Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

The Age of Empathy

by Rob - January 13th, 2010.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

Speaking of putting political views into one’s writing, I found the following from the book I’m currently reading very well said. It’s from The Age of Empathy: Nature’s. Lessons for a Kinder Society by primatologist Frans de Waal. He writes:

What confuses some is that fairness has two faces. Income equality is one, but the connection between effort and reward is another. Our monkeys are sensitive to both, as are we. Let me explain the difference by contrasting Europe and the United States, which traditionally emphasize different sides of the same fairness coin.

When I first arrived in the United States, I had a mixed impression: On the one hand I felt that the United States was less fair than what I was used to, but on the other hand it was more fair. I saw people living in the kind of poverty that I knew only from the third world. How could the richest nation in the world permit this? It became worse for me when I discovered that poor kids go to poor schools and rich kids to rich schools. Since public schools are financed primarily through state and local taxes, there are huge differences from state to state, city to city, and neighborhood to neighborhood. This contrasts with my own experience, in which all children shared the same school regardless of their background. How can a society claim equal opportunity if the location of one’s birth determines the quality of one’s education?

But I also noticed that someone who applies him- or herself, as I surely intended to do, can go very far. Nothing stands in their way. Envy is far from absent, and is in fact somewhat of a joke in academia (“Why do academics fight so much? Because there’s so little at stake!”), but generally speaking, people are happy for you if you succeed, congratulate you, give you awards, and raise your salary. Success is something to be proud of. What a relief compared to cultures in which the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, or my own country, with its fine Dutch expression, “Act normally, which is crazy enough!”

Holding people back from achievement by hanging the weight of conformity around their necks disrupts the connection between effort and reward. Is it fair for two people to earn the same if their efforts, initiatives, creativity, and talents differ? Doesn’t a harder worker deserve to make more? This libertarian fairness ideal is quintessentially American, and feeds the hopes and dreams of every immigrant.

For most Europeans, this ideal takes a backseat to the advice from Dolly Levi, played by Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly!, who exclaimed: “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.” I have seen European newspaper editorials argue that television personalities should never earn more than the head of state, or that CEO salaries should never rise by a greater percentage than worker payment. As a result, Europe is a more livable place. It lacks the giant, nearly illiterate underclass of the United States, which lives on food stamps and relies on hospital emergency rooms for its health care. But Europe also has less of an incentive structure, resulting in a lower motivation for the unemployed to get jobs or for people to start a business. Hence the exodus of young entrepreneurs from France to London and other places.

U.S. CEOs easily earn several hundred times as much as the average worker, and the Gini index (a measure of national income inequality) of the United States has risen to unprecedented heights. The proportion of income owned by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans recently returned to the level of the Great Depression. The United States has become a winner-take-all society, as Robert Frank called it, with an income gap that seriously threatens its social fabric. The more the poor resent the rich, the more the rich fear the poor and retreat into gated communities. But an even greater burden is health: U.S. life expectancy now ranks below that of at least forty other nations. In principle, this could be due to recent immigration, lack of health insurance, or poor eating habits, but the relation between health and income distribution is in fact not explained by any of these factors. The same relation has also been demonstrated within the United States: Less egalitarian states suffer higher mortality.

Richard Wilkinson, the British epidemiologist and health expert who first gathered these statistics, has summarized them in two words: “inequality kills.” He believes that income gaps produce social gaps. They tear societies apart by reducing mutual trust, increasing violence, and inducing anxieties that compromise the immune system of both the rich and the poor. Negative effects permeate the entire society:

It seems that the most likely reason income inequality is related to health is because it serves as a proxy for the scale of social class differentiation in a society. It probably reflects the scale of social distances and the accompanying feelings of superiority and inferiority or disrespect.

Now, don’t get me wrong: No one in his right mind would argue that incomes should be leveled across the board, and only the most die-hard conservatives believe that we lack any obligation to the poor. Both kinds of fairness — the one that seeks a level playing field and the one that links rewards to effort — are essential. Both Europe and the United States pay a steep price, albeit different ones, for stressing one fairness ideal at the expense of the other. After having lived for so long in the United States, I find it hard to say which system I prefer. I see the pros and cons of both. But I also see it as a false choice: It’s not as if both fairness ideals couldn’t be combined. Individual politicians and their parties may be committed to either the left or right side of this equation, but every society zigzags between these poles in search of an equilibrium that offers the best economic prospects while still fitting the national character. Of the three ideals of the French Revolution — liberty, equality, and fraternity — Americans will keep emphasizing the first and Europeans the second, but only the third speaks of inclusion, trust, and community. Morally speaking, fraternity is probably the noblest of the three and impossible to achieve without attention to both others.

Bravo, Frans de Waal! (The entire book is excellent, by the way — as are the many others by de Waal I’ve read over the years.)

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

3 Responses to The Age of Empathy

  1. What an interesting excerpt!

  2. Thank you for that. I'll have to add this book to the never-ending pile.
    It occurs to me that Canada has managed to stand the fairness coin on its edge. Or maybe I just like to think so: it's the primary reason I'm a proud Canadian.

    Personally, I have an overdeveloped empathy gland, or something: I can't stand most comedy because, quite frankly, pain isn't funny. This is why your Neanderthal Parallax resonated with me as strongly as it did: your Barasts were empathetic, and so were (most of) your human characters.

    Thanks again for that excerpt.

  3. When the ice cream company "Ben & Jerry's" was first set up, I believe the founders made a rule that the CEO's salary could be x – times that of their lowest paid employee, where x was a relatively small number (which I can't find right now).

    That rule was maintained for years but eventually dropped when the company went looking for a new leader and couldn't find the right person at that salary level.

Leave a Reply