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Big Empathy

By Tom Atlee

March 2015

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).


Looking at empathy in an evolutionary context, we may notice the following:

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 thy enemies".

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 balance.

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 religion, evolutionary 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 dominator mind-set.

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.


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.


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 false impression.

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 the Other.

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.


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.


Beyond majoritarianism

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 and here.)

In contrast, 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 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 and corporations.

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 want).

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.

See also

Big Empathy Outline


Big Empathy: Creating a Wise Democracy and a Caring Economy (mp3)



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