Morality, Empathy and Restorative Justice

I’ll start at the end of this 12-minute, intriguing TED Talk. Daniel Reisel, a neuroscientist who has studied the brains of socio-paths, asks us whether we should be concerned not only about changing the brains of criminals but also our own.

I find the whole idea of changing our brains – and along with our brains our character and potential – simply fascinating because that idea emerges at the intersection of two deeply held beliefs. On the one hand, we often think of character as something that can be developed and so we stress moral and character development in our schools and churches and civic associations alike. On the other hand, however, it feels like we also treat character flaws – the kinds of things that would lead someone to repeatedly break the law – as something nearly unchangeable.

Reisel’s research – both with criminals in detention centers and rats in the lab – leads him to suggest that at the root of morality is empathy, the capacity to imagine and identify with the feelings and motivations of another. And at the root of empathy is the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped part of the brain that stores and processes our emotional memories and is therefore deeply connected with emotional learning. Persons normally classified as socio-pathic typically have a deficient amygdala. But it turns out that the amygdala is one of the few parts of the brain that can generate new cells and grow throughout one’s life. Which means that empathy training is not only possible, but works.

Based on his research, Reisel advocates shifting from using primarily retributive justice, where offenders are punished for their actions, to restorative justice, where offenders have a chance to understand and make up for their actions. As it turns out, one of the things that most causes under-development in the amygdala is social isolation, which means locking someone in prison actually heightens their chances of re-offending once they’re out.

But I think the implications of this research go well beyond the criminal justice system. Because if we take seriously that the root of all justice is the ability to identify with persons who are different from us – to walk a mile in their shoes, as it were – we might think differently about how we teach our children, respond to our teenagers, and structure the way we handle conflict in our businesses, homes, and congregations. Putting and keeping people together, even when things are hard, with an eye toward helping them understand each other better, seems like the key to growing the moral sensibility not only of individuals but also of the larger culture.

We have a model for all this, of course. Because when God wanted to communicate God’s love for us most deeply, God sent no more law-givers or prophets or heralds but instead took on human form in the Incarnation of Jesus, identifying with us fully by becoming one of us. Perhaps that wasn’t just a means by which to communicate with us, but also a model for us to emulate in our life together.

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