Usually this conundrum takes a concrete form: We must decide whether to overlook a misdeed or make a ruckus about it—one that may either improve the future behavior of the miscreant or merely intensify his hostility. Such conflicts are ubiquitous, varying in severity from petty to tragic. It is only the serious end of the scale that will concern me here.
Much can be learned from analyzing Greek drama. Ancient Greece regarded tragedy as the result of human character playing itself out in particular situations. They were not interested in such calamities as earthquakes and floods, but rather in the disasters that proceeded directly from the protagonists’ “tragic flaws” or hamartia. But there are strong disputes about the proper definition of hamartia—especially the moral culpability that is implied. Originally, the term only meant “missing the mark,” as when an arrow fails to hit its target. Accordingly, the only “flaw” involved may be a simple error, resulting most often from an insufficiency of knowledge. For example, Oedipus’s hamartia was not a character flaw but the simple lack of knowledge about his own identity —knowledge that the gods withheld from him, for the capricious motives that were so common among Greek deities. Under the circumstances it seems wrong for Oedipus to be punished for killing his father and marrying his mother, though indeed his personal doom had been fore-ordained.
At the other extreme, hamartia may, and usually does, refer to a character flaw—most often that of hubris— arrogance that is manifested in the unnecessary mistreatment or humiliation of others. Whenever we spot hubris in action, we can be sure that the person exhibiting it will get his comeuppance, his nimesis or tragic downfall. In modern terms, “pride cometh before a fall.”
Since we ourselves sometimes have to decide whether to inflict the punishment—and if so, how severe it should be—we need to consider several issues:
First, we ask whether the mistake resulted from (a) lack of knowledge, (b) a normal error in judgment, or (c) a chronic personality trait that must be overcome.
Second, if the hamartia in question is indeed a character flaw, (a) what caused it? (b) Can it be overcome or reduced so that the offender contributes more to others than he harms them? (c) If it is possible to influence another adult’s moral development, what approach is most promising? Our options range from retribution to tolerating, or even enabling, future infractions. Here I am not thinking as a criminologist about how to rehabilitate murderers, but only about how to sustain caring reciprocity in relationships with difficult friends and relatives.
Missing the Mark or Accruing Karma?
I’d prefer to believe that the great majority of errors—maybe all—result from simple lack of knowledge or competence. If we knew better, or had practiced archery longer, we would do better. And of course that is largely true. Belief in it makes it easier to forgive the error, for it lets us dismiss all mistakes as honest ones, and we are all happier when we can truly forgive—even if we know that the offender is still a menace to society or an unreliable partner in an intimate relationship. We may keep forgiving and excusing him for a whole lifetime. Whether the overall results are beneficial or detrimental is arguable. (Or you may, if you like, define forgiveness in some new way that does not entail treating the miscreant as if he had never offended. I won’t theorize about that here.)
Buddhism (at least the Dalai Lama) treats all misbehavior as error rather than sin. Even when we are cruel to others, it is because we don’t understand the profound truth that we are all one. To hurt another person is to hurt oneself. Probably this is actually true but hardly anyone ever grasps it at the practical, everyday level of decision-making, so that no such argument will hold up in court. Jurisprudence involves the allocation of responsibility for outcomes and the appropriate imposition of rewards and punishments. In cases when the prescribed legal penalty seems unreasonably harsh, mercy is extended only after culpability has been established and a decision is being handed down about sentencing.
Most Eastern religions include the theory of karma —an automatic process of cause and effect in the universe that usually does not involve the action of any god for its workings. There are several versions of karma. The mildest version is simply the notion of cause-and-effect. Everything you do will have ramifications —some good, some bad—that continue infinitely, so you’d better be careful. That view (prevalent in Zen) does not include any notion of moral payback.
Most other versions, however, do suggest that you will “reap what you sow.” If you do harm, you will incur harm and aversive situations now or in a future life, and these lives will continue without end. God is not punishing you for your misdeeds; it is simply the inexorable law of the universe at work.
I like the Jain version of karma best. It is sort of a “Groundhog Day” theory. We have certain issues to work on in this life and all the subsequent lives until we get them right. Then they lose any power over us, and we move on to other issues. Karma is educating us.
Still, I don’t really believe in karma unless we are being paid back for our good or bad intentions, rather than for the consequences of our actions. That’s not the theory, though. Instead, it’s the actual effects of our actions that count. I think that’s nonsense because (a) we cannot even predict very well what the immediate consequences will be, and (b) the long-range consequences go on forever and are a combination of both favorable and unfavorable outcomes.
Take, for example, the Chinese story of the farmer’s horse that got loose and ran away. The neighbors said “That’s bad,” but the farmer only said, “Maybe.” Next day, the horse returned, leading a string of wild ponies, which the farmer put into his corral. The neighbors said, “That’s good,” but the farmer only said, “Maybe.” The farmer’s son decided to train the wild ponies, but when he was riding one, it bucked him off and broke his leg. The neighbors said, “That’s bad,” but the farmer only said, “Maybe.” The local warlord decided to go to war and came to the village, conscripting all the healthy young men for his army, but the farmer’s son was exempted because of his broken leg. The neighbors said, “That’s good,” but the farmer only said, “Maybe.” And so on.
The story’s message is this: Good results often come from bad actions, and bad results from good actions, and the chain of outcomes never ceases so there is no way to call an action ultimately good or bad—or decide whether it merits good karma or bad. One’s intentions may be good or bad, but that’s not what supposedly counts.
Hence I think we have to re-own justice as a social process. We have to judge for ourselves how to treat an offender, rather than wait for the universe to impose retribution. If there is to be moral payback, I have to participate in the process, and I just don’t want to. This judging is an unpleasant responsibility.
To be sure, the short-term, foreseeable consequences of actions are often pretty apparent. We can say, for example, that a reckless driver should have known the likely consequences of speeding and running red lights, and that fact informs our verdict. But the long-term consequences are a different matter. I believe they are all part of a system guided intentionally by a powerful intelligence beyond my comprehension. But my faith is useless for deciding how to treat moral infractions.
Worse yet, as a muddled quasi-Christian I can’t derive much clarity from the scriptures. Jesus was not invariably a peacemaker, and this morning in church we heard a conversation between Yahweh and Hosea that I found painful. The Lord tells Hosea to marry a prostitute and have children with her—which he does, marrying Gomer, who bears three children. Then Yahweh has Hosea dump Gomer, explaining that this is how he is dealing with the people of Israel. God is more than annoyed with them; he gives up on them entirely saying, “You are no longer mine.”
At this point, when the relationships look absolutely kaput, the reader stopped. I came home and read further, discovering that Yahweh does relent eventually, and so does Hosea. But in the meantime, the message is pretty clear: If God finds your behavior unacceptable, he will take no pity on you—and by the same token, if you find your beloved’s behavior unacceptable, you too should consider ending the relationship. I was not impressed by Yahweh in this case, since it was he who ordered Hosea to marry a loose woman in the first place. The family’s unhappiness seemed to result, not from Hosea’s or Gomer’s hamartia, but from the wrathful God whom Hosea had diligently obeyed.
That is not our usual image of God, but it may be as typical as the alternatives. We have to choose among various incompatible models of God—harsh and benign—if indeed we seek to emulate biblical lessons at all.
Alternatively, we may turn to modern psychiatry and social science.
Explaining Tragic Flaws
Let’s turn now to the notion of hamartia as a moral deficiency. That is the most common interpretation in Greek drama, and it clearly poses the most difficult challenge for us in our own quotidian relationships. We are driven to say: This guy’s disappointing behavior is not a forgivable fluke; we must expect him to act this way, again and again. How did he get these traits? And is there any hope he will change?
Again, the answers are uncertain.
On the fatalistic side, there’s the fact that genetics and epi-genetics really count. People do inherit personality tendencies. You can see it in your own family, but it’s a discouraging observation. Moral deficiencies really are psychopathologies—and intractable ones at best.
On the other hand, moral insufficiencies constitute a spectrum. Only a few individuals are congenitally depraved from birth. What is somewhat debatable is the degree to which adults can change, and whether their characters become progressively more fixed, the older they get. I know that I have undergone vast changes during my adult life, but not lately. I doubt that I will experience any great transformations during the final few years of my life. Probably that is typical. On the other hand, I do have an inner life and I think I even make progress in some ways because I remain fairly introspective. That is evidently less common for people who unreflective, as morally defensive people tend to be.
In any case, children usually learn their values while they are young. In fact, there is recent evidence that children are born with basic ethical ideas, for in experiments, even infants display a preference for characters who are helpful to others rather than bullies.
Philosophers of ethics often distinguish between two ways of ethical judging: Kantian principles and “consequential ethics.” I can see that distinction in my own set of friends. A couple of fine men whom I know are highly principled and honorable, though they do have personality quirks that interfere with their social lives. I think they learned some principles in childhood to which they adhere firmly in middle age. Since these are excellent values, I admire these two friends. I have to admit that my own ethical reasoning is more “consequentialist.” I probably fib more than they do, since I don’t necessarily assume that truthfulness is an inviolate principle. When we differ ethically, it is because I occasionally break a rule if I don’t see how it can hurt anyone. It’s the probable outcome that I take into account when making ethical decisions. Once in a great while I consider cheating or lying justifiable—especially “white lies” that protect the feelings of other people. I’m not claiming that my approach is best, but I don’t think I am unique, and I doubt that we consequentialists are morally either ahead or behind others. We too may have a vivid sense of obligation—thank heavens! The feeling of duty is necessary to give meaning to any life.
Ordinarily the way children develop their ethical orientations is through empathizing with others. We are born with special “mirror” neurons that enable us to “mock up” in our own bodies replicas of the experiences of other people around us. Even monkeys do so. If you watch me scratch my nose, there will be a part of your brain that “lights up” in an fMRI scanner just the way my brain does as I scratch. That’s a sign that you are empathizing with me, experiencing imaginatively what I am experiencing. It is empathy that allows us to understand the minds of other people.
Since we experience their thinking and their feelings, we feel vicarious pleasure and pain. If we see someone suffering, we suffer too. Hence even small children do not want others around them to be hurt. It is normal to show concern, and this concern is precisely the basis for ethics. Wise parents encourage empathy and discuss the experience with their children. This is very different from establishing certain rules and insisting that they be followed impeccably. Ask the toddler: “How do you think Bobby feels when you grab his stuffed elephant?”
When describing his own mother, Barack Obama regularly mentions the emphasis that she placed upon empathy. The only time she was implacably strict, he says, is when I had failed to show empathy for someone. She would never tolerate that for a moment!
It seems clear that morality is the result of an elaborated capacity for empathy. However, there are unresolved questions about the experience. Apparently autism consists primarily of a neurological incapacity for empathy. Autistic persons cannot apprehend other individuals’ minds. Still, I think this is primarily a cognitive deficiency, not a moral one, for autistic persons apparently have a normal sense of duty and concern for others, despite their inadequate mirror neurons.
On the other hand, the people on the wrong end of the moral sensitivity spectrum are called psychopaths or sociopaths. They clearly can take advantage of other people without empathizing at all emotionally. They may understand the minds of others (as autistic persons do not) but they do not feel for them. These are the most dangerous members of society.
Still, not all instances of lack of empathy are pathological. Trauma surgeons do not feel their patients’ pain, for doing so would make them unable to work effectively. We all create little brackets of social life in which we inhibit empathy. When watching an action movie, for example, people rarely flinch and some audiences even express glee at seeing bodies explode. Becoming inured to such suffering is probably harming us, but it can hardly be prohibited when viewers want to watch such things.
We may even inhibit empathy out of ethical considerations. For example, most soldiers in battle nowadays have been trained to kill—not from a personal desire but from a sense of loyalty to their comrades and possibly from a belief that they are protecting their families and friends back at home. These are ethical commitments that clash with more basic humane feelings. In some cases, the suppressed empathy returns later to haunt them. Returned soldiers have extremely high rates of mental illness, suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Perhaps the ones who fare best later as civilians are those who were closest to being psychopaths from the outset. And it is possible that their indifference to the suffering of others is partly determined genetically.
Reactivity and Reciprocity
If empathic tendencies are distributed in the population as most other qualities are, they would form a bell-shaped curve around a mean, and the people who are most acutely empathetic may be overly sensitive and reactive to the feelings of others around them. (These are perhaps the people whom William James called “tender-hearted” personalities.) I don’t know many such people these days. In a society emphasizing individualism and achievement, most of us toughen up and learn to be competitive go-getters by the time we grow up, measuring out empathy sparingly, lest we lose our own “center of gravity.” But the tendency to avoid empathy is widespread. You probably know individuals who can turn it off in a heartbeat.
To me it is surprising that this “slamming shut” is so often the result of a decision, a sudden cognitive closure that may re-orient one’s life permanently. Often, perhaps usually, it coincides with an intensified ethnic identity, an intense new loyalty, or an ideology. For example, I know one young man who instantaneously turned against his 16-year-old dog because his new girlfriend hated the animal. I have two women friends whose son and daughter broke empathy with them and refused to visit them again because of marrying someone who resented the mother.
During a war or even the Cold War, the identities of the two sides are overwhelmingly salient, and both sides cease empathizing with the other side. It is possible to do so in a flash. Joining a new religion, a terrorist organization, or a xenophobic racist movement can require shutting off empathy toward a specified human category. It is shocking, but apparently true, that formerly normal human beings can do this easily. Most terrorists were not conspicuously psychopathic beforehand, but actually above average in their society. A jihadist or Nazi or Khmer Rouge ideology is a powerful thing, undermining the moral basis of civilized life, interrupting the impulse toward duty, toward caring, toward mutuality.
The mystery remains: What to do? Can you do anything to restore empathy and moral engagement in the heart of a person who has blocked you out? Or can you touch someone who avoids introspection or feeling duty or regret? I don’t know the answer. Unfortunately, my psychiatrist friends’ answers are not encouraging, except when it comes to the estrangement of youths from their parents, for the radical ideologies of youth are often impermanent.
If the answer is no, one must regretfully conclude that nothing can warm your estranged friend, co-worker, or relative. This painful awareness usually evokes resentment, which in turn can most easily be alleviated by severing the relationship and trying to forget.
Let go, we say. More on. Repay the moral deficit with a matching coldness.
Reciprocity is a basic norm of human relationship. We repay love with love, empathy with empathy.
And when empathy cuts off, we get even.
That is how hamartia leads to nimesis.