Are We Entering An Age of Empathy?

Jeremy Rifkin, a prolific writer, and advisor to the European Union since 2002, and principle architect of the Third Industrial Revolution, describes in his new book, The Empathetic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis, how the Age of Reason during The Enlightenment triumphed over the Age of Faith in the feudal era, and has been with us since. Rifkin says that today, with the challenges of a global economy and our degrading biosphere, a new generation of scientists, scholars and reformers are challenging the underlying assumptions of the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason.

These Age of Empathy advocates argue that the previous explanations of the human condition left us with incomplete stories of our human nature. In our modern era, with its emphasis on rationality, objectivity and detachment, human emotions are considered to be irrational, and difficult to quantify, with a common view that emotions get in the way of sound reasoning and judgment, Rifkin says. Yet, how can we truly appreciate and understand our lives without being alive to pain, suffering, joy, love and other emotions?

New research in evolutionary biology, cognitive sciences and neuroscience are laying the foundation for a wholesale reappraisal of human consciousness. The Age of Faith notion that God’s grace is the window to reality and the Age of Reason’s idea that reason is the apex of human consciousness is giving way to a more sophisticated and integrated theory of mind.

Researchers in a diverse range of disciplines are arguing that all human activity is embodied experience–what Rifkin calls participation in the lives of others–and that the ability to read and respond to another person as if it was you, is the key to how people engage with the world, create identity, develop language, make decisions and define reality.

In the empathetic civilization, spirituality replaces religiosity and is a deeply personal journey of discovery, in which the empathetic experience becomes the guide. The World Values survey and countless other surveys show a generational shift in attitudes away from institutionalized religion and toward personal spiritual quests that are empathetic in nature.

We are witnessing also a reframing of the notions of reason and rationality away from strict analytical and empirical perspectives to include mindfulness, reflection, introspection and rhetorical ways of thinking. The Age of Enlightenment views, as best expressed by philosophers such as Descartes and Kant, that reason exists independently of experience, does not actually conform to the way we reason in the real world. Reason can never be disembodied from experience. In that context, empathy is both experiential and a thinking experience. Of empathy did not exist, we could not understand the way we feel the way we do or conceptualize emotions.  Rifkin concludes his arguments by saying that by reimagining faith and reason as intimate aspects of empathetic consciousness, we create a new age–the Age of Empathy.

On a similar theme, Frans de Waal begins his book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society by saying that greed is out and empathy is in. De Waal is a biologist, professor of psychology and director of the Living Link Center at Emory University. In 2007, Time magazine selected him as one of the world’s most influential people.The distinguished scientist says it is long overdue that we jettisoned our beliefs about human nature–proposed by economists and politicians–that human society is modeled on the perpetual struggle for survival that exists in nature. De Waal says this is mere projection on our part. Nature is replete with examples of cooperation and empathy.

Unfortunately, philosophy and religion as well as science have long suggested that caring and kindness do not come from our biological nature, but are ways that humans overcome biological instincts. In contrast, aggression, dominance and violence have been attributed to our DNA. According to de Waal, for humans and other advanced animals, sharing, compromise and justice matters.

He argues that feeling and acting with empathy for others is as automatic as aggression. Empathy, de Waal explains, is the social glue that holds human society together. He argues that modern psychology and neuroscience research supports the concept that “empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” He points to the fact that many animals survive not by eliminating each other, or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.

Given all we know about empathy in other animal species, why do we persist in seeing human existence, particularly in business, as a fight for survival, with winners and losers? De Waal calls this the “macho origin myth” which insists that the human species has been waging war on itself as millennia as a reflection of our true nature. What has been ignored is the fact that empathy has been evident during that entire time. De Waal points to a mass of examples of sacrifice, empathy, co-operation and fairness in humans and other animals’ species. For example, how many people know that most soldiers are unwilling to fire at the enemy, even in battle?

He suggests that the historical predominant view of humans as slaves to a “selfish gene” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have competing genes–some selfish and aggressive, an others selfless and empathetic–and they are constantly jostling for position. People are complicated and complex, not instinctively cruel and selfish; they are capable of caring and empathy with equal passion and depth.

What then are the implications for the arguments advanced by Rifkin and de Waal for leaders in organizations? First, understanding and accepting that logic and rationality will never motivate or persuade employees or customers of the value of decisions or actions. Second, that people yearn for embodied experiences to bring meaning to their lives, and live in empathetic reality. And without assessing the need for embodied physical and emotional experience, sustained change in beliefs or behavior will not happen. Leaders need to understand and act upon the need for employees to find opportunities to act from an empathetic perspective–their desire to know and feel others’ perspectives of reality. And finally, leaders need to construct their training and development programs that are founded on the empathetic perspective, combining the best of faith and reason and tapping into the latest brain research on human behavior.

by Ray Williams, posted via Psychology Today:

US Copyright Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107


One thought on “Are We Entering An Age of Empathy?

  1. I must say, I have more empathy for animals than I have for humans. Most of my empathy lie with people I care about and sometimes with strangers I don’t even know. I guess it’s because I go with instinct. Sometimes it’s wrong or maybe some trigger in my brain caused me to have empathy for that person and I end up getting hurt. Us humans are strange and complex beings for sure and there are a lot of things we don’t know about ourselves and what goes on inside us. Guess that is why I love animals so much. 😀

    Thanks again for a fascinating and lovely read Victoria. 😀

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