Our discussion last Tuesday reminded me of a video I had seen recently on RSA Animate, a website with a series of short, animated lectures (which are often pretty funny). If you can spare 10 minutes, I’d highly recommend watching this talk by Jeremy Rifkin on “The Empathic Civilization.”
Rifkin begins by arguing that human nature is not based on materialism or self-interest, but empathy. Humans are “soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves,” Rifkin says, citing the phenomenon of mirror neurons. Here’s an example of mirror neurons: if you see someone touch a hot stove, the same neurons in your brain would light up as if you had actually touched the stove too. Studies have shown that chimpanzees and some other animals may also possess the capacity for mirror neurons.
If we are “soft wired for empathy,” then how can we explain the occurrence of blatant and horrendous human rights violations? Rifkin offers an explanation, saying that our capacity for empathy is repressed by various institutions, and when empathy is repressed, we become materialistic and narcissistic.
The video also traces changes in consciousness throughout history, arguing that historical trends suggest it is feasible for us to extend feelings of empathy not only to all of humanity, but also to other creatures as well as the entire biosphere.
So I’m wondering if the feeling of empathy necessitates action. Although we may feel empathy and experience a sense of solidarity, I can think of many cases in which an individual does not have (or doesn’t think that he or she has) the means to redress the injustice. Also, going back to our discussion on Tuesday, when defining what it means to be human, do we need to agree on human nature? Do you think it’s possible to define “human” from a behavioral perspective like human nature?