Chapter 4: Empathic Morality and the Golden Rule

Chapter 4: Empathic Morality and the Golden Rule


Try a fascinating experiment in moral development with any group of five-year-olds. First, tell them the Golden Rule. Say it in a couple of different ways, both in its traditional form (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and in a plainer English version, making sure that they understand all the words (for example, “Treat other people just the same as you’d like them to treat you”). Then ask the five-year-olds to repeat the Golden Rule and give some examples of the way it works. Unless they are prodigies, most of the children will repeat the Golden Rule as something like, “Do back to other people what they do to you,” or “Treat other people in the same way that they treat you.” Most five-year-olds will come up with the following kinds of examples: “I gave my Mom a nice birthday present because she’s always nice to me,” “Billy’s my best friend, and I share my bike with him so he’ll let me use his bike,” or “You can fight with someone who hits you first.”

Now as adults, we recognize that such sentiments are closer to the “eye for an eye” ethic of reciprocity and revenge than they are to the Golden Rule ethic of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” We recognize this because we are able to do an extra mental step that most five-year-olds cannot do: we consider what we would want if we were the other, instead of what we do want as ourselves. We are not bound by a limited, self-centered perspective that dictates how we feel when someone has done something to us (or for us), or that prescribes how we should act if we want to get someone to do something for us. We can take an extra mental step (a “what we would want if we were the other” step) by mentally placing ourselves in the shoes of another person. As this cognitive transaction is called in developmental psychology, adults can “role-take.”[1] In this way, we can know the wishes and expectations of another person.

Most adults are capable of the perspective-taking skills needed to understand the Golden Rule. Indeed, most children by the age of eight or nine can do it. But this does not mean that most adults actually use the Golden Rule in their day-to-day relationships, especially in their business transactions. Some people, first and foremost, are out for themselves: they couldn’t care less what another person would want, so the Golden Rule never comes up. And some adults persist in applying the Golden Rule in the manner of a five-year-old—as a justification for bribery or revenge (“I treat them as they treat me”). Still others may apply the Golden Rule to their closest loved ones— their children, their spouses, their friends—but assume that the world beyond their most intimate circles is a Darwinian environment where survival depends on more cutthroat behavior.

[1]W. Damon, The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth, New York: Free Press, 1990.

The Golden Rule’s Empathic Heart and Soul

To use the Golden Rule regularly, we need not only to understand what it means (in an adult way rather than a child’s tit-for-tat manner) but also to care enough about other people to treat them well. This feeling of caring about others is usually called empathy, and it is one of the hottest topics in social-science research these days, in part because of its importance in positive human relationships and in part because of recent breakthroughs in the study of the brain, showing that empathy is hardwired in humans from birth.[2] If perspective-taking is the “mind” of the Golden Rule, empathy is its heart and soul. When the capacities for perspective-taking and empathy are cultivated, resources of great personal and social power are acquired.

Empathy is the emotional capacity to experience another person’s pleasure or pain. It provides the emotional urge to care about other people. The expressions “My heart bleeds for you,” or “He’s a bleeding heart” (when meant seriously rather than sarcastically) are intended to capture the empathic sharing of emotion that leads to acts of charity and other benevolent behavior. Without empathy, the world would be a far more harsh and unforgiving place. It is one of the primary “moral emotions” with which the species has been endowed as part of its adaptive genetic legacy.[3] Because empathy is such a central part of the “kinder and gentler” dimension of human life, it is easy to overlook its practical and instrumental importance. Yet empathy, like all moral emotions, enhances ones own interests while it serves those of others. It does so in ways direct and indirect, immediate and long-term. The better a person becomes at using empathy, the greater the benefits all around.

The capacity to experience another person’s pleasure or pain through empathy is part of our native endowment as humans. Every human being is born with the capacity to empathize with others. Newborns cry when they hear crying sounds, and they show signs of pleasure at such happy sounds as cooing and laughter. By the second year of life, it is common for children to comfort peers or parents in distress. But our capacity for empathy does not remain fixed at birth; rather, it must improve with learning if it is to become an effective part of our responses to social situations. For example, the comfort that young children offer loved ones is not always appropriate to the person they are trying to help. Psychologists have pointed to such examples as toddlers offering mothers their own security blankets when they perceive that their moms are upset.

Although the emotional disposition to help is present at the beginning of life, the means of helping others effectively must be learned and refined through social experience. Moreover, in many people, the capacity for empathy may fail to grow—and it can even diminish—over time. People can act horribly cruelly to those with whom they refuse to empathize. For example, a New York City policeman who asked a teenage thug how he could have crippled an eighty-three-year-old woman during a mugging got the reply: “Why should that bother me? She’s not me.”[4]

Developing your capacity for empathy means mentally putting yourself in the shoes of as many types of people as you can—people who look different than you do, who think differently, who come from different backgrounds or are in different social positions or are living in different circumstances. It is not always easy to do this. You need to take a mental leap into another’s world and come away understanding not only how that person is different from you but also how your fates are entwined. You must care about the other in an emotional sense while perceiving the other accurately in an intellectual sense. This capacity is the psychological foundation of the Golden Rule. As a product of moral imagination that is driven by empathy, the Golden Rule is a different sort of creative act than those discussed in Chapter 3. It is a creative act that is particularly helpful in dealing with clients, customers, employees, or partners.

The CEO who starts in the company’s mailroom may gain insights into the needs and desires of entry-level employees, but it is easy enough for the CEO to forget or ignore such insights after climbing the corporate ladder. Similarly, all businesspeople are consumers of things, but that does not mean that they always keep their consumers’ best interests in mind while marketing goods to them.

To genuinely take into account the interests of another, you first must understand the perspective of the person who is in a different situation; then you must choose to empathize with that person. This act of moral imagination has both a cognitive component (perspective-taking) and an emotional one (empathy). Together, the two capacities create a strong sense of identification with the other people who populate your working world—a sense of identification that is essential for such key transactions as collaborating with fellow workers, serving customers, managing employees, and communicating with investors.

This chapter is about businesspeople who regularly use perspective-taking, empathy, and the Golden Rule in their day-to-day transactions. They have found these capacities to be formulas for successful and satisfying business relations, even in the midst of temptations and pressures to treat someone shabbily. How do they actually do this? What can we learn from their experience?

[2]P. Ekman, Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communications and Emotional Life, New York: Times Books, 2003.