Blog the Issues

Follow along and join in the dialogues, discussions, and experiences of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Moravian College, Moravian Theological Seminary and the Comenius Center throughout the 2011-12 POVERTY & INEQUALITY | IN FOCUS thematic year.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

U.N. climate conference (COP17)

My son and are in Durban, South Africa attending the U.N. climate conference (COP17). The themes of poverty and inequality are front and center this year. If you are interested, you can follow our blog posts at:

We are being kept very busy, so we post as we can.

The first night here, there were extremely severe storms and flooding. The disparate impact of extreme weather events on the poor is described here.

Diane W. Husic, Ph.D.
Chair and Professor, Department of Biological Sciences

Monday, November 14, 2011

Digging Beneath the Surface

Check out this video from TED (Technology Entertainment and Design). Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emertius of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham (U.K.), elaborates the dangers of how income inequality is bad for everyone, rich, poor, or middle class.

In the video, Wilkinson disassembles the United States' GDP to show how prevalent income inequality is in our society.

TED site:


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Empathic Civilization--You Tube video

Check out this very fast yet immensely comprehensive lecture on the origin of empathy and the creation of an empathic civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, the American economist, writer, public speaker, political advisor and activist. Rifkin is the founder and president of the Foundation On Economic Trends and his works explore the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society, and the environment, and now, on the origin and future of ethics. This is a fast-paced lecture which takes only a little over 10 minutes. Very engaging.

It continues our conversation, associated with our IN Focus theme on Poverty and Inequality, on how do we generate empathy for all people everywhere and eventually for the planet.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Limits of Empathy

David Brooks editorial in the New York Times discusses why it is that humans are more likely to respond to the victims of a hurricane than respond to systematic inequality in a social system. Brooks also discusses what we need to do to actually turn our empathy into action--a sacred code. Food for thought as we think about how we want to respond to poverty and inequality in the world and to motivate action.

September 29, 2011

The Limits of Empathy


We are surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Peace activists bring enemies together so they can get to know one another and feel each other’s pain. School leaders try to attract a diverse set of students so each can understand what it’s like to walk in the others’ shoes. Religious and community groups try to cultivate empathy.
As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.
There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.
Some influences, which we think of as trivial, are much stronger — such as a temporary burst of positive emotion. In one experiment in the 1970s, researchers planted a dime in a phone booth. Eighty-seven percent of the people who found the dime offered to help a person who dropped some papers nearby, compared with only 4 percent who didn’t find a dime. Empathy doesn’t produce anything like this kind of effect.
Moreover, Prinz argues, empathy often leads people astray. It influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly victims. It leads to nepotism. It subverts justice; juries give lighter sentences to defendants that show sadness. It leads us to react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions, like global hunger or preventable diseases.
Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.
Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.
The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The economy, fossil fuels, a moving planet

It is my understanding that this blog is to promote conversation related to the In Focus themes.  Well, to get things going, I will repost from my blog ( an entry I wrote this past weekend (9/24/11).  I hope that it will get the dialog started.

Earlier today, I sent an email to Sandra Steingraber after learning of her recent Heinz Award for her investigative, scientific, yet creative writing. It came with a $100,000 prize, which she is dedicating to the fight against fracking (drilling beneath our feet, homes, and schools for natural gas). You can read about her decision to do this:
Below is an excerpt from my message and some other thoughts inspired by information I looked up:

The fight against fracking is going to be a tough one since our country seems to have turned its back towards the environment and even science. Perhaps all those environmental pollutants are affecting brain cells too. [Sandra has written about the impact of chemical pollutants on our bodies in her books and regular columns in Orion Magazine.] We truly are addicted to fossil fuels and the false hope that "finding more" will fix our problems.

Have you ever read the poem "The Last One" by W.S. Merwin (available at The expressions of loss in this piece could easily apply to fracking as well as trees.

I showed the Lorax in one of my classes this week and was struck by the eerie relevance of the messages from the early 1970’s to today. Economy/jobs vs. a healthy environment and good habitat. I saw an ad of local citizens from the northern tier of PA praising Chesapeake Energy for bringing them good fortune, development (cough, cough), and jobs. It could have been the Once-ler.

For an example of what we are up against in this fight, all you have to do is read the information from the webpage of a single company:

"..Chesapeake has 2.4 million acres under lease in the Marcellus and has already paid almost $2 billion in lease bonus and royalties to farmers, families and townships across Pennsylvania ... Chesapeake has 1 million mineral owners in 16 states. To put that in perspective, about one in every 300 Americans has an oil and natural gas lease with Chesapeake. [I don't even know how many of these companies exist, but there are several.] And they have been very well rewarded. We’ve paid out $9 billion in lease bonuses over the past 5 years, about $5 billion in royalties over the past 4 years, and another $2 billion in taxes over the past 5 years. And every one of those numbers is going up daily. The lives of millions rest on us getting this issue right and utilizing this American Treasure."

Sigh. Why do these statements scare me so?

Today, there were thousands of activities through the project Moving Planet all around the world -- all aimed at reducing our dependence on and moving past fossil fuels (see And in our region? Nada. Sigh. But I guess when you are part of the buy-out described above, who is going to protest? A state that is in the midst of a gold-rush-like frenzy with the fracking craze and that is populated by people who believe the claims about all the jobs and money that will come is certainly not complaining. Hey, this Commonwealth only contributes 1% of the global carbon dioxide to the global atmosphere. (Excuse me while I cough some more.)


This week, an article appeared in International Business Times entitled "Alarming Poverty Rate: Is U.S. Becoming a Third World Country?" (see Now anyone who has traveled to the Global South knows that this is a bit absurd. BUT, such alarmist titles should make us think long and hard about "business as usual". Simply put, it is not working. Perhaps we need to consider something new, something like a green economy, perhaps?

Calls for redefining prosperity in the past have been futile. How much of an economic and social crash will it take?