Who is my neighbor?

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In the preface to Luke’s parable of the “Good Samaritan” [1], Jesus is challenged by the crowd, during a discussion of the deontological Jewish Law, to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was that the stranger who responded with compassion to the injured man lying alongside the road was his “neighbor,” even though the benefactor’s ethnicity was despised. [2]

Beyond the rules and duties of deontology, and beyond the “good ends” of teleology, discussed in earlier posts, we quickly learn that even the best rules and the best intentions have unintended consequences. Usually, these consequences hurt other people in some unforeseen way. At that point, our human senses of empathy, sympathy and compassion kick in, sometimes with powerful emotions attached.

And so, a third “vector” through which we can look at morality and ethics is through the set of models that bring the suffering of other people, as well as the proactive uplifting of other people, to the top of the decision heap. “Good religious people” disagree on many ethical issues precisely because most religious traditions have both a deontological rule set and an “others-based” set of “counter-rules” that command compassion for the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the stranger.

Sometimes these rules apply only to the others within their own group, but, as in the above example from Jesus, sometimes religious traditions go to great lengths to reach outside their own group to provide comfort and care. And this can even come with no intention or duty to proselytize or convert the beneficiaries of aid.

And unfortunately, sometimes (like, right at this moment) the religions and denominations that purport to heed most closely to a literal reading of their scriptural tradition ignore, rationalize, or throw out the numerous citations relating to mercy for “the other” for the sake of political fealty. You know who you are.

Another way to view this ethical thread is through its view of the centrality of human relationships to ethical decision-making. Which societal processes and interactions best enable and enhance the “social contract” between people, and stabilize their societies?

This thread of morality is often seen as the “heart” of religion, although we know biologically that this empathetic response has a more significant “brain” source. While the empathetic response has a complex brain chemistry, we do know that parts of the brain other than the “logic processing” or the “feed me now!” brain regions demonstrate heightened neural activity when our empathetic emotions rise to the top. [3]

As noted in an earlier post, particular regions of the brain have been shown to have an important role in perceiving emotions in others, and if one of those regions is damaged by stroke or lesion, then our ability to perceive emotion in others is often harmed. And with it, a key part of our empathetic response may become dysfunctional as well. When this happens to a loved one, there appears to be a very disconcerting “loss of self” as the formerly-empathetic person has a literal change in personality. It challenges our very sense of “Who am I?”

The ability to read and respond to each other’s emotions is also critical to group bonding. Indeed, the whole notion of “self-sacrifice” involves ignoring the rules, and even risking bad ends, just to respond to the needs of another person. For many dedicated people, this is what religion is all about. It is far more “real world” than the speculative theology that drives many sermons.

Psychologists and neuroscientists also point to our empathetic responses as central to what is called the “theory of mind.” Very early in our childhood, we extend our own mental states, such as anger and fear, to others, assuming that their minds also work like ours do. In what neuroscientist/philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the intentional stance, we attribute our own intentions to others because it helps our brain predict (probabilistically) how the other person will react next, a skill critical to our survival. Empathy appears to have a vital role in “locking us in” with other people’s minds, an important non-verbal way to communicate with another person.

Good people disagree about important ethical and moral issues (and sometimes I even argue with myself) because the different modes of ethical thinking emanate from different parts of the brain, each with its own primary, and sometimes contradictory, purpose. One brain part says, “Survive at all costs!” while another brain part, working out of this empathetic decision evaluator, says, “Help that person now!”

And humans appear not to be alone in this regard. While it can be dangerous to “anthropomorphize” other mammals, my dog sure appears to pick up on my emotions of joy and distress. Is this “empathy”? We can look at both sides here. One is that, indeed dogs, horses, dolphins and some other mammals can show something very akin to empathy. Or on the other side, perhaps my apparent empathy, like theirs, is just a biochemical survival response. If so, I’ll still prefer the poet’s extolling of “the heart” to a colder scientific explanation (even if it is correct).

As one friend of mine once remarked (facetiously), “Ethics would be a lot easier if all of these other people didn’t get in the way.”

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  1. Luke 10:25-37. Note, by the way, that this classic title is an ethnic slur. To demonstrate, take the name of a current often-despised minority group and substitute it for “Samaritan,” as in “The Good ———–.”
  2. The Samaritans still exist as a small, but distinct religious/ethnic group in Israel and Palestine. For a fascinating look at this group and other Middle East ethnic groups literally being wiped off the planet in the battles between the “Big Three” Abrahamic religions, read Russell, Gerard. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms. Basic Books, 2015.
  3. This “heart versus head” split is a good example of what I call the “overlapping languages” of ethics. The poets and theologians have long used the heart as the symbolic center of empathy, while the biologists measure the emotion in the brain. They don’t contradict one another. We just need to be “multi-lingual.”

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