Maia Szalavitz in Time Magazine:
Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy — the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes — has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.
Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.
Although human nature has historically been seen as essentially selfish, recent science suggests that it is not. The capacity for empathy is believed to be innate in most humans, as well as some other species — chimps, for instance, will protest unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails to get the same reward.
The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns cry when hearing another infant's cry, and studies have shown that children as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. Babies have also shown a distinct preference for adults who help rather than hinder others.
But, like language, the development of this inherent tendency may be affected by early experience. As evidence, look no further than ancient Greece — at the millennia-old child-rearing practices of Sparta and Athens. Spartans, who were celebrated almost exclusively as warriors, raised their ruling-class boys in an environment of uncompromising brutality — enlisting them in boot camp at age 7, and starving them to encourage enough deviousness and cunning to steal food — which skillfully bred yet more generations of ruthless killers.
[H/t: Quinn O'Neill]