes in our own streets.

The antidote: honoring the needs of children

Rather than looking for evil next door, it might be more productive to consider the ways in which we, as individuals and members of society, can sponsor parents, children and families, helping them resonate more effectively, particularly during critical periods of infancy and childhood.  Early intervention is vital.  When emotional integrity hangs in the balance, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of cure.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975

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