Moonlighting in Moccasins

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtIn the political debates of the 1980s, one common (and very 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. Certainly the shtick 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 any more limp-wristed chatter about the need for an activist, redistributive state, one’s opponent would then go nuclear. ‘Because humans’, he would say, ‘are naturally competitive.’

To the extent that such saloon-bar tough talk can be described as an intellectual position, it should be obvious to anyone with an interest in ideas that 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 both the social and hard sciences pointing to the importance of cooperation and reciprocity in human affairs. Far from proving that human beings are the solitary brutes of Thomas Hobbes’ imagination, recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and primatology suggest the opposite: that they – we – are wired for empathy.

In Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, the philosopher Roman Krznaric pulls together much of this research in an effort to redress what Barack Obama has described as ‘the empathy deficit’: the corrosive emphasis on self-interest and individualism born of the neoliberal worldview. Drawing on the work of academics such as Simon Baron-Cohen (The Science of Evil) and Jeremy Rifkin (The Empathic Civilisation), he suggests that the twentieth century should be characterised as ‘the Age of Introspection’ and that what is needed now is a ‘radical’ shift – a move 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 Einfühlung, ‘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 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 that 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, different 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, science: all are permitted to 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 the 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 empathic capacities, is notable for its balance and equanimity. Broadly speaking, I share his view that the price of technological connectedness may be social disconnectedness, and think it was very honest of him to admit that his search for the ultimate ‘empathy app’ was (give or take the odd game) a fizzer.

Nevertheless, there are problems with Empathy, not the least of which is its rather cloying tone. As a faculty member of Alain de Botton’s School of Life in Central London – a cross between a university and a counselling service offering courses in the art of ‘living well’ – Krznaric may be, for all we know, obliged to adopt the Bottonian style, which includes making your points in straightforward language and using black-and-white photographs to illustrate them. But it is one thing to make philosophy accessible, quite another to pepper your (serious) text with self-helpy imperatives such as ‘Travel in your armchair’ and ‘Practise the craft of conversation’. No doubt there is a hint of tongue in cheek in Krznaric’s delineation of the ‘Six habits of highly empathic people’, but as the book progresses and the imperatives accumulate (‘Alternatively, get yourself an allotment …’) the reader’s patience begins to fray.

More importantly, I think Krznaric fails sufficiently to answer the case set out by the psychologist Paul Bloom in a recent essay in the New Yorker: namely that empathy is in many instances ‘parochial, narrow-minded and innumerate’. This tough-minded corrective hinges on what is known as the ‘identifiable victim effect’ – the outlook that causes ‘Homo empathicus’ to focus on the little girl stuck down the well but ignore the crisis in, say, US healthcare. Bloom’s point – that when it comes to politics an undue focus on the victims of a particular policy can lead electorates to ignore its many beneficiaries – is an easy one to assimilate; but Krznaric shows little sign of having done so. At one point, for example, he wonders if Westerners would be quite so tolerant of the US-led war in Afghanistan if they took the trouble to empathise with its innocent victims. Perhaps he’s right; but it might equally be the case that a shrinking of the ‘empathy deficit’ may lead to more intervention, not less. No doubt there are many Sudanese and Rwandans who could have done with a bit of empathy when the devil was shaking them by the throat – even at the price of some ‘collateral damage’.

Empathy, in short, only gets us so far, and it is odd that a tome purporting to be a ‘handbook for revolution’ should fail to say so. But my feeling is that the kind of revolution Krznaric has in mind is a personal one, and that for all its talk of ‘radical listening’ and ‘fundamental social change’ this book belongs in the self-help section. Yes, empathy is hugely important; but there is a difference between marching for real change and moonlighting in moccasins.


Roman Krznaric, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution
Rider; $34.99; 288pp

First published in The Weekend Australian.