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Do Republicans Lack Mirror Neurons? July 14, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, politics.
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I posted recently on the flap over Obama’s use of empathy as a criterion for choosing supreme court justices. But the moral cretins in the Republican Party still don’t get it. It is as if they were born without mirror neurons.

So it is worth revisiting the issue.

Yesterday in the Judiciary Committee hearings on Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the SCOTUS, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) said

“This empathy standard is troubling to me. The Constitution requires that judges be free from personal politics … feelings and preferences.”

But this is an utter misunderstanding of how empathy works. Empathy is a fundamental moral capacity. It is, in part, what makes us moral beings. Any person, whether a judge or not, must have empathy to function as a social being because empathy enables us to discern how others are situated in the world, what their emotional state is, what their intentions are, etc. We could not accurately interpret human behavior without empathy. [See Vignemont and Singer, unfortunately behind a paywall.]

Judges especially need empathy. Whether the issue involves the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment or disparate impact statutes in employment law, judges must determine how various interested parties will be affected by their rulings. When the law treats one group differently from another in the pursuit of a social goal, special justification is required

It is simply part of their job to assess outcomes.

Republicans wrongly think that judges who feel empathy must be allowing their preconceived moral ideology to influence their understanding of the law. They seem to think that judges must coldly apply the law as written without regard to consequences, which of course enables their privileged position as advocates for the ruling class to be smuggled in disguised as objectivity.

But empathy does not work that way.

Empathy is a necessary condition of impartiality—at least the kind of impartiality that humans (as opposed to machines) are capable of—because empathy makes us imagine, and thus come to know, how our actions affect others.

Responsible judges begin with the law as written, constrained by precedent and legislative history, and then ask whether the law so interpreted has the effect intended by lawmakers. One needs empathy to answer this question.

Empathy is not a conduit through which we splatter our preferences on an otherwise autonomous law. Empathy helps us discover the facts—it is fundamentally epistemological, not ideological.

Maybe Senators should be forced to undergo fMRI scans (to detect the presence of mirror neurons) before running for office. That would be the end of the Republican Party as we know it.


Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

 book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Ange Lobue, MD, MPH, BSPharm - July 15, 2009

Congratulations on making the necessary interpretation for those who have not yet “got it.”

I have sent numerous letters to members of Congress explaining the need for them to become familiar with the neuroscience of mirror neurons in order to help them with their obligations.

I do believe we should have a standard for empathy and compassion as prerequisites for political representatives and other leaders.

However, the problem is that even Republicans may have empathy and compassion, only with and for those who disagree with us.

Were Hitler’s emissaries and generals only able to put themselves in the shoes of their Fuhrer?

It would appear that sociopaths in politics have the ability to “appear to care about the people.” Whether they do or not is another story.

In the training of an actor by those who use the Actors Studio Method, there is often reference to an inner “bull shit detector,” a feeling that what the person is declaring on the outside is not what s/he is feeling on the inside, a sort of incongruence between the internal and external representation.

I suspect it takes a particularly sensitive use of mirror neurons to make such judgments.

But in my work in both the world of acting (particularly with good actors) and the world of neuroscience (particularly with Autism), I have found that one can be trained to enhance one’s “bull shit detector.”

The actors job is to learn to use his/her “bull shit detector” on him/herself in order to achieve authenticity in performance.

The autistic’s job is to learn to use his/her emotion detector on others in order to be able to relate with others.

I have seen evidence during the past ten years that both are possible and can make dramatic differences in the lives of those in whom these skills are developed.

Now, whether you can get politicians to take the training, that’s another story.

Ange Lobue, MD, MPH, BSPharm
American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

2. Huan - July 15, 2009

It seems that the political split is based on a split in fundamental human motivations, empathy+selfishness. We can train ourselves to use more of one, and I guess that’s what Republicans do. Dems are guilty as well though, since we focus a bit more on the empathy side.

3. Dwight Furrow - July 15, 2009


Thanks for your comment. Your work sounds fascinating. You are right that the political problem is that people tend to feel empathy more readily for familiar others. There are probably good evolutionary reasons for that. But it seems maladaptive in the contemporary world.

Reviving the Left is an attempt to think through how we can expand the role of empathy and compassion within institutions and between people who are not otherwise related.

The fact that in your research you can build empathic capacities is encouraging and very important.

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