‘Rad­i­cal’ just moon­light­ing in moc­casins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

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

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