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Schubart: The Nature Of Empathy

There’s a lot of discussion these days about empathy, whether rich people have it or not and if so, where does it come from. There are to two prevalent theories: that it’s inborn – genetically-based – or that, wealth eliminates any need to experience empathy from others since it can satisfy its own needs and thus it never takes root in them.
Wealth does insulate one from reality and allows those with it to shape their own reality in a way that poverty can’t. Poverty binds those who live in it inexorably to the natural joys and miseries of existence.

The wealthy can buy priority and citizenships that allow them to hedge their bets, maintaining homes in wealthy enclaves such as London, New York, Dubai, and Singapore, where they can maintain security and privilege, and be protected from currency fluctuations, and taxes. Those with little must live with what fate and their social and economic endowments hand them, whether in Burlington, The Bronx, or Mogadishu.

Earned ethically and legally, the accretion of great wealth should be celebrated. As it grows, however, so must the commensurate sense of responsibility, stewardship, and empathy that transforms great treasure into a human asset.

The widening gulf between wealth and the working poor can elicit either of two reactions, a defensive one that seeks to justify and secure the widening chasm… or a humane and empathetic one that explores ways to enhance world order and benefit the commonweal. This means more than charitable giving. It may mean business reinvestment or social, medical, and educational investments. Or it may just mean paying lawful taxes and playing by the rules that the rest of us must play by.

What is doesn’t mean is a defensive armament of fiction about “job creators, bloated government, and excess regulation.” Nor does it mean repurposing the words of the nation’s founders, advocating “self-regulation,” or engaging in corruption. It certainly doesn’t mean the deployment of money to elect self- serving officials who deliver further privilege to wealth under the rubric of “free speech.”

We need to take a hard look at what is happening in America. We’re among the luckiest people who’ve ever lived on earth. The great danger across all degrees of our wealth is our growing obsession with ourselves and our immediate gratification. We are a connected species and our dominance can enhance or destroy us and our progeny.

There are rules that sustain social and economic order. They are laws, regulations, and equitable taxation. We might also ask ourselves how it is that those among us with the most to lose dance tirelessly to the tune of those who would take it from us?