By Tom Atlee
This essay describes in some detail the rationale for and factors
involved in expanding our empathy in three ways:
1. widen our "circle of care" to include more beings of
more species over greater time periods;
2. become better practitioners of empathy; and
3. embed empathy in our cultures and social systems.
These ideas are explored from other angles in
Tom Atlee's talk Big Empathy: Creating
a Wise Democracy and a Caring Economy (mp3).
EMPATHY AND EVOLUTION
Looking at empathy in an evolutionary context, we may notice the
The whole point of empathy - the reason it evolved - was to help
us bond and function in cooperative, mutually supportive groups
- couples, families, tribes, clans - as an "us" that contrasted
with others who were "not us". Empathy makes us want to
relieve each other's suffering and to enjoy each other's joys. We
can feel what each other is feeling and understand more about what
each other needs, motivates us to help each other out. Clearly,
we couldn't survive if we responded that way to everyone and everything;
it would be too much; our attention and energy would be too dispersed.
Empathy was "designed" to operate within the boundaries
of our communities. It helped us define and maintain those boundaries,
and empathic communities survived to pass on their members' genes.
But as our tribes grew into towns, organizations, cities, countries,
civilizations, global economies - with their trade, war, mobility,
and associated uprootedness from any one place and culture - we
came into contact with Others with whom we needed to engage as part
of "us". Pluralistic cultures emerged promoting an expanded
sense of who "we" were - even to the extreme of "Love
But another aspect of this cultural evolution undermined such feelings.
Empathy ties us to each other and make us "care too much."
That connectedness and sensitivity can make it harder to produce
efficiently, to consume mindlessly, and to feel free to pursue our
own personal aspirations regardless of those around us.
The 17th and 18th century Enlightenment facilitated a shift from
cultures based on tribe, community, and tradition to more individualistic
cultures using concepts like RIghts and Entitlements. Rights enable
us as sovereign individuals to define our independence from other
individuals and from our community or State. Entitlements are things
that the collective owes to us sovereign individuals. Our relationships
focus on rational material self-interest. Gone is the sense that
we are intrinsically mutually beholden to each other, that we are
fundamentally interdependent, and that our impulse to co-create
for mutual benefit is driven by our resonance with - and empathy
for - each other.
Something is clearly lost in this shift. While rights and entitlements
have fed the progressive legitimization, enfranchisement, and support
of the Other - i.e., of marginalized people, be they slaves, people
of color, poor people, women, immigrants, disabled people, people
of different beliefs, appearances, proclivities, etc. - this liberation
has been pursued and accomplished by category (of people), officially
and at arms length, not primarily by evolving personal and interpersonal
relationships and resonance between people of the margins and people
of the mainstream. Our primal, vibrant sense of embeddedness, of
belonging, of connection can easily be left to atrophy
unless we notice that it is withering and take action to counter
that ebb of our humanity.
In response to this we find movements emerging to reconnect with
each other, from communes to interfaith and interracial dinners
to Nonviolent Communication
and dozens of conversational methodologies. We find novels and performances
- Anna Deavere Smith's work
stands out - that introduce us to the inner and outer lives of people
unlike ourselves on the surface but so like us at some deeper level.
Similarly, we find the same kind of Enlightenment estrangement happening
in our relationships with place and nature. Most modern people live
in many different places during their lives, losing local rootedness
- that true embeddedness in the life, history, and destiny of a
place that produces responsible relationships with all the life
that lives there. Uprooted, we see humanity as separate and (ideally)
in control of nature. We exploit natural "resources",
dump our waste into natural systems, create substances that neither
nature nor we know what to do with once we're done with them, and
protect ourselves from nature's undesirable impacts on our lives
- like weather, disease, and famine - rather than coming to terms
with our place in the natural scheme of things. Unfortunately, nature's
impacts are vital to maintaining its balances. For example, famine
and deaths in any species limit unhealthy population growth and
decay and death feed the recycling of materials needed elsewhere
in the ecosystem. Pre-industrial human vulnerabilities helped limit
humanity's collective arrogance, which has lately been unleashed
by technological prowess, generating a competition between Nature
and Humanity. Our success at impacting nature while protecting ourselves
from its impacts is producing more dangerous impacts - from droughts
to disease-resistant bacteria - as nature increases its efforts
to bring our collective individualistic behaviors into its biospherical
We find our alienation from place being countered by community activism,
participatory care of the landscape and community and, in its most
eco-sophisticated form, bioregionalism and care for "the commons".
We find our alienation from nature being countered by everything
from scouting, outdoorsmanship, gardening, and the creation of National
Parks to declarations of the Rights
of Nature, animal rights movements, and wildlife and ecosystem
conservation efforts. For deeper responses, we have biomimicry,
deep ecology, nature
spirituality, and a resurgence of shamanism
and respect for indigenous cultures. Systemic responses include
movements and technologies fostering sustainability, permaculture,
and eco-conscious monitoring of toxics, population,
ecological footprint, consumption, economic activity, technological
development, and more. There's a growing understanding that we are
part of nature and/or can live in sustainable partnerships with
nature - either of which requires a radical shift from our modern
These trends are augmented by another manifestation of big empathy
which we can consciously develop: the experience of aesthetic, spiritual,
and nature-based resonance. When we are fully, immersively present
with the colors, textures, patterns, smells, tastes, forms of aliveness
and beingness in the world around us, they can evoke vivid emotional
and spiritual responses within and among us. We enter into the being
of person or thing - an animal, scene, rock, or work of art - in
ways that dissolve boundaries that make it "other", sometimes
even opening us into the unitary wholeness of the living universe.
Various psychedelic substances or exercises in being present or
being in the present moment can return us to this primal state of
empathy with the world around us, countering the distraction and
alienation of civilizational busyness. Even bringing more quiet
moments into our lives can give us a taste of this.
INDIVIDUALIZATION, DIVERSITY, AND THE COMPLEXITY
OF WHOLE SYSTEMS
As a general pattern, evolution - evolution beyond Darwinism, the
kind of evolution that's been going on since the Big Bang - seems
to love generating a wild diversity of molecules, organisms, ecosystems,
people, cultures, businesses, breakfast cereals, video games, and
nearly everything else. Evolution also loves weaving the diversity
it creates into more complex life forms and dynamic systems like
global economies, the global Web, and the global biosphere.
Both of these trends - diversification and integration - are complementary
features of the evolutionary journey towards ever-more complex forms
of wholeness. In the development of any whole, we almost always
find both increasing distinctness of the parts AND increasing interconnection,
interaction, and interdependence among those parts.
We see this in human development. We see "individuation"
unfolding in the "terrible twos" and in adolescence as
a young person struggles to craft a distinct self separate from
their family, even while they weave themselves into other social
units - into friendships, clubs, workplaces, relationships, tribes,
and more. Over time, if their development is healthy, they return
to their family as a unique whole individual in more or less peer
relationships with their parents and siblings, developing a new
family whole overlapping the other group wholes they are part of.
Empathy plays a role in bonding us into these groups, and in distinguishing
"us" from those with whom we feel little or no empathy.
As noted above, we find in the overall evolution of civilization
a similar developmental phenomena: Fragmenting dynamics like diversity,
individualism, alienation, mobility, etc., develop in tandem with
new (and reclaimed ancient) forms of connection, interdependence,
cooperation, and collectivity. Through the simultaneous unfolding
of these seemingly opposite dynamics, the society as a whole evolves
into novel patterns of complexity.
In my thinking about empathy, I stumbled upon an interesting dance
between the dynamics of oppression - patriarchy, colonialism, racism,
sexism, etc. - and the Enlightenment versions of capitalism and
democracy that celebrate and reify the individual. Oppression dynamics
bind a privileged part of society together into a group by viewing
the Other - i.e., certain oppressed and often exploited people,
organisms and eco-systems - as lesser forms of life that can be
treated as objects (by "Us") and for which we need feel
no empathy. Empathy is right for "Us"; control, exploitation,
or marginalization are right for "Them" (or "It").
This familiar divide-and-conquer, us-against-them (or us-over-them)
strategy taps into our deep tribal identity impulses and helps those
in power maintain their dominance and to carry out wars on "those
bad Other people". It has played a significant role in building
large complex societies that are held together by (among other things)
the force required to control the wildness and resources of nature
and the resistance of oppressed and conquered people. We can see
many examples of this dynamic in history and in current events and
social dynamics, both domestically and internationally.
THE DANCE OF EMPATHY AND ECONOMICS
This dance becomes even more intriguing and complex when we contemplate
the way money-based economics both manifests and transcends such
oppressive dynamics. In modern economies we see the dynamic of "empathy
for Us and control and marginalization for Them" in such phenomena
as corporate competition and the exploitation of people and nature.
In addition, there's the ubiquitous assumption that the money-based
economic system (rather than nature or our community) will provide
for our needs: We just need to live in it and support it with our
labor, our investments, our consumption, our votes, our educational
systems, and all our other individual and collective endeavors.
We can easily get the impression that with enough money, we don't
personally need each other; we get our needs met by "the economy".
Because of that, to a remarkable degree, the money economy doesn't
need force to function: Our utter dependence on it makes us cooperate
with it. All the economy needs to do is keep us sewn into its fabric.
(Obvious exceptions to this "no force" principle exist,
like the killing and imprisonment of minorities, organizers, and
whistleblowers, and movements and societies that resist market capitalism.
But here I want to explore the intriguing dynamic that makes economies
so powerful even without force.)
There's an interesting way that the money economy sometimes enhances
empathy. Profiteers benefit by including more and more consumers
in their markets. Nowadays their market activities extend worldwide,
drawing extremely diverse people into ever closer engagement with
each other - as workers, as investors, as consumers of popular (and
each other's) cultures and products. So we find multinational corporations
promoting multiculturalism, tolerance, and diversity trainings,
because these things support their profitable expansion into the
multicultural global marketplace. And markets have become multicultural
everywhere, thanks both to telecommunications media and the mobility
of populations; more of us increasingly live or experience our lives
more or less "everywhere" around the world.
Adding to this diversifying vector, the money economy promotes new
forms of both individualism and tribalism. It commodifies, alters,
remixes, and disperses diverse traditional cultures and pries people
out of those cultures to pursue their supposed personal expressions
and aspirations. But all too often people end up trying to fulfill
and present themselves to the world using the fads and options pushed
on them by the global economy, enhanced
by its growing capacity to customize everything. We get the
impression - especially if we have sufficient funds - that we are
"free to be me", independent from each other, from place,
and from nature - despite overwhelming evidence that that's a dangerously
The economic system becomes the go-between, the medium, the mediator
between us and the world. Our former primary and immediate interdependence
with nature and with human community are being progressively replaced
by an economic interdependence woven out of our productive and consumptive
participation in complex artificial economic ecosystems, driven
always by money.
In this globalized culture, our empathy - still functioning for
most of us among our families, friends, and close colleagues - gets
stretched beyond our usual circles by charities, news, activism,
and advertising. We may feel guilty that we can't meet all the needs
of others that are pressed upon us in the media. We may start to
ignore or deny those needs. We may reach a point where, in order
to continue functioning in the business-as-usual economy, we have
to pull back and tone down our empathy, making it shallow or risking
"compassion fatigue". Many of us try to control this by
specializing in some community or cause within which we can effectively
practice our empathy while tuning out other needs and other legitimate
objects of our fellow-feeling. To help us see the results of our
caring, we tend to channel our empathy towards producing direct
benefits rather than long-term transformational change. Most of
us intuitively feel that the systemic causes of the suffering we
seek to address are too abstract, with tremendous obstacles and
delays involved in changing them.
In other words, the global money-driven economy has enhanced both
our diversity and our homogeneity, both our alienation and our connectedness.
It has both expanded and contracted our empathic impulses, reweaving
them for its own purposes and contributing to its own increasing
complexity and power. But the money economy is only one manifestation
of the fact that all social dynamics, cultures, and social systems
are two-edged swords, capable of enhancing and/or undermining our
personal empathic impulses. It is up to us to become more conscious
of this fact, and to use it to create a more empathic civilization.
We must especially become more conscious of how money can make us
feel we don't need each other and don't have to attend to the social
and environmental impacts of what we buy, produce, and invest in.
We must realize how wealth can seal us off from realities faced
by the less fortunate. We need to notice how mobility makes it possible
to move away from places, situations and people we don't like to
environments more to our liking, and how that creates not only comforts
but distances and boundaries in our hearts. We need to realize how
customized internet services reduce our exposure to other perspectives
- except through the eyes of partisan commentators with whom we've
chosen to align ourselves. We also can notice how public relations,
novels, movies and music are used to split us apart - or to bind
us together in unhealthy, oppositional ways - and to keep us ignorant
of the experience, concerns, and lives of those we come to see as
There are limits to how far these alienating dynamics can go, and
we are reaching those limits. As a civilization we have grown in
our capacity to collectively generate complex harmful impacts that
overwhelm or bypass our natural empathic responsiveness. So much
systemically hidden harm goes on beyond the reach of our inborn
empathy that the original evolutionary logic that drove the emergence
of empathy in the first place is being brought into question.
In response, empathy is evolving - and needs to evolve more quickly.
We find that evolution, changing circumstances, social development,
and many dynamics of modern life are challenging us (a) to expand
our sense of who is "like" us and therefore worthy of
our empathy (during which process our sense of who "we"
are - individually and collectively - may expand, as well) and (b)
to develop personal competence in effectively exercising our empathy.
There is another aspect of this evolution: (c) creating systems
that embody expanded connection, caring, understanding, and validation
- even when when the people involved do not individually feel the
empathy that tends to motivate such connection and caring within
their close relationships. In essence, the systems themselves "practice
empathy". This involves embedding empathic caring dynamics
into our cultures and our political, economic, and social systems.
What does that mean?
The more social dynamics and social systems alienate us from each
other, the more important personal empathy and empathy-building
practices like Nonviolent Communication become. On the other hand,
the more we embed into our social systems and cultures consideration
for each other and the world around us, the less the chance that
personal lack of empathy - on the part of leaders or people in general
- will harm others or disrupt society or nature. Obviously, we need
to attend to both the personal and the systemic dimensions. But
at this point I want to explore some systemic manifestations of
empathy that promote authentic fellow-feeling, mutual relationships,
social support, and collaborative effort.... just to improve our
sense of what that means and how we might use such changes to make
the world better.
EMPATHY, ANTIPATHY AND SOCIETY
We all know empathy as a feeling. It engages our emotions and imaginations,
drawing us into other people's shoes, into seeing the world through
their eyes, into resonance with their experience. Whether or not
we agree with them, we taste what it is like to be them.
Empathy is intrinsically valuable for those of us who feel it. There's
a depth of humanity and warmth of connection that comes from feeling
empathy. We value that quality in our lives even despite the heartache
it sometimes brings.
But empathy is most valuable - and actually exists, thanks to evolution
- for the benefits it generates beyond the meaning and feelings
it gives us personally. As noted earlier, empathy produces important
blessings in the real world. It helps us understand each other so
we can work together better, so we can help each other better, so
we can struggle and celebrate together and work out our conflicts.
When we feel empathy, we don't see each other as objects nor distance
ourselves from each other's experience. We see each other as full
human beings like ourselves. Our life together, it turns out, is
better when we feel empathy towards each other.
So why do we so often fail to understand each other, to help each
other, to work out our conflicts? Why do we create distance and
objectify each other, seeing each other as less than us, even less
than human? Why do we tolerate the suffering that this imposes on
us and on others?
There are personal psychological reasons for this. Evolution hasn't
made us only empathetic. It has also made us want to be right, which
sometimes seems to require that we make others wrong. It has made
us defend ourselves and close down when we feel vulnerable or threatened
- or made us become habitually defensive, violent, and/or contracted
if we've been made severely vulnerable and damaged in the past,
specially in childhood or war. It has also made us care more about
others who are like us - or related to us, or part of our tribe
- than we care about those who are different or distant from us
- those Others. And all these psychological dynamics are used in
modern societies by people and groups who want to manipulate our
relationships with them and with other people and groups, and to
get us to behave in ways that benefit their interests.
So evolution has given us the capacity to feel empathy for each
other - and to feel antipathy or apathy as well. We have both potentials.
The often manipulated context in which we live shapes which of these
we manifest - in a given circumstance or habitually. The ways we
are brought up and educated, the stories our culture tells us, and
the ways our society is organized all shape how we behave with each
other, individually and collectively. And a situation or a whole
society can produce the results of empathy - care and cooperation
- even if the people involved don't particularly feel much empathy
for each other. Let's look at some of the ways society can produce
empathic outcomes regardless.
EXAMPLES OF SYSTEMIC/CULTURAL MANIFESTATIONS OF EMPATHY
Competitive winner-take-all majoritarian political dynamics oversimplify
the full range of human perspectives, jamming them all into two
polarized opposites which are then pitted against each other in
search of that precious 50%+1 majority required to win dominant
political power. This creates a context in which ambitious power-seekers
can easily set us against each other with increasing intensity.
It feeds the partisan polarizing dynamics that lead us to demonize
"the other side" and make it hard to create alliances
"across the gap". (More detailed discussion of the dynamics
of polarization can be found here
the use of random selection bypasses partisan oversimplifications:
in randomly selected groups, citizens find themselves face to face
with people who in some ways may be very different from them, but
they meet as fellow citizens, not as political partisans. In
citizen deliberative councils or citizen
legislatures using random selection, these citizens are then
given full-spectrum (rather than one-sided) information and helped
to talk and think together to find solutions that make sense to
the vast majority of them. In the process, they find themselves
practicing empathy without even knowing it, simply because they
need to truly hear each other and take each other's needs and experiences
into account in order to carry out their assigned task of creating
policy recommendations for their community or country.
Some methods like Dynamic Facilitation
involve "a designated listener" - a trained facilitator
who is especially good at empathizing with everyone in the group,
one by one, so they all feel heard and become increasingly able
to hear and empathize with each other. Other approaches like transpartisanship
engage admitted partisans in explicit searches for their areas of
agreement which, it often turns out, are far more common and encouraging
than most people realize. In any case, such political conversations
and institutions run directly counter to the institutionalized partisan
battles and polarization that the majoritarian system leans towards
naturally and that demagogues so readily exploit for their own divide-and-conquer
purposes. People end up empathizing even if they are not individually
particularly inclined to do so or practiced in its nuances.
Beyond reductionist global capitalism
Because money doesn't measure everything of value and more money
is always needed to pay back interest on loans, interest creates
scarcity - and this creates divisions between the haves and the
have-nots. For the same reason, interest drives "economic growth";
each person and company has to make more money than they borrowed
in order to pay back the loan. Economic growth, in turn, demands
the non-empathic exploitation of human and natural resources in
service to "the bottom line". Interest-generated scarcity
magnifies the natural competitiveness of the free market and
the non-productive global casino of purely financial speculation.
The global financial casino tends to involve both high risk and
high returns while trading imaginary economic products - e.g., bets
about the future, minor shifts in the relative value of different
countries' currencies, and various other "derivatives"
that provide little or no support to truly productive activity while
endangering resources needed by those truly productive activities.
These casino transactions are carried out in nanoseconds by computer
algorithms disconnected from any human judgment or feeling.
Furthermore, capitalism traditionally focuses on money and monetary
institutions such as a corporation's fiduciary responsibility to
generate monetary profits for its stockholders, or the dominant
economic statistic (Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) which measures
how much money is spent in an economy. Such institutions strengthen
monetary exchange relationships while undermining non-monetized
empathic gifting, sharing, and caring relationships. These capitalist
dynamics create contexts in which it is often advantageous to not
care about those on the other side of the economic game or lower
in the landscape of privilege. Too much empathy or expressions of
emotion can actually put an economic player at a disadvantage in
the competitive marketplace. However, the principle of "putting
oneself in another's shoes" IS used in advertising and marketing,
where scientific research identifies consumers' emotional responses
so that those responses can be used to get people to buy things
or otherwise act to the benefit of the corporations (or politicians)
doing the advertising.
Gifting, sharing, and caring are, in contrast, major economic activities
associated with empathy: We give and share naturally with our families
and friends. More generally we know what it is like to lack things
we need and want, so that we are naturally inclined to work together
to satisfy our various individual and collective needs using whatever
we have among us to give, share, or lend. Our present monetized
economy doesn't support this inclination towards mutual aid, since
it needs people to buy - and feel they need to own - their own consumer
products in order to keep the economy expanding. Thus more and more
"stuff" needs to be created to meet this perceived "need"
- a dynamic that is destroying the earth.
However, the increase of gifting and sharing presents an alternative
empathy-based economic vision that offers a major challenge to that
dominant capitalist model. The realization of this "new
economics" is facilitated by specially designed online
networks and inspired by economic hard times, by books like Charles
Eisenstein's Sacred Economics
and by visionary websites like Shareable.net.
We can see a kind of race between this emergent and more sustainable
economics and the dominant economics which is generating massive
inequalities while undermining both empathy and the political, social
and natural "commons" - the democracy, community, and
biosphere - upon which we all depend.
Free market capitalism seems to sense this challenge and is itself
struggling to change in ways that make it more empathic. At the
shallowest level we find traditional philanthropic activities and
efforts to reduce wealth inequality, often through taxation and
sometimes by restraining non-productive financial transactions or
providing "safety nets" for the poor. Recent research
has even demonstrated the economic value of relative wealth equality
even for capitalists.
At deeper systemic levels, we find efforts to institutionalize "the
triple bottom line" and "the public benefit corporation"
- both of which expand corporate responsibility beyond financial
return to ensure corporate activities also benefit the people and
environments they impact. Total
Corporate Responsibility goes further, engaging corporations
in changing the systems that shape the marketplace itself. At a
more fundamental level we find the localization movement in which
producers and consumers tend to know each other in the same community
and be mutually beholden to each other, as we see in Community
Supported Agriculture - an economic shift that also reduces
energy use by reducing the need to transport so many products over
great distances. Another aspect is the cooperative
movement in which those who patronize or work in a business
- or live in multi-person housing - own it, and need to work together
empathically to manage it. At the macro-economic scale we find efforts
to replace or augment GDP with better
measures of quality of life.
Perhaps the most potent empathy-related new economy design principle
- but one of the most difficult to fully understand and apply -
is the idea of internalizing
the social and environmental costs of a product in its price.
This innovation - of which a carbon tax is the most familiar example
- inspires consumers to buy the least harmful product simply because
it costs less. With this fundamental change, a free market filled
with deal-hunting consumers and corporations would end up healing
the world instead of destroying it, reducing suffering and degradation
without any exercise of empathy needed on the part of consumers
Two other radical proposals that embed empathic dynamics right into
the economic system include negative
interest (through which generosity serves self-interest more
than hoarding because one's money is worth less and less over time,
while one's empathic reputation earns one future support from others)
and a guaranteed
minimum income (which frees everyone to live the lives they
In such economies we find greater equity and balance both in social
power relations and in quality of life, as well as more sustainability
and resilience. It is easier for people to relate to each other
- and the economies are designed so that even people's self-interest
motivates them to do well by their fellows. Having more of what
they truly need, they are also less apt to demean others in their
efforts to strengthen their own security. Their security is more
fundamentally rooted in their reputation for generosity: When they
run into hard times, people will help them in proportion to how
much they helped out others when they were better off.
With these examples I focus on political and economic spheres because
of the dominant influence they have in our lives. But obviously
other sectors can embody empathy as well. Education can be free
and responsive to the needs of the students, introducing people
to unfamiliar perspectives and cultures and training them in techniques
of empathic relationship, especially listening. Justice systems
can use more mediation and practices
that restore community and relationships rather than focusing
on punishment. Science can focus on supporting mutually beneficial
and sustaining relationships with each other and nature, rather
than increasing our ability to predict, manipulate, and control
the world around us. The opportunities for building empathy-based
cultures are virtually unlimited.
These examples provide just a taste of the kinds of social transformation
implied by seeking to co-create a culture based on empathy. Embedding
empathy in our political, economic and other systems can reduce
the harms generated by current systems while buying time to enhance
the personal experience and practice of empathy in and among all
the individuals who live in those social systems.
That is the challenge of big empathy:
1. to widen our "circle of care" to include more beings
of more species over greater time periods;
2. to become better practitioners of empathy; and
3. to embed empathy in our cultures and social systems.
If we successfully pursued all of these, it would clearly make all
the difference in the world.
Big Empathy Outline
Big Empathy: Creating
a Wise Democracy and a Caring Economy (mp3)
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