Sunday, August 12, 2012

Equality, empathy and psychopathy

Equality, empathy and psychopathy
July 24, 2012 | Theresa St. Amant

Sanatana Dharma is an ancient code of conduct originating with the Vedic culture some 8,000+ years ago. The Sanskrit word 'dharma', while not easily translated into English, due to its complex, multi-level meaning can be interpreted as 'the collection of natural and universal laws that uphold, sustain, or uplift'. In effect, dharma is a law of being, a law of nature, individual nature, prescribed duty, social and personal duties, a moral code, civil law, a code of conduct, morality, a way of life, a practice, an observance, justice, righteousness, religion, religiosity and harmony.

Rather than a set of man-made rules, Sanatana Dharma is more akin to a document of the observable laws of physics. The word 'karma', meaning 'action' is used to indicate the cause-effect relationship between action and consequence. Moral judgement is an attitude that applies in relation to the dharmic value produced by the cause-effect of actions, but the laws, themselves are as morally neutral as the non-dual monism of Vedic philosophy that first began to examine and discuss the nature of existence. Karma, when understood as 'work' in the sense that it is used in physics, does not categorise any action as inherently good or bad. Instead, any and all actions and intentions 'that uphold, sustain, or uplift' life are good, while those actions that suppress or destroy life are bad. This is purely a rational position that hinges on the assumption that there is consensus will to live and let live and that that will is firmly founded on the understanding that all life forms are inextricably integrated, interdependent and of equal value to the whole. The recognition of equality cannot be gained by a mind incapable of empathy, which is rooted in ahimsa, a tenet of Sanatana Dharma. The word 'ahimsa' translates into 'non-violence', but encompasses all acts of violence from harsh words to killing insects.

As we observe the world we live in, the cause-effect consequences of humanity's actions have become quite apparent. With the Occupy Wall Street movement now a global phenomenon, we can see that the unrest, due to systemic and institutionalised greed for material wealth and social power, is a consequence of extreme inequality and indifference to the state and condition of all beings. The systems and institutions of civilisation do not uphold, sustain, or uplift the process of life and cannot so long as they remain focussed on upholding, sustaining and uplifting some forms of life while actively suppressing and destroying others.

This state of inequality, bias for some and indifference toward others is the result of an empathy deficit within the institutions and systems that man has established to govern and direct civilisation. We have, in effect, man-made laws that undermine, suppress and destroy both the forms and the process of life. And while we might be tempted to suggest that equality and empathy are merely choices of morality, our knowledge of physics and physiology is revealing that our environment and our bodies are naturally designed for equality and empathy, but that brain disorders in a small segment of humanity have led the whole planet down a dead-end road toward self-destruction.

As we become more environmentally conscientious, we observe the detrimental impact we have made on the habitats of underprivileged humans and other species. We've discovered that dumping toxins into water bodies results in contaminants in potable water and that effects us. We can see that our indirect and remote destructive actions result in a direct and equally destructive consequence to us. This is karma and it makes clear the natural fact of equality. While we might have assumed that the toxins dumped over there would stay over there, they haven't. The Laws of Thermodynamics cannot be bypassed. Everything moves toward the state of equilibrium. Eventually toxins will be equally distributed across the entire planet and there will be no place on Earth where clean, pure water exists. Equality is a natural law, just as karma is. The disregard and lack of conscience that has allowed circumstances to degrade to this point is a social disease that has spread from a few influential individuals with brain disorders.

Wikipedia describes mirror neurons as 'neurons that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron 'mirrors' the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate and other species including birds. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.

Mirror neurons represent the hard-wired brain circuitry that animals possess for the function of empathy. Empathy is not an emotional faculty. It's a feature of our motor skills. Our brains are designed to allow us to know how other beings might be feeling and thinking as we observe them acting. Studies reveal that this isn't a psychic link, but rather something of a remote personal experience. We mentally experience vicariously with others as they experience physically. Empathy is a healthy natural mental function in humans and other animals. There is no species barrier that prevents one species from empathising with another. In fact, empathy is known to arise quite naturally toward inanimate objects too. Being concerned about the environment isn't sentimental. It's the natural response of a healthy brain. Knowing how others might feel is a biological faculty and not a manmade moral option any more than equality is. Neither can be excluded from our conduct on the basis of personal choice. If a person chooses to live, they automatically enlist themselves into taking empathy and equality affirmative actions.

Empathy has been subdivided into two major components: cognitive empathy ('theory of mind') and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is 'the drive to identify another's mental states', while affective empathy is 'the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's mental states'. There are several identified disorders associated with the human brain's capacity for empathy. Difficulties in cognitive empathy are identified with Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Alexithymia is the inability to recognise and verbally express emotions in self or others. Narcissistic personality disorder is a lack of empathy and unwillingness to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others. Yet the most disturbing disorder related to empathy is psychopathy.
'Some psychopaths are able to detect the emotions of others with such a theory of mind and can mimic caring and friendship in a convincing manner, often in an effort to callously exploit others. While some psychopaths can detect what others are feeling, they do not experience any reciprocal emotion or sympathy. However, some research indicates that components of neural circuits involved in empathy may also be dysfunctional in psychopathy.' ~ Wikipedia
It is estimated that 1 to 2 percent of the population are psychopaths. While we learn about the atrocious actions of psychopaths with sadistic tendencies through media, we haven't yet acknowledged the subtler, but broadly destructive presence that has infiltrated our political and economic systems, as well as our personal lives. Robert D. Hare, a Canadian world-renowned for his superlative understanding of psychopathy, defines psychopaths as 'social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plough their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret' ~ Robert D. Hare (Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us).

Wherever we look in our economic and political systems, as well as food, entertainment, financial, real estate and a whole list of other industries, we find the traces of psychopathological illness. It has become an infectious, socially transmitted disease. We need to quarantine the infected and begin inoculating everyone to prevent further spread. Fortunately we have all the resources to accomplish these objectives. We have institutions for the criminally insane and we have the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to detect disorder. We can begin screening politicians and industry leaders, whose work involves making choices for the populace of employees, consumers and citizens. We can begin by demanding screening of political election candidates and boycott companies until the sanity check is published for their respective CEOs.

To correct the disastrous environmental, social, economic and political conditions that plague life on this planet, we need to ensure that equality and empathy are built into the framework of all institutions of civilisation. Work has already begun in the classrooms, teaching children about equality, empathy and non-violence. Roots of Empathy is a classroom program that reduces levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Roots of Empathy began in 1996 as a pilot program reaching 150 children in the Toronto District School Board. In 2000, the program began to spread across the country and by 2005 Roots of Empathy was active in nine provinces. In the fall of 2011, every Canadian province began taking part in Roots of Empathy. To date Roots of Empathy has reached more than 450,000 children across Canada. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in New Zealand, the United States, Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

While the work of Roots of Empathy represents the immunisation campaign to stem the spread of psychopathy, the need to quarantine already infected individuals and sanitise our social, economic and political institutions still remains unfulfilled. Nevertheless, time will eradicate psychopathy. Beings who cannot adapt to a changing environment become extinct and leaders who think and act without empathy will one day retire and die.

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