‘Radical’ just moonlighting in moccasins
Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution By Roman Krznaric Rider, 258pp, $34.99 (HB) IN the political debates of the 1980s, one common (and irritating) rhetorical manoeuvre was the Conservative Appeal to Human Nature. More conversation-stopper than debating point, this nifty ideological clincher was ever on the lips of smooth-talking Tories for whom politics was reducible to a question of self-interest aggravated by prejudice.
The schtick wasn’t hard to master. “Well, socialism is fine in theory,’’ it would be said, ‘‘but of course it could never work in practice.’’ Asked to justify this lofty generalisation, and eager to avoid more limp-wristed chatter about the need for an activist, redistributive state, one’s opponent would go nuclear. ‘‘Because humans,’’ they would say, ‘‘are naturally competitive.’’
To the extent that such tough talk can be described as an intellectual position, it should be obvious to anyone with an interest in ideas that
May 10-11, 2014 it fails spectacularly to clear the first hurdle. Derived largely from a misreading of Darwin (whose struggle for survival is clumsily recast as an economic war of all against all) and on a selective reading of Adam Smith (the author, apparently, of The Wealth of Nations but not of The Theory of Moral Sentiments), it confuses self-interest with selfishness and nature with ideology.
Moreover, it fails to take account of the mass of research in the social and hard sciences pointing to the importance of co-operation and reciprocity in human affairs. Far from proving that human beings are the solitary brutes of Thomas Hobbes’s imagination, recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and primatology suggest the opposite: that we are wired for empathy.
In Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric pulls together much of this research in an effort to redress what US President Barack Obama has described as ‘‘the empathy deficit’’: the corrosive emphasis on self-interest and individualism born of the neo-liberal world view. Drawing on the work of academics such as Simon Baron- Cohen ( The Science of Evil) and Jeremy Rifkin ( The Empathic Civilisation), he suggests the 20th century should be characterised as ‘‘the Age of Introspection’’ and that what is needed now is a ‘‘radical’’ shift to an “Age of Outrospection’’. In Krznaric’s view, we need to rhyme “me” with “we”: “Homo self-centricus’’ must come to appreciate that he is really ‘‘ Homo empathicus’’.
Defining empathy is a fiddly business, and although Krznaric is careful to distinguish it from sympathy (sympathy describes feelings such as pity and is a more detached emotion than empathy, which derives from the German word Einfuhlung, ‘‘feeling into’’), his characterisation of it is in essence no different from Henry David Thoreau’s injunction to try to see through another’s eyes, or Atticus Finch’s dictum that before passing judgment on our fellow man we should climb into his skin and walk around in it. (He is especially fond of the Cheyenne proverb ‘‘Do not judge your neighbour until you walk two moons in his moccasins’’.)
This is not to say, however, that he takes a simplistic view of empathy, and the book contains some crucial distinctions, perhaps the most important of which is the distinction between cognitive and affective empathy: the capacity to understand another person’s perspective and the capacity to feel what another person is feeling. Recent developments in neuroscience are especially pertinent to the second of these. The discovery of ‘‘mirror neurons’’ in monkeys — neurons that fire when an action is observed, as well as when an action is performed — suggests primates are indeed ‘‘hardwired’’ to respond empathically to members of the same species (though clearly not the members of different ones, if the design of the experiments is anything to go by).
Moving across, and between, disciplines, Krznaric casts his net far and wide and the resulting haul is an impressive sight, even if it smells a bit fishy at times. Philosophy, business, psychology and science have their say, and all say that empathy is a lot more important than the dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed philosophy of the 1980s and 1990s was willing to allow.
I was particularly interested to read of education programs, operational in Finland and Canada, designed to encourage empathy in small children, and I think Krznaric’s discussion of the internet, and the effect it is having on our