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Are free marketeers sociopaths?

How important is empathy, and do conservatives, libertarians, and other free marketeers lack it? Does that make us sociopaths?

Terrence Watson - July 24, 2008

Other studies have revealed that the states we think of as "conservative", like Mississippi, are more generous than their blue state counterparts. Again, this doesn't mean conservatives are more giving than liberals. But if conservatives lack empathy, their behavior doesn't seem to show it.

The claim that conservatives lack empathy might best be illustrated in their reaction to people like the Nunez's. While I am not much of a conservative, even I had a hard time feeling sorry for these folks. But why?

The crucial difference for conservatives between the Nunez's and our hypothetical earthquake sufferers is that Gloria Nunez and her daughter seem to have brought most of their suffering on themselves.

I don't think lack of empathy is always a character flaw. If our pity for the Nunez family makes us more hesitant to render moral judgment on them, then our pity has become a character flaw. Moral approbation is necessary if people are to learn, grow, and improve themselves. We don't act in a vacuum, but in response to our perception of the opinions of others. If those opinions are too tainted by compassion and not tempered with stern judgment, they are less likely to have a beneficial effect on those around us.

Think about it: if all we feel is pity for those who, through bad choices, are at least partially responsible for their own suffering, then all we do is incline them to feel sorry for themselves. Self-pity is a barrier to self-improvement. If, on the other hand, we point out the string of bad choices that led to the current state of affairs, we at least give people a chance to identify the negative trend for themselves, so they can take action to reverse it.

In other words, sometimes we do people a favor by holding back our empathy and exercising a pitiless moral judgment. Libertarians, who almost completely forsake using the law to make changes to people's behavior and put all their faith in public opinion to do so, must recognize the importance levying such judgments on people.

If you believe in the "crooked timber of humanity", but you don't believe the state has any business changing people's character, then you've committed yourself to a constant exercise in moral judgment, since–in the end–that is the only avenue you've allowed yourself for personal and social improvement.

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