The Empathic Civilization: Self-Interest and the Empathic Drive


The Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts recently released a video titled “The Empathic Civilisation.” The video is narrated by social commentator Jeremy Rifkin, who has released a book by the same name.

You can watch the video here:

The main gist of the video is that we are soft-wired for empathy, and thus, if we are to construct an “empathic civilization,” we must construct systems that properly leverage this key human component.

Rifkin’s rant is a long one, and there is much to enjoy, much to agree with, and much to disagree with, but the primary thing that rubs me wrong is his suggestion that empathy and self-interest are mutually exclusive.

He suggests that we are not soft-wired for aggression, violence, self-interest, and utilitarianism, but rather for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship. Aside from the audacity of making such a claim about the human disposition, I’m not sure why he lumps self-interest (or even utilitarianism) in with aggression and violence. If we are soft-wired for empathy, and if we find pleasure and reward in discovering and destroying the suffering of others, wouldn’t it follow that empathy is a key component of self-interest?

Indeed, why else would it be the maximization of self-interest that has led us to the Industrial Revolution and globalism? It is the very products of self-interest that have led us to this new technological infrastructure which allows us to transcend race, creed, religion, and nation-state.

Rifkin says that empathy is the “invisible hand,” but it’s only part of it. Even Adam Smith — the moral philosopher and inventor of the “invisible hand” metaphor — thought the two went together:

But whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith beat Jeremy Rifkin to the punch.

Empathy is indeed a key part of Smith’s argument for self-interest in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

What confuses me is that after bashing self-interest, Rifkin talks about how our journey of “selfhood” goes together with our empathic development (he calls this journey the “existential trip”). Perhaps he just considers irrational self-interest to be the only kind there is.

In the end, Rifkin’s larger point is that we need to find a way to bring out our “empathic sociability” in our societies. I could give a few detailed answers as to what I think this would look like, but my basic response is this:

If our individual selfhood drives our ability to empathize, wouldn’t it seem obvious that the answer lies in the maximization of our freedom to pursue individual pursuits?

What do you think?

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/18129454044 Remnant Culture

    New post on Jeremy Rifkin's video on "the Empathic Civilization." Are empathy & self-interest mutually exclusive? http://bit.ly/aG57Nv

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/18392111920 Remnant Culture

    Should "self-interest" really be tossed in with "aggression" and "violence"? My comments in a video promoting empathy: http://bit.ly/aG57Nv

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/18392481514 Remnant Culture

    Should "self-interest" really be tossed in with "aggression" and "violence"? My comments on a video on empathy: http://bit.ly/aG57Nv

  • http://empathsolutions.com/what-is-an-empath empaths

    This is something really interesting. It would be lovely if all of us have this side in our attitude and lives.

  • Milk Butcher

    By self-interest, I can only assume Rifkin implied a Ayn Rand type of self-interest where he created that dichotomy, as it is pretty obvious any human action would be of self-interest. I would agree with his tying of utilitarianism with violence however, as utilitarianism, being rationalistic, lends itself more to structural violence and oppression as it emphasizes abstract measurements of value opposed to considering direct and indirect consequences on the environment and living things.

    Instead of answering your question, I must just disagree with his premise that our wiring is more based on what I see as leftist ideals (the sociability, attachment, affection, companionship) than rightist ones. I believe we have the capacity for both equally (some more likely to lean one way or the other), but as he says, our society is more rightist and therefore these ideals are less pervasive, especially on a global scale. It’s a lot easier to look at the whole planet as resources to be mined than to look at it as a living breathing organism of infinite complexity that we’re destroying.

    Also, I feel like globalization and the industrial revolution in fact had a very utilitarian and non-empathic bend to it, as any Marxist would love to point out. No modern war at least has started without some humanitarian premise. To believe that we’re inherently social communists (I believe this is what anthropologist David Graeber termed this) and that something went wrong with early sedentary life is unproven by mirror neurons alone. I mean as a leftist I loved this video, but the assumption that we’re driven by belonging, not merely connecting, is unfortunately too much for me.

  • fed

    thank you for your bible trash