In a talk that followed the publishing of his 2010 book, The Empathic Civilization: A Race to Global Consciousness in a World Crisis, economist Jeremy Rifkin challenged individuals to examine their place in a global society that has become increasingly obsessed with individualistic attainment versus global prosperity. A rather poignant part of the talk was turned into an RSA animate, and can be seen in the following video:
The studies referenced in the video are part of an expansive and continually growing line of research on the importance of empathy and on how empathy is a central part of the human condition and of human social relationships.
For example, whenever I have taught Introductory Psychology, explaining the role of empathy to students has been especially crucial for the topic of reducing (or otherwise eliminating) social conflict. As the video and similar studies have suggested, being an empathic individual is not only an essential part of the maturation process, but it is a critical component of any attempts to belong to a functional global society. As a result, there are many dangers that arise when empathy is otherwise devalued or totally absent.
Lack of empathy produces egocentrism. Many individuals are quite fond of overvaluing their own personal experiences, to the extent that their reality is solely defined by those personal experiences. As a result, such individuals tend to be indifferent towards suffering, marginalization and injustice unless they have personally experienced such phenomena for themselves.
Empathy is hence replaced with calls for rugged individualism, a type of “every man for himself” mantra that views hardship as the fault of no one other than the individual suffering such hardship. One need look no further than the treatment of homeless individuals in this country for a good example.
Lack of empathy is self-destructive. The ability to feel empathy for another person increases the perceived similarity between you and that other individual. This is a key component of reducing social conflict. When empathy is lacking, individuals are much more likely to cling to superficial groups based on nationalistic sentiment, religious or geographical affiliation, etc. They are also more likely to perceive irreconcilable differences between their own group and “outsider” groups.
Lack of empathy is fatalistic. On a global scale, when many individuals lack empathy, there is a greater likelihood that they will treat the planet as a means to an end, rather than seek to discover ways to preserve its beauty and resources. This type of mindset (which is closely related to egocentrism) asks “what’s in it for me,” rather than concerning itself with ensuring global intergenerational prosperity.
We must understand that as human beings, we bear a civic and moral responsibility to all around us. Above all else, we are citizens of this world, and we must not fall victim to retreating into the seductively narcissistic realm of isolationism.