Building An Empathetic Global Civilization

In this RSA Animate, Jeremy Rifkin examines our innate capacity for empathy, one of the defining traits of the human race (though we share it with a few other species). Rifkin argues that throughout history humans have progressively expanded their “spheres of empathy”, and that our survival as a species depends on expanding empathy further, rather than retreating into tribalism. Will our empathic impulses become more globalized, along with everything else? Or do the conditions of today breed a narrow self-interest which could destroy us?

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  • Rainer

    Gosh, I first heard this perspective when I was 19. Truly helped me understand where we can be headed, and that I need to help us get there.

  • Rainer

    Gosh, I first heard this perspective when I was 19. Truly helped me understand where we can be headed, and that I need to help us get there.

  • Hadrian999

    we’ll soon go extinct if we ever stop fighting, all of our greatest works and accomplishments have come from conflict

    • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

      I’d be more inclined to think that many of our greatest works and accomplishments have been achieved despite the conflict and not because of them. Currently we’re back to a childish mentality where we are still afraid of the cycles of life and death, rather than embracing the understanding of mortality. The first thing we need to reform our ideas that stem from life, death, and of course birth.

      We still cannot get it through our head that a child born in a terrifying world will be terrified, and a child born in a holy world will be holy. We’ve become obsessed with these ideas of genetics determining personality, and our insistence that because I am me, I must be the most important and therefore the most “genetically perfect”. We don’t understand that we continue to associate with our own beliefs as being the best(because its all that we know). This only increases as we become more and more mentally separated. Slowly as we delve into the internet, and as our children delve even further into their own self-serving persona’s via facebook and the like, we will drift away from other humans and therefore humanity itself.

      Because I have decided that “I” am genetically perfect, everyone except me must die, and I must give birth to the entire new super-race of me-copies, where all my rules are followed by my me-copies. I must be the new Adam or the new Eve. Maybe I can use the power of science to make me both the new Adam AND the new eve via cloning. And thus chaos ensues.

      Conflict is bred from our attitudes, not the other way around.

      (Okay rant over.. I got carried away….)

      • Hadrian999

        I wish I could agree but I cant, it takes almost nothing to nudge people out of civilization and into barbarism, civilization is like a coat of paint on the great wall.

        • Tuna Ghost

          It would help you two to define your terms. What do you mean by “civilization” (longer life spans? Better standard of living? Larger communities? Institutionalized ideals like justice and truth and whatnot?) and “barbarism” (cannabilism? savagery?).

          The idea that “civilization” is an illusion is certainly not new, nor that surprising when you consider that we have learned to use illusions for better organization for millennia. Money, for instance. A “germ” isn’t a real thing at all, but it’s nevertheless a useful notion for leading people to practical truths. Just because something is an “illusion” doesn’t mean it has no practical or significant importance, or any lasting power.

        • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

          If there is even a minority that disagrees with the attitudes of the controlling power structure, its evidence that the standard is not our nature, but something thrust upon us. Obviously right now things look bleak because there are so many self-serving me-first individuals. I hope that in time these people will be shown how paper-thin and weak their minds really are, but that will take some work from the people who actually care. The majority does not define humanity.

          I would argue that “civilization” as we know it, mildly damages us as humans. It turns us into these little tools that may be extremely skilled… at doing a single task. Its a brave new world out there, a menial worker cant fathom what it is like to be a professional football player, who looks down on the scientist, who doesn’t know anything about economics or the stock-market, which is filled with people who think everyone else is a slave, because he played a nonsense game made up by the system and won.

          How can any of these people be empathetic to another when they are so stratified? By not being part of such a stratifying system.

          • Hadrian999

            I think civilization can be useful when it give a structure to our nature but that you will never really see the aggressive nature of humanity really suppressed, look what happens when the illusion of civility slips a little
            from the sierra Leone civil war, Rwanda, new orleans after the storm, the activities of the LRA, Iraq, Afghanistan, khmer rouge………….

    • Andrew

      We’d also go extinct if we lost our empathy. Not all of our greatest achievements have come from conflict, and certainly not from conflict alone. Even reading this comment requires an act of cooperation, even if one disagrees with it.

  • Hadrian999

    we’ll soon go extinct if we ever stop fighting, all of our greatest works and accomplishments have come from conflict

  • Hadrian999

    we’ll soon go extinct if we ever stop fighting, all of our greatest works and accomplishments have come from conflict

  • Wah

    Yet sociopaths ARE wired for purely self-interest, occasionally violence and aggression. And about 65% of us are wired to follow the most dominant human in the pack without question. So that leaves the rest of us autonomous questioning empaths to turn the tide and isolate the 4% of the world’s sociopaths. Not easy.

    Perhaps then because sociopaths may not be born with enough mirror neurons, that would explain why the Uncinate fasciculus white matter tract (the last white matter tract to mature) is often found to be underdeveloped (like a pot hole riddled road) in psycho/sociopaths. So having a lack of conscience and sense of responsibility for othere’s feeling may follow from there.

    When we’re sleep deprived, even the nicest most kind person can become aggressive and self-interested only. A lot of people are sleep deprived from working every week. The whole sleep deprived job hungry society seems to play nicely into the model of the world sociopaths find preferable. If people had more time to relax, they’d have more sleep and play, and have more empathy.

    • rtb61

      In earlier times sociopaths simply used to be exiled from the tribe for the behaviour. It was not until the warrior caste took control that sociopaths found a home, by killing all those who resisted the control of the tribes resources. They thrive in chaos both what the natural world produces and of course the chaos they create. Naturally if sociopaths become to dominant, represent too great a percentage of the population, those societies self destruct, they prey upon themselves to extinction.
      Fortunately there is now an infallible test for sociopaths (based around their genetic lack of empathy and conscience and how their emotional responses function) so society is finally in a position to exclude them from positions of governance, control and influence. As it is a broth defect, whilst it is far safer for society to have them isolated, it should of course still be done in a humane fashion.
      So it now just remains for human society to develop the will to test for sociopathy.

      • Hadrian999

        the problem you will have when empaths go against sociopaths for control the empaths will balk at doing what it takes to win while a sociopath wont.

      • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

        Unfortunately the sociopaths are currently the ones using the stratification, identification, and exile tools for their own gain. They have the reins to weed out empaths rather than the other way around

  • Wah

    Yet sociopaths ARE wired for purely self-interest, occasionally violence and aggression. And about 65% of us are wired to follow the most dominant human in the pack without question. So that leaves the rest of us autonomous questioning empaths to turn the tide and isolate the 4% of the world’s sociopaths. Not easy.

    Perhaps then because sociopaths may not be born with enough mirror neurons, that would explain why the Uncinate fasciculus white matter tract (the last white matter tract to mature) is often found to be underdeveloped (like a pot hole riddled road) in psycho/sociopaths. So having a lack of conscience and sense of responsibility for othere’s feeling may follow from there.

    When we’re sleep deprived, even the nicest most kind person can become aggressive and self-interested only. A lot of people are sleep deprived from working every week. The whole sleep deprived job hungry society seems to play nicely into the model of the world sociopaths find preferable. If people had more time to relax, they’d have more sleep and play, and have more empathy.

  • Anonymous

    In earlier times sociopaths simply used to be exiled from the tribe for the behaviour. It was not until the warrior caste took control that sociopaths found a home, by killing all those who resisted the control of the tribes resources. They thrive in chaos both what the natural world produces and of course the chaos they create. Naturally if sociopaths become to dominant, represent too great a percentage of the population, those societies self destruct, they prey upon themselves to extinction.
    Fortunately there is now an infallible test for sociopaths (based around their genetic lack of empathy and conscience and how their emotional responses function) so society is finally in a position to exclude them from positions of governance, control and influence. As it is a broth defect, whilst it is far safer for society to have them isolated, it should of course still be done in a humane fashion.
    So it now just remains for human society to develop the will to test for sociopathy.

  • Hadrian999

    the problem you will have when empaths go against sociopaths for control the empaths will balk at doing what it takes to win while a sociopath wont.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Unfortunately the sociopaths are currently the ones using the stratification, identification, and exile tools for their own gain. They have the reins to weed out empaths rather than the other way around

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    I’d be more inclined to think that many of our greatest works and accomplishments have been achieved despite the conflict and not because of them. Currently we’re back to a childish mentality where we are still afraid of the cycles of life and death, rather than embracing the understanding of mortality. The first thing we need to reform our ideas that stem from life, death, and of course birth.

    We still cannot get it through our head that a child born in a terrifying world will be terrified, and a child born in a holy world will be holy. We’ve become obsessed with these ideas of genetics determining personality, and our insistence that because I am me, I must be the most important and therefore the most “genetically perfect”. We don’t understand that we continue to associate with our own beliefs as being the best(because its all that we know). This only increases as we become more and more mentally separated. Slowly as we delve into the internet, and as our children delve even further into their own self-serving persona’s via facebook and the like, we will drift away from other humans and therefore humanity itself.

    Because I have decided that “I” am genetically perfect, everyone except me must die, and I must give birth to the entire new super-race of me-copies, where all my rules are followed by my me-copies. I must be the new Adam or the new Eve. Maybe I can use the power of science to make me both the new Adam AND the new eve via cloning. And thus chaos ensues.

    Conflict is bred from our attitudes, not the other way around.

    (Okay rant over.. I got carried away….)

  • Hadrian999

    I wish I could agree but I cant, it takes almost nothing to nudge people out of civilization and into barbarism, civilization is like a coat of paint on the great wall.

  • Tuna Ghost

    It would help you two to define your terms. What do you mean by “civilization” (longer life spans? Better standard of living? Larger communities? Institutionalized ideals like justice and truth and whatnot?) and “barbarism” (cannabilism? savagery?).

    The idea that “civilization” is an illusion is certainly not new, nor that surprising when you consider that we have learned to use illusions for better organization for millennia. Money, for instance. A “germ” isn’t a real thing at all, but it’s nevertheless a useful notion for leading people to practical truths. Just because something is an “illusion” doesn’t mean it has no practical or significant importance, or any lasting power.

  • Tuna Ghost

    Hmmm kinda makes me think of Grant Morrison’s Disinfo speech back in 2000. Specifically his notion of the ego, the sense of “I”, was once useful but is now leading to psychosis on a personal and global level.

    • Hadrian999

      but what would be the point of being alive without the sense of “I”

      • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

        That would be a great question to contemplate for hours.

      • Tuna Ghost

        The problem with questions like that is you eventually get down to the question of “why is something at all preferable over nothing at all” and “why is there Something at all rather than Nothing at all”. Neither has an answer.

        But that’s a bullshit copout, so I’ll do my best. Schrodinger (the one with the cat) once said “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception”, which he likely lifted from the Vendantic literature he was into at the time. This theme is common in a lot of mystical traditions, the notion that self is an illusion, that there is no separation between us and god or us and anything else. “All distinctions are man-made”, and all that jazz.

        That last quote harkens back to Schrodinger, who was a physicist (as I’m sure you’re aware). He knew that between you and I there is nothing but arrangements of electrons and we all know what those crazy little fuckers are like. Our consciousness is what separates us from each other. We draw the boundaries with our minds, they are not placed there by the universe (which is just more electrons acting weird, and beneath that a whole bunch of other weird shit).

        One may think, “but we evolved these minds, this consciousness, and we’re the dominant species on the planet so surely its in our best interest to keep it”. Tempting, but it’s rarely a good idea to assume that where we are now on the evolutionary ladder is where we’re supposed to be, as if there’s a plan or a point, or if its where we’re meant to stop. Grant Morrison likened our egos to a scaffolding, useful to have when constructing a building but when the building is finished the scaffolding has to come down. Bounded city-states like Athens and Sparta were once en vogue for the top western civilizations, but eventually became obsolete. Now we have massive nations built of those cities, and even those are becoming obsolete in the face of global corporations that have enormous sway over the earth.

        The point is, if or when consciousness, the self, the ego, the whatever comes crashing down, that may mean the end of “you” and “me” but not necessarily the end of consciousness. The mystics like to say we’ll all just wake up and realize what we’ve always been: non-dual. There was no fall from grace, we’ve always been just Us and not Us and Them. What that experience will be like is impossible to say, how can you imagine an awareness far beyond what anyone has ever experienced? When that is supposed to happen is anyone’s guess, but I’ll tell you this: I stopped looking for the point a long time ago and it doesn’t really stress me out much.

  • Tuna Ghost

    Hmmm kinda makes me think of Grant Morrison’s Disinfo speech back in 2000. Specifically his notion of the ego, the sense of “I”, was once useful but is now leading to psychosis on a personal and global level.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    If there is even a minority that disagrees with the attitudes of the controlling power structure, its evidence that the standard is not our nature, but something thrust upon us. Obviously right now things look bleak because there are so many self-serving me-first individuals. I hope that in time these people will be shown how paper-thin and weak their minds really are, but that will take some work from the people who actually care. The majority does not define humanity.

    I would argue that “civilization” as we know it, mildly damages us as humans. It turns us into these little tools that may be extremely skilled… at doing a single task. Its a brave new world out there, a menial worker cant fathom what it is like to be a professional football player, who looks down on the scientist, who doesn’t know anything about economics or the stock-market, which is filled with people who think everyone else is a slave, because he played a nonsense game made up by the system and won.

    How can any of these people be empathetic to another when they are so stratified? By not being part of such a stratifying system.

  • Hadrian999

    I think civilization can be useful when it give a structure to our nature but that you will never really see the aggressive nature of humanity really suppressed, look what happens when the illusion of civility slips a little
    from the sierra Leone civil war, Rwanda, new orleans after the storm, the activities of the LRA, Iraq, Afghanistan, khmer rouge………….

  • Hadrian999

    but what would be the point of being alive without the sense of “I”

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    That would be a great question to contemplate for hours.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Yeah, this one was good. Provoked LOTS of interesting comments.

    In an ironic way, the zeal with which some of these positions are put forth kind of undermines them: If this empathy theory really meant nothing, there would be no point in arguing against it. Same thing for the conflict theory. No one bothers to argue with “flat earth” advocates any more because the evidence against it is so painfully conclusive that it would demean you to even contemplate it.

    Not so with the empathy theory of civilization. It’s not a question of whether you can find reams of extreme and (taken in isolation) apparently convincing arguments for or against it. What keeps us coming back to discussions of empathy, though, time and time again, is that it’s an unavoidable part of our experience. Even if we’re hate-filled shithead Nazis, we still seek to identify with likeminded hate-filled shithead Nazis.

    So, my guess is that Rifkin isn’t trying to impose some kumbayaa one-dimensional view of human history that could never be any more credible than a Buddhist koan.* I think that he’s simply trying to remind us, as the forces of brutal anti-social capitalism destroy the institutions of traditional religion and politics, that empathy and cooperation are just as integral and inescapable parts of our experience as competition as conflict.

    That’s all I have to say about that.

    *”What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is the classic Buddhist koan. It’s a non-sense aphorism designed to promote introspection rather than lead to a conclusive answer. The typically suggested line of reasoning is”This question is nonsense; our experience of reality is multidimensional and no single dimension can be contemplated except by reference to a contrasting dimension. There is an enormous fault between experience and concept that any worthwhile spiritual discipline will seek to close.”

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, this one was good. Provoked LOTS of interesting comments.

    In an ironic way, the zeal with which some of these positions are put forth kind of undermines them: If this empathy theory really meant nothing, there would be no point in arguing against it. Same thing for the conflict theory. No one bothers to argue with “flat earth” advocates any more because the evidence against it is so painfully conclusive that it would demean you to even contemplate it.

    Not so with the empathy theory of civilization. It’s not a question of whether you can find reams of extreme and (taken in isolation) apparently convincing arguments for or against it. What keeps us coming back to discussions of empathy, though, time and time again, is that it’s an unavoidable part of our experience. Even if we’re hate-filled shithead Nazis, we still seek to identify with likeminded hate-filled shithead Nazis.

    So, my guess is that Rifkin isn’t trying to impose some kumbayaa one-dimensional view of human history that could never be any more credible than a Buddhist koan.* I think that he’s simply trying to remind us, as the forces of brutal anti-social capitalism destroy the institutions of traditional religion and politics, that empathy and cooperation are just as integral and inescapable parts of our experience as competition as conflict.

    That’s all I have to say about that.

    *”What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is the classic Buddhist koan. It’s a non-sense aphorism designed to promote introspection rather than lead to a conclusive answer. The typically suggested line of reasoning is”This question is nonsense; our experience of reality is multidimensional and no single dimension can be contemplated except by reference to a contrasting dimension. There is an enormous fault between experience and concept that any worthwhile spiritual discipline will seek to close.”

  • Andrew

    We’d also go extinct if we lost our empathy. Not all of our greatest achievements have come from conflict, and certainly not from conflict alone. Even reading this comment requires an act of cooperation, even if one disagrees with it.

  • Tuna Ghost

    The problem with questions like that is you eventually get down to the question of “why is something at all preferable over nothing at all” and “why is there Something at all rather than Nothing at all”. Neither has an answer.

    But that’s a bullshit copout, so I’ll do my best. Schrodinger (the one with the cat) once said “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception”, which he likely lifted from the Vendantic literature he was into at the time. This theme is common in a lot of mystical traditions, the notion that self is an illusion, that there is no separation between us and god or us and anything else. “All distinctions are man-made”, and all that jazz.

    That last quote harkens back to Schrodinger, who was a physicist (as I’m sure you’re aware). He knew that between you and I there is nothing but arrangements of electrons and we all know what those crazy little fuckers are like. Our consciousness is what separates us from each other. We draw the boundaries with our minds, they are not placed there by the universe (which is just more electrons acting weird, and beneath that a whole bunch of other weird shit).

    One may think, “but we evolved these minds, this consciousness, and we’re the dominant species on the planet so surely its in our best interest to keep it”. Tempting, but it’s rarely a good idea to assume that where we are now on the evolutionary ladder is where we’re supposed to be, as if there’s a plan or a point, or if its where we’re meant to stop. Grant Morrison likened our egos to a scaffolding, useful to have when constructing a building but when the building is finished the scaffolding has to come down. Bounded city-states like Athens and Sparta were once en vogue for the top western civilizations, but eventually became obsolete. Now we have massive nations built of those cities, and even those are becoming obsolete in the face of global corporations that have enormous sway over the earth.

    The point is, if or when consciousness, the self, the ego, the whatever comes crashing down, that may mean the end of “you” and “me” but not necessarily the end of consciousness. The mystics like to say we’ll all just wake up and realize what we’ve always been: non-dual. There was no fall from grace, we’ve always been just Us and not Us and Them. What that experience will be like is impossible to say, how can you imagine an awareness far beyond what anyone has ever experienced? When that is supposed to happen is anyone’s guess, but I’ll tell you this: I stopped looking for the point a long time ago and it doesn’t really stress me out much.

  • Frances Oa

    This is a brilliant video. However major studies show that 4% of the population are clinical sociopaths.

    Not only that, sociopaths experience an uncomfortable emptiness that drives them to manipulate others. Since they do this all their lives, many (not all, but many) become masterful manipulators and tend to secure positions of power in companies, peer groups, governments and other centers of influence.

    To date most clinical psychologists and psychiatrists agree that sociopathy is incurable. Sociopaths are mostly law-abiding (most stay out of jail) but are nevertheless enormously destructive. There are also some sociopaths who report that they usually behave ethically out of self-interest, but many don’t, and so millions of unethical, manipulating sociopaths who are power-brokers in society (In the United States alone) and pose a grave barrier to the goal of extending empathy globally.

    So my point is, when Rifkin says we are all hard-wired (or soft-wired) for empathy, this unfortunately isn’t true. However he is right that 96% of humans are potentially empathic. Nevertheless a deeper understanding of the very powerful nature of sociopathy (sociopaths, due to life-long patterns of manipulation, and a heightened pleasure experienced when wielding power, are, as a population, enormously powerful in the world) therefore must include a deeper understanding of sociopaths. Some choose non-aggressive lifestyles, but many don’t. Those who don’t can be enormously destructive even when they are law-abiding, further complicating the problem.

    So yes, Rifken is right about extending empathic culture and thinking among the 96% of human empaths. But that doesn’t solve the problems faced by the world so long as we also don’t deepen our understanding of the 4% of humanity that are irreversibly sociopathic (that’s one in 25 people), and who are also very, very good at manipulation and power. To make the progress that Rifken wants to make, we must also understand the sociopath who is entrenched and brilliant pervasive in our society.

  • Frances Oa

    This is a brilliant video. However major studies show that 4% of the population are clinical sociopaths.

    Not only that, sociopaths experience an uncomfortable emptiness that drives them to manipulate others. Since they do this all their lives, many (not all, but many) become masterful manipulators and tend to secure positions of power in companies, peer groups, governments and other centers of influence.

    To date most clinical psychologists and psychiatrists agree that sociopathy is incurable. Sociopaths are mostly law-abiding (most stay out of jail) but are nevertheless enormously destructive. There are also some sociopaths who report that they usually behave ethically out of self-interest, but many don’t, and so millions of unethical, manipulating sociopaths who are power-brokers in society (In the United States alone) and pose a grave barrier to the goal of extending empathy globally.

    So my point is, when Rifkin says we are all hard-wired (or soft-wired) for empathy, this unfortunately isn’t true. However he is right that 96% of humans are potentially empathic. Nevertheless a deeper understanding of the very powerful nature of sociopathy (sociopaths, due to life-long patterns of manipulation, and a heightened pleasure experienced when wielding power, are, as a population, enormously powerful in the world) therefore must include a deeper understanding of sociopaths. Some choose non-aggressive lifestyles, but many don’t. Those who don’t can be enormously destructive even when they are law-abiding, further complicating the problem.

    So yes, Rifken is right about extending empathic culture and thinking among the 96% of human empaths. But that doesn’t solve the problems faced by the world so long as we also don’t deepen our understanding of the 4% of humanity that are irreversibly sociopathic (that’s one in 25 people), and who are also very, very good at manipulation and power. To make the progress that Rifken wants to make, we must also understand the sociopath who is entrenched and brilliant pervasive in our society.

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