Being better: Where did our empathy go?

By Denise Wong

In late October, the story of Yue Yue went viral. The surveillance footage from Foshan, China was posted online and depicted two cars that drove over Yue Yue’s tiny body in the marketplace where her parents worked; neither driver did so much as stop to see what they had run over. Eighteen civilians walked right past Yue Yue, who was bleeding to death on the ground, without even a hint of concern on their faces. They did not stop to stare; they did not stand in shock and contemplation for even a second. Eighteen people merely shot a glance in her direction and continued to walk away — one of which was a motorcyclist who rode around her, as if a baby lying on the ground crumpled in blood was no more than a rock to avoid. Yue Yue was left unattended on the ground for seven minutes before a garbage lady moved her off to the side and called for help. She received intensive medical care at the hospital but died seven days later due to brain failure.


Just imagine: what if that was your child? Would you be able to walk away as if it was nothing? If you can’t even imagine walking away from your own dying child, then you probably won’t be able to walk away from any dying child — right? Here’s the problem: those 18 citizens who walked by Yue Yue with no reaction whatsoever, would undoubtedly have an entirely different reaction if that was their child bleeding on the ground. Yet because this child was not their child, it was somehow treated as if it were not a child at all. This kind of reaction is known as moral disengagement, a severe disconnection leading to an inability to empathize with another. Jeremy Carpendale, a professor from SFU’s psychology department, recalls an example in World War II where a man declared his love for children, and yet he was responsible for the deaths of half a million Jewish children because he somehow failed to recognize Jewish children as children. Empathy occurs when people are able to relate and put themselves in another’s position despite all possible racial, ethnic, cultural, and other differences. Therefore empathy is absent when one allows differences to distance them from another. In extreme cases, it causes people to behave like Nazis in World War II or the extremely desensitized 18 people in Yue Yue’s case, but it happens in small everyday events as well.


Take, for example, illegally downloading music over the Internet versus walking into a store and stealing something. Many more people are guilty of the former offense because when you actually have to walk in and physically take something without paying for it, it somehow feels a lot more like you’re breaking the law. Maybe it’s the physical act, or maybe it’s the possibility of being seen by the store clerk or other shoppers, but regardless, there seems to be a disconnect. Somehow, stealing music on the Internet doesn’t register in our minds as ‘stealing’ the way that physically taking something from a store would.


So how do people acquire morality and the ability to empathize? Most would answer that it starts in childhood, where parents play a fundamental role in teaching their kids right from wrong. According to Carpendale, “The usual approach is, a kind of person-on-the-street idea: how do kids become moral? Their parents teach them. And, well, of course there are exceptions to that. We all know kids don’t always obey what their parents tell them. In fact, sometimes that’s a good thing.” So the idea of learned morality is not a consistent solution because sometimes kids grow up and learn to think for themselves, sometimes they make better decisions learning from their parents, and sometimes they don’t.


Another possible answer is that people are just naturally moral, an approach that focuses on moral exemplars: saint-like people who are exceptionally moral. Studies found that it wasn’t that these people engaged in high-staged reasoning all the time, but that it was part of their natural thought process. There was nothing else they could have done because doing something else would violate the person they are. Many people in China say they hesitate to help injured people for fear of being blamed for causing the harm. These fears aren’t unfounded:  several high-profiled cases have ended where good samaritans were ordered to pay hefty fines to the individual they helped. While this may have been a contributing factor to the apathy shown by the 18 citizens that ignored Yue Yue, I am convinced it is no more than an after-the-fact poor attempt at justifying immorality. Fear of apprehension doesn’t stop you from gasping at a bloody baby. In fact, when the garbage lady (who was the 19th person who saw Yue Yue, and the only one who called for help) was interviewed, she responded, “I didn’t think of anything at the time, I just wanted to save the girl.” In urgent situations, there’s no time for higher staged reasoning and logical planning — most people follow their gut instinct, a fight or flight response.


But what makes a person fight and what makes them flight? Are some people just naturally good and others naturally apathetic? If that’s true then do we call it a day and say, “Well! I guess it’s just who that person is!” and let them be? Do we just put all the immoral people on an island and leave them there to do whatever damage they might do because there’s just no hope for them? That doesn’t seem right either. Wanda Cassidy, a professor from SFU’s education program says, “Aristotle, 2,000 years ago was talking more about virtues, but he’s saying ‘How do you become courageous? How do you become loving and all these things?’ You become by practicing those habits of good behaviour, those habits of courage, those habits of love, those habits of whatever we’re trying to cultivate.” According to this belief, morality is something that has to be practiced. Perhaps we must constantly remind ourselves of how to behave and how to treat others properly so morality becomes second nature.


Social interactions also play a big role in moral development, a kind of trial-and-error method of learning. Eventually we learn through repeated social interactions with peers and people in general, that if we react morally, then good things will happen. For example, kids like to play together and as a result they must figure out a way to get along. “If you’re going to have friends, you have to learn to treat them properly, otherwise you’re not going to have any friends — which isn’t fun,” Carpendale explained. “So they work out a way of getting along with each other, which is based on moral principles even through they would have no clue about it if you asked them at that point. Some years later they could reflect on it and maybe talk about it, but first, what happens is they just work it out on a practical level, so there’s practical morality there before you get into what Kholberg was interested in, this kind of moral reasoning.”


But back to my original question: what makes some people compassionate and others dispassionate? What makes some people fight and others flight? Well, it certainly isn’t as simple as childhood upbringing, and it’s probably wise to discard the notion that there is some simple answer or formula to follow when it comes to empathy. Maybe it begins with parental role models; maybe its some gratifying experience where a child shares with another and suddenly realizes how good it feels; maybe it’s a natural reaction that stems from who you are as a person; or maybe morality is something that we must practice to perfect.


As for me, these questions of morality and immorality, empathy and apathy, serve more as a wake up call than anything else. Maybe that’s what angers us, when people don’t do the right thing because, to some degree, we think morality is supposed to come naturally for everyone. Just like the 18 passersby in Yue Yue’s case, it angers us because the right thing to do seems so obvious to us, and we think that helping her should have been a natural reaction. But maybe we need to realize that morality isn’t innate, and that making right decisions don’t just come naturally. Maybe it’s better to question ourselves in the face of such monstrosity, than to condemn the action or inaction of others, because it begs the question: are we really that much better?