|Path Home: Empathy, Altruism and Agape | Presenters or Itinerary
Advances in biotechnology are opening possibilities for intervention in human life that create an urgent need for ethical guidance. At the same time, emerging theories of the evolutionary processes that have shaped the human mind call into question our ability to understand our motivations and intentions. According to this view even moral codes may be delusions sponsored by genetic self-interest. This raises the possibility that our new powers may be used in the service of competition, status-seeking and self-promotion. Notwithstanding the pessimism of such views and prospects, recent findings in the neuroscience of emotion and empathy suggest a biological basis for genuine community of identity and a natural moral law.
Emotions have their evolutionary origins in the physiological processes of biological regulation; the postural and visceral changes in emotional states place the organism in a condition of readiness for action or response. The subjective feelings of emotions are evolution's later additions in the service of the inner life of consciousness and purposeful desire. This inseparable psychophysical unity of manifest emotions embodies the evolutionary experience of life's long history. Far from a private inner language of being, it reflects survival strategies shaped by the physical and social parameters of our environment and shared with other members of our species (and indeed across life's larger process). It is this shared quality of emotions between individuals that allows the process of empathy.
Emotional expressions, together with special adaptations for their communication and detection, provide the basis for the empathic resonance of a shared psychophysical state. This intersubjectivity allows a coherent communion in the inner life of feelings, values and intentions. This in turn has profound implications for the development of the shared consciousness, identity and symbolic language that provide the foundations for the development of human culture.
The human community made possible by a shared culture provides more than a useful survival setting for the individual. Rather, it is the context and content of human flourishing. In the words of Charles Taylor, there is no monological human existence, we are intrinsically dialogical. Inwardly we feel the awareness of our conscious self and, through empathy, this is reflected outward in recognition of the consciousness and sensitivity of the other---with implicit moral meaning, This moral disposition, and the concern for others that it implies, is more than an evolutionary strategy that sustains the adaptive advantages of social life. It is also the substance of human happiness. As Hans Jonas says, It is one of the paradoxes of life that it employs means which modify the end and themselves become part of it.
The powers of advancing biomedical technology will deliver their most difficult ethical dilemmas in the realm of the neurosciences. Possible interventions in neurological development, medical treatment of criminal behavior and enhancement of competitive performance raise profound questions about the meaning and purpose of human life. And beyond this, there is the prospect of technological intervention in the very process of human evolution. I will suggest that a useful guiding principle for the application of these new powers will be that they shall preserve individual freedom, protect the rights of others and sustain the relational realities that reflect and promote the attitudes and actions of genuine altruistic love.
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