The empathy critics are on the rampage. Led by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, the anti-empathy brigade claim that empathy is a weak or even distorting force in moral life and public affairs. The most recent convert is Peter Singer, perhaps the world’s most influential moral philosopher and author of classic texts such as Animal Liberation. In a recent public conversation I had with him as part of the Empathy Festival at Blackwell’s Bookshop Oxford (see photo), he argued that ethics should be led by rational thinking rather than empathy (of course, I didn’t agree).
In response to Singer’s claims, I have written an article at Open Democracy, called Welcome to the Empathy Wars. It makes the case that critics like Bloom and Singer are fundamentally mistaken, particularly because they fail to recognise the crucial role that cognitive empathy plays in establishing human rights and social justice.
Do have a look at the article, which is based on my book Empathy, and make up your own mind. Whose side are you in the Empathy Wars?
It’s probably the most extraordinary story of the power of empathy I’ve ever come across.
In 1971, the former Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis had an experience that blew away his prejudices and assumptions about African Americans. In this new 4-minute video produced by Renegade Inc, I reveal how and why it happened.
It’s especially relevant in the wake of the recent racially-motivated church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
If anybody ever tells you that empathy is a touchy-feely ‘soft skill’ that has little chance of changing society, just tell them about C.P. Ellis.
This video is based on ideas in my book Empathy, which has just been released in paperback by Penguin Random House.
The report, which builds on my book Empathy (but goes far beyond it) is part of Friends of the Earth’s exciting Big Ideas project that is drawing together the key ideas and insights we need to create a sustainable future for humankind. It challenges the belief that empathy is a fuzzy feel-good emotion and argues that with a bit of smart thinking it can be transformed into an innovative and powerful campaigning tool.
Here are four fascinating facts from the report, just to give you a taster:
The wealthier you are the less empathic you are likely to be, and people with psychopathic tendencies who lack empathy are four times more commonly found amongst senior executives than in the ordinary workforce.
Teaching empathy skills to school kids (yes, it can be done) not only makes them value relationships more, but increases their motivation to take action on environmental issues and immunises them against the lure of consumer culture.
A review of more than 500 studies showed that in 96% of cases, face-to-face contact between people of different ethnic and religious groups reduced prejudices and social divisions, and built community solidarity.
Over 7 million people have visited the empathy-based exhibit Dialogue in the Dark, which challenges assumptions and stereotypes around disability.
Overall, the report argues that building a world where we care more about the issues that matter to all of us – from grinding poverty to environmental collapse – requires using empathy to create a cultural shift from buying to belonging, where we jettison the hyperindividualism of the twentieth century and start to take collective values seriously. But there are no quick-fix solutions. We need to embark on a generational project of ‘deep lobbying’ that overhauls our education systems and sets us on course for a more empathic civilisation.
BBC Radio 4 is celebrating the New Year with a marathon ten-hour dramatisation of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. As part of the festivities, I’ve written an article for the BBC on seven lessons we can learn from the life of the bearded sage for the art of living in 2015. Read the article here, which is based on my book The Wonderbox (published in the US as How Should We Live?). But if you want a quick taster of his top tips for a happy life:
I recently came across a powerful, short video called This is Adam, about a homeless guy living on the streets of San Francisco. He had all sorts of interesting and insightful things to say, amongst them this: ‘I notice every day that people everywhere are losing their compassion and empathy – not just for homeless people but for society in general.’ What’s really striking is that we see the world as if through Adam’s eyes, including how people ignore him as they pass by. Continue reading →
As football fever envelops the planet, with all eyes turned towards Brazil, I want you to imagine a different World Cup. Each country sends their national team as usual, but then all the players are pooled together and divided into teams based on their astrological star sign. So Virgos play Leos, and Aquarians are pitted against Aries, with each team having players from a mix of countries. Who would win overall? Perhaps the power of Taurus, the bull, would be no match for the sharp sting of Scorpio. We might imagine other World Cups, where teams are based on shoe size – the clodhopping size elevens against the nimble-toed eights – or maybe the favourite colour of each player. Continue reading →
You can always tell when a new idea is becoming popular – people start critiquing it. That’s certainly the case when it comes to empathy, a concept that is getting more public attention today than at any point in its history (the frequency of Google searches for the word ’empathy’ has more than doubled in the past decade). Continue reading →
It was exactly 30 years ago that George Orwell set the opening of his novel 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Most people know Orwell for this novel, and his satirical tale Animal Farm. Less well known is that he was one of the great empathic adventurers of the twentieth century. In the following short clip from my RSA Animate The Power of Outrospection, I describe how Orwell learned to step into other people’s shoes when he became a tramp on the streets of East London in the late 1920s. Orwell was one of the major inspirations for my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
What kinds of life experiences open us up to empathy? One of my own, which in part inspired me to write my new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, took place when I had a horrible job working in telesales in Sydney after I left university. Here’s what I learned…
Something like this has probably happened to you. It is a quarter to seven on a Tuesday evening. You are cooking dinner and, at the same time, trying to get your overtired five-year-old to put on her pyjamas. The phone rings. It could be your mother. But in all probability it is somebody trying to sell you something. You pick up the phone. ‘Hello, is that ____ ?’ Your name is mispronounced. You were right. Telesales. You interrupt their pitch, telling them you’re not interested before you even know what they’re calling about. They ask for just a few minutes of your time. You respond, impatiently, that you’re busy cooking and that you’re not interested. And the moment they start replying, you hang up.Continue reading →
I’ve been giving a lot of talks in the last few weeks about my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. And almost every time someone asks me about the personal experiences that led to my own interest in empathy. So here I’d like to share one of these experiences – a kind of epiphany – from my time growing up as a teenager in Hong Kong.Continue reading →