Last month I talked about the moral degeneracy of our times and about restoring or creating a moral society. Today I want to talk about determining what is and is not moral.

Rationally speaking, it’s increasingly clear, from study after study, that the kindest, most compassionate policies consistently prove to be the most rationally utilitarian as well: the fewest number of people suffer the least harm and the largest number of people enjoy the most utility from taking a compassionate, generous approach. The most obvious example of this is that it would cost all of society less money and make us all safer and more secure to give homeless people homes rather than allowing them to stay homeless. Being nice is being smart.

Many people want to make decisions based on rational data, everything cold and objective, but the reality is that this is impractical in day to day life. First of all, we rarely have time and resources to gather all the necessary data. Second, if the data is bad, which it can easily be due to flawed methodology, human error, bias in gathering or interpreting data, and so many other factors, the results of the “rational” decision-making process will turn out to be flat wrong. Third and finally, we are all biased people, with our own irrational filters on our data interpretation processes. We are not likely to be able to be objective about anything—especially those of us who believe ourselves to be objective. That just means we’re totally unaware of our hidden biases.

Rational determination of morality is a nice idea, but in interactions with the real world, we need something faster and more reliable. I suggest the best tool for determining moral action is empathy.

The human ape evolved to have what seem currently to be the most intensive and perceptive mirror neurons of all known species. We humans need to ask ourselves how such tools for empathy evolved. What is the evolutionary drive that made them so distinct a survival advantage?

I postulate utilitarianism. The greatest advantage to the human organism is in caring for other human organisms. The instinct toward empathy is what makes us able to accomplish the vast, world-shaping things we accomplish. It is also what gives each individual human the greatest chance for survival.

Yes, a small minority of humans do well for themselves by hurting rather than helping others, but there is simply not room at the cruel, selfish top of society for all of us. Play king of the mountain with your sad little life if you must, but your odds of stability and security are much higher when you focus your efforts toward your compassionate instincts. Your empathy.

This is morality. Morality is the choice to help others rather than to hurt them. The core of any moral philosophy must therefore always rely on the compassionate instincts.

This is great news! It means that we have a built-in, instinctive tool for determining quickly what is most likely to be the most moral course of action. It’s true that our society is complex enough that determining morality is sometimes more complicated than just “what feels kindest”, but empathy can and should be the core starting point of any attempt to determine the morality of a given choice, and falling back on empathy in a pinch will tend to have a lesser chance of disastrous long-term consequences. Mercy, at worst, will give you time to think through your actions with more clarity, at least in the majority of circumstances.

I’ll go into more detail next month about how to determine morality in circumstances when empathy is insufficient (such as giving needed medication to a child who refuses to take it, or harming another person in order to prevent worse harm to yourself), but empathy is the first step.

Some of us, especially most female-assigned people, are taught from early childhood how to recognize and utilize these instincts at the highest possible capacity. This is taught to female-assigned children for very much the wrong reasons, but if it was taught equally to all children, the world would be a much better place.

It is also taught out of many children, especially those who have been assigned male, as well as young adults entering male-dominated fields. This is very, very much a rationally counterproductive way for society to behave, and we would all be better off if it didn’t happen.

If you were never taught to place empathy at the forefront of your decision-making, or if you have had your empathy trained out of you, here are some tips for reconnecting with this useful and basic human instinct*.

The best way to stimulate compassionate instincts on a biochemical level is to spend more time around tiny babies. If there are any tiny babies in your social circle, volunteer to take regular shifts caring for these helpless little people. Hold them. Smell their baby skin. Rock them. Dance with them. Sit still with them. Gaze into their eyes, and do everything you can to imagine what the world is like for them. Be patient when they cry, and curious about the source of the tears. Use empathy to determine what they need. It may just be attention and being held.

Engaging in this process triggers literal chemical changes in the human body, guiding our neurochemical impulses to emphasize compassion more highly than it did before.

If no babies are available, practice deep, attentive empathy with pets, lovers, older children, and friends. This won’t cause neurochemical changes of the same intensity, but it will still increase your overall capacity to determine the most moral course of action instinctively, at a moment’s notice.



*Note: if your empathy has been beaten out of you by torture or oppression, understand that I do not presume to advise you. In a later post, I’ll address the complex relationship between morality and privilege, but for now simply assume I’m offering advice to people who are more societally privileged.