The Emotional Roots of Ethics

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In Lesson 5 we began to see how our happiness is linked to our concern for the well-being of others. Developing the state of mind — the compassion — on which happiness rests requires that we understand our emotions —those which discourage compassion and those which promote it. In this lesson we begin to look at emotional qualities associated with empathy the ability to appreciate another's suffering, empathy — and compassionate generosity of spirit, sympathy and love. And we look at emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.

We begin with empathy, a powerful force in the generation of compassion.

Empathy — a basic human feeling

When individuals — and societies —lose touch with basic human feeling, we see the results in the harm done: neglect of the poor, political oppression, war, concentration camps...

While we may prefer to see these as political or legal problems, the Dalai Lama urges us to see such events as powerful admonitions, reminders of what can happen when people — and the societies they make up — lose touch with basic human feeling.

Just as we all have the capacity to act selflessly out of concern for other's well-being, so do we all have the potential to be murderers and torturers.

Reflect on the Dalai Lama's observation as it applies to yourself. What sets you apart from someone who harms others in such extreme ways?

History and current events show us that diplomacy and regulation alone can not prevent humans from harming each other. Rather we must learn to respect one another's feelings at a basic human level. The Dalai Lama is speaking of a basic human capacity we all have to empathize with one another.

What does empathy mean to you? Do you feel it's a characteristic of who you are?

When I speak of basic human feeling, I am not only thinking of something fleeting and vague, however. I refer to the which, in Tibetan we call shen dug ngal wa la mi so pa. Translated literally, this means "the inability to bear the sight of another's suffering."

Given that this is what enables us to enter into, and to some extent participate, in others' pain, it is one of our most significant characteristics. It is what causes us to start at the sound of a cry for help, to recoil at the sight of harm done to another, to suffer when confronted with others' suffering. And it is what compels us to shut our eyes even when we want to ignore others' distress.

What situations give rise to empathy in you? Reflect on some of your experiences of empathy — your experience of others' suffering:

  • Hearing cry for help or crying out in pain
  • Seeing someone being harmed 
  • Seeing someone suffering

Can you identify what shuts down your empathy? If you are threatened, do you lose touch with your empathy?

Imagine walking along a road, deserted save for an elderly person just ahead of you. Suddenly, that person trips and falls. What do you do? What do you feel?

Imagine someone who chooses not to go to the aid of someone in need. Does this indicate that they do not feel concern, that they do not empathize?

Imagine a person for whom empathy does not arise. As the Dalai Lama points out:

It is certainly possible to imagine people who, after enduring years of warfare, are no longer moved at the sight of others' suffering. The same could be true of those who live in places where there is an atmosphere of violence and indifference to others.

What is the relationship between our appreciating the kindness of others and our own ability to act from empathy?

Since empathy means projecting our experience to others, we can benefit greatly from exploring our experience of being shown kindness. In the previous lesson we explored how our lives are and have always been affected to the kindness of others, from our mother's care onwards.

Reflect on the kindness and care you received from your parents when you were young.  Reflect on how you will appreciate the kindness of others when you are old and need care. Reflect on how important it is to be taken care of and cared for when you are ill.

The Dalai Lama observes:

A life lacking this precious ingredient must be a miserable one.

This precious ingredient is empathy — what we feel when others care for us and what we are being urged to cultivate in our own minds.