For some of us in the human realization game, the high water mark of our development is empathy. Some may fear that this is some new crackpot liberal conspiracy idea to make sure that the Taliban take over America and get rid of Dick Cheney and the Tea Partiers.

Others might claim that empathy is a value held in high regard in that old canard, our Judeo-Christian ethics. As religious philosopher Karen Armstrong tells us, it is the unifying idea in every religion. It is popularly known as the Golden Rule.

Yet though just about anyone would agree that Jesus was one compassionate dude, empathy is being looked on with suspicion by certain upstanding Americans. On June 28th, Elena Kagan was vetted by the United States Senate to determine if she was suitable to join the Supreme Court of our land. In his opening remarks at those hearings, our honorable white, male, and good Christian Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said,

“Even today, President Obama advocates a judicial philosophy that calls on judges to base their decisions on empathy and their “broader vision of what America should be.” He suggests that his nominee shares that view. Our legal system does not allow such an approach.”

At least he tried to wrap his view in the dignity of a legal interpretation, as compared to Michael Steele, the head of the RNC, who said, “Crazy nonsense empathetic. I’ll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!”

The question of whether empathy has its place in our justice system is well discussed in a commentary piece by Seymour Toll for The Philadelphia Enquirer, written on the same day as Sessions spoke, “Has Everyone Stopped Caring About Empathy?”

In a fascinating irony, despite the fact that empathy and compassion are getting an X rating these days by some in the justice game, it has now become part of the parlance of war. In an article at www.foxnews.com,  General David Patraeus who just took over the command of the war in Afghanistan is quoted as saying that “ . . .we must continue to demonstrate our resolve to the enemy. We will do so through . . . our compassion for the Afghan people and through our example and the values that we live.”

We must be compassionate in order to win a war, but we must eschew it in the exercise of justice at home. Strange, that. I wonder if there is any relationship to this to be found in the fact that we rush to spend money to kill – the $636 billion dollar Defense Appropriations Bill (!) was passed easily last year in the senate by a vote of 93 – 7 in no time at all, (this year the figure is going up to $680 billion) while we suspect and demonize spending money on life, with the Health Reform Act slowly squeaking through Congress where no Republican voted for the measure in the house, and the senate approving 56 – 43. Guess who voted no? Maybe the same people who don’t like the “E” word.

Is there a place for empathy in justice? As usual, these kinds of questions send us back to Plato, and his teacher, Socrates, who were the first to try to answer these kinds of questions in a consistently logical way. The question starts with, what is justice anyway? And in the end, Socrates’s answer, like always, is, “who knows?” I can’t provide a certain answer, but I’ll go with my teacher, the Chinese philosopher Mencius, who tells us that in the Confucian view, the first quality of the true leader is empathy and compassion. This is the realization of a leader’s human capacity, and through this they will realize their purpose as leaders, which is to make the people happy. Justice, to my mind, is to find the right, and that right is the true and the good, and the true and good leads to happiness. The purpose of justice, then, is to lead to the happiness of the people, which I think Jefferson said something about in the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. And if the essence of empathy is the Golden Rule, or doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, then wanting the good of others is the essence of empathy. That sounds like justice to me. I think it was Jesus who said that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it, and that fulfillment was love.

But I could be wrong. What do you think? What is justice and should empathy be a part of it?

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