Archive: May 2009

U. S. Supreme Court
U. S. Supreme Court




In the past few days since President Obama stated that he would use “empathy” as one criterion for selecting a candidate for the U. S. Supreme Court, negative responses have flooded the media.

            President Obama talking in press conference about selecting a Supreme Court Justice gave his criteria as: sharp and independent mind; honors the constitution; respects the judicial process; and holds the judicial values upon which the country was founded. Then he mentioned an additional consideration: empathy.

            Almost immediately political pundits on television screamed: “empathy is a codeword for social engineering.” Senator Orin Hatch said empathy is a codeword for “activist judge.” And Fox’s Laura Ingraham  even said “Empathy is a loopy qualification for a Supreme Court judge.”

            Comedians Colbert and Stewart gave the most penetrating perspective about the controversy on all of television this past week.      Stephen Colbert deduced from all the television verbiage that empathy must be code for “drug-addled evolutionist with swine flu.” And Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in essence concluded that loopy, conservative pundits wore hearing aids that only said “abortion, abortion, abortion” whenever Obama spoke about judicial appointments.

            Blogs and newspaper opinion pieces, at the rate of about 10 to 1, have dumped on empathy as an acceptable characteristic for a Supreme Court judge. Just like television, conservative politicians ridiculed the President in writing, claiming that empathy is a mere codeword for pro-choice and anti-guns. Writer after writer parroted the claim that empathy is the polar opposite of fairness and the rule of law.

            Nothing could be further from the truth.

            Look up empathy in the dictionary and you will find it defined as simply the awareness of the feeling and situation of others. In essence, it is “putting yourself in another’s shoes.”


An Empathic Community
An Empathic Community



Isn’t it reasonable to expect anyone making decisions that affect other people to use empathy as well as reason and law in their decision-making? Of course, it is what makes us human. Making friends and building community are not possible without empathy.

            If people don’t use empathy in their dealings with other people, we call them psychopathic, severely retarded, autistic, or in some other way impaired. Are those the kind of people the nation wants on the highest judicial bench in the land?

             Some opponents of empathy in the Court fear that fairness would be sacrificed because special interests (for example, the poor and oppressed) would be served. But empathy is like freedom, a fundamental value in its own right. Both freedom and empathy can be applied in the extreme. Valuing freedom to an excess might lead a judge to free all prisoners. By the same (politically conservative) logic, we should then not appoint a judge who believes in freedom.

            From our judges, no matter how high or lowly their position, we should expect not only great skill in interpreting constitutional law, but deep caring about both sides in a trial. We should expect not just deep respect for the original intentions of the law, but a thorough understanding of contemporary society.

            Every great spiritual leader has promoted empathy and compassion. Jesus Christ devoted his entire life to promoting his philosophy that conforming to the letter of the law was not nearly as important as “loving your neighbor as yourself,” “loving your enemies,” and “if anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him two miles.” The essence of the foundation of Christianity is empathy, compassion, and altruism. Without the reformation of empathy started by Jesus Christ, our judges might today still sentence an unfaithful wife to death by stoning.
            The rhetoric of those with antipathy toward empathy, when analyzed carefully, reveals a false dichotomy over the ideal of impartiality and the ideal of empathy for the disadvantaged. Empathy antagonists admit that pure impartiality is not attainable but striving for it is the ultimate attribute.

            This blind justice argument reveals “black and white” thinking. One flaw in their presumption is that there is always one right answer. The second flaw is that by blind folding our judges, we keep them from observing reality.

Blind Justice
Blind Justice







            If our chief justices are blindfolded, how can they see things like the fourth branch of government, the lobbying sector? This fourth branch, with budgets in the billions of dollars, writes legislation, shapes public opinion, and pressures every other branch of government. Read John Gresham’s The Appeal for a glimpse of how money and power buys not only influence but also actual judges. Yes, it is fiction but based upon actual situations. The authors of the constitution never envisioned this fourth branch. Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post in his 2009 book, So Damn Much Money, calls it the “The Scandal of our Time.” Shouldn’t our courts keep this extremely powerful force from undermining equal justice for all?

            The sad consequence of bashing empathy is that American children will learn that empathy is bad. They already learn to minimize empathy by competing in sports and electronic war games. If they also hear from America’s leaders and pulpits that empathy should be shunned, the fabric of American society will fray, perhaps irreparably.

            From the very beginning, this nation depended upon empathy and community as neighbors chipped in to build a newcomer’s house.  Without empathy, the American character erodes to self-centered insensitivity to others and their plight.

            People should debate Obama’s choices to the Supreme Court, but they should not blindfold themselves to the harm they create by debunking empathy.


Hoards of pundits and experts argue over what to call our current recession, which began as a crisis in finance. Arguments will continue because whether the recession is really a depression, cannot be determined until more time has passed.

            When I first heard our current recession referred to as “Great Depression II” and “GP II,” I thought “How apt but unacceptable.”  But today when I Goggled the phrase (in quotes), 56,000 hits appeared. Not surprisingly, the term “recession” appears 100 times more often. I will use the term recession and “deep recession“ even though history may eventually call it “Great Depression II.”

The typical comments on the web about the effects of the recession can best be described as stories of stress, pain, fear and suffering. Their missives are social tragedies because they are stories of parents struggling to find food for hungry children and of breadwinners getting laid off. They are stories of the inability to pay for medical treatment, which lays the pathway to early death, just like the third world.

            Early Americans believed that pain, hunger, and suffering lead to strong character and close communities. But now contemporary Americans seem to view “suffering” as eating at home rather than going out; or as taking a vacation by car instead of jetting to the Caribbean.  

time-the-new-frugality-cover_resize            Time Magazine splashed “The New Frugality” as its cover story this week. The story claimed that the “Great Recession” is transforming how we spend, whom we trust, where we save and what we really value.” Time had just conducted a scientific, nationwide survey that found half of the public admitting to feeling hardship in general. Nearly a quarter had been unemployed not by choice. And, of course, we are spending less, at least on the nonessentials.


         The most remarkable finding by the Time survey was that nearly two thirds “predict they’ll continue to spend less than they did before.” Even people earning more than $100,000 a year were talking about how they spent less, especially on luxury items.

            On the basis of all of these types of findings, journalists tend to claim that the recession is affecting everyone. The truth is that the lifestyles of the super-wealthy remain basically unchanged, while the middle and poverty classes are struggling with day to day subsistence.

New national survey findings by the Pew Research Center Trends project were released as Luxury or Necessity? The Public Makes a U-Turn.  Here is a synopsis of their discovery about how American adults are adapting to the economic depression:

·         Over the past few decades, Americans have been increasingly viewing all home appliances as necessities rather than luxuries. All of a sudden in the past 4 months that trend has reversed. Now we are less likely to view microwaves, home air conditioning, dishwashers, and clothes dryers as necessities. Already in 4 months these appliances have lost 10 years worth of growth in their perception as necessities.

·         Eight-in-ten adults have taken specific steps of one kind or another to economize during these bad times. Almost six-in-ten say they are shopping more in discount stores or are passing up name brands in favor of less expensive varieties

·         One-in-five adults say they are following the example of first lady Michelle Obama and are making plans to plant a vegetable garden to save money on food

·         Consumer reaction to the recession is being driven by specific personal economic hardships as well as by a more pervasive new creed of thrift that has taken hold both among those who’ve been personally affected and those who haven’t.

·         Nearly half say they or another household member has lost more than 20% in a retirement account or other investments.

·         About two-in-three American families have faced major economic problems such as loss of a job, major loss of investments, or trouble with mortgage payments in the past year.

·         Children, young adults, women and the less affluent are the most likely to have been troubled or to face tragedy.  


Taken as a whole these findings allow us to confirm that small shifts values have occurred within the American public, and perhaps around the world. That change consists of dropping or chipping away at materialistic, consumption values. high-price-of-materialism_resize

For those like Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism, this must be good news. Although the Pew survey’s discovered a drop in the perceived meaning and value of major consumer items, the small drop may be finicky rather than long lasting, and superficial rather than deep.

            Last month the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed that the recession had challenged the common belief that material possessions lead to contentment.  On Easter Sunday, he preached for voluntary limits on “human acquisitiveness and sexual appetite.” I don’t know how sex slipped into hissermon, but let’s not get into psychoanalysis.

            The important point he made is that contemporary society promotes harmful social values of excessive acquisition of a many nonessentials. These values have blinded us from observing the harm we do to the environment and our great insensitivity to the subsistence suffering of millions of people in American and around the world. This is a failing not just of Catholics, but also of people of every form of religion and non-religion.