Review : Empathy by Roman Krznaric

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Roman Krznaric offers an appealing celebration of empathy as an alternative to the increasingly egocentric, insular, atomised human experience of modernity. We are wired for empathy. His moving personal and social vignettes showcase empathy as a more attractive fulfilling way to live together in human society. There’s lots of interesting and also much morally challenging material here on subjects like prejudice, obedience to authority, distance from others, and denial of reality. His strong thesis is that empathy has reduced cruelty and torture, and can reduce inequality, injustice, conflict, and even climate change.

He doesn’t however tackle the difficulties with his thesis. Claims of ‘mirror neurons’ are unconvincing. We may just as easily react to someone else’s good or bad treatment by imagining it directly on ourselves, rather than via ‘mirror neurons’ in each person’s brain. Empathy may be reverse engineered selfishness. People’s capacity for empathy is not as infinite as Krznaric suggests or requires. Many people can’t find empathy for their own family or their immediate neighbours, never mind for the total world population. He doesn’t explore the boundary between empathy, and behaviour which is intrusive or patronising. Do we want to ‘step into other people’s lives’, and do other people want their lives stepped into? His social engineering proposals for an empathy revolution are too manipulative.

Technology increasingly makes individualism possible as lifestyle. This is unlikely to change or reverse, and resistance looks futile. Empathy may be nice, but it’s not necessary. It therefore has to make a very strong case for itself. Self is a powerful force. As Krznaric points out, other orientation is a rare capability. His own web site is egocentric and doesn’t offer any scope for engagement, as is the case with most other contemporary philosophers. A forum would be more consistent with the theme of empathy than a blog. Krznaric has told me what he thinks, but, contrary to his thesis, he hasn’t offered any channel to find out what I think.

There is a wider philosophical problem. We are urged to transfer concern from our own self to other people’s self, but it is still self which benefits. Merely swapping self interest (I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine) is a zero sum game. Having discovered someone else has a different interest or opinion to mine doesn’t necessarily resolve the dilemma. The question as to why, and how far, we should be more involved with others, more concerned with others, cannot be determined, just as justice itself cannot be absolutely defined . It is as arbitrary as any other moral imperative in an atheist interpretation. This however doesn’t prevent us choosing, in a totally arbitrary way, to prefer an empathetic society. I happen to largely agree with Roman Krznaric, but I think the debate needs to be deeper and wider.

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