There is a beautiful article in the Opinion section of the New York Times that never uses the word empathy, but is all about it. Jennifer Finney Boylan talks movingly, and personally, about how we need to bring back Edmund Burke’s concept of “moral imagination”. It is, she says, “the idea that our ethics should transcend our own personal experience and embrace the dignity of the human race.”
She talks about how, when she was young, she didn’t feel empathy for an older person with hearing loss, because she “didn’t need to be concerned with it.” She could see it, even joke about it, and then forget about it. Now that she is experiencing her own hearing loss, she understands more of what that person was going through, and regrets making jokes about her. As she says, “It didn’t occur to me that imagining the humanity of people other than myself was my responsibility. And yet, the root cause of so much grief is our failure to do just that.”
Then, Ms. Boylan gets more personal as she shares her experience and viewpoint as a transgender woman. Certainly, transgender people are a very good example of a group which suffers a great deal of persecution, and yet which many people probably figure they can just “not be concerned with.” Unless you know a transgender person, you can read about things like the law in North Carolina mandating that people only use the bathroom for the sex they have listed on their birth certificate and think, “That’s dumb.” And then you don’t have to think about it any more. Or maybe you think the law makes sense, as did the man from the Family Research Council with whom she appeared on TV recently. When he was confronted with the very female Ms. Boylan and asked what bathroom she should use, he could see why it would be weird for her to have to go into the men’s bathroom, but he didn’t want her going into the women’s bathroom, either. Ms. Boylan has a wonderful response to that: “In the end, he didn’t have an answer for the question, because the idea that I am human–and do occasionally need to use the restroom–was really not one that had given him much concern.”
But of course, it should give all of us concern. We should all care about how all people are treated–blacks being stopped by cops, disabled people confronted with stairs they can’t climb, transgender people like Ms. Boylan being forced to use the men’s room… Our “moral imagination” should inform our thoughts, words, and deeds–our ethics. Ms. Boylan offers a very poignant reminder that our moral code should come from a base of empathy for all of humanity.