Saturday, March 12, 2011

Human Nature

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?

1 comment:

  1. Shannon, this is a very interesting post! It was really intriguing to factor in the feeling of empathy to human nature. To address your first question, I think we do need to not only agree on what human nature is but also on simply what it means to be a human, in order for us to completely be able to apply human rights to the category of human being. As for your second question, it could be possible to define human based on a behavioral perspective such empathy which is a component of human nature. However, I think that all behavioral perspectives stem from our level of rationality. If a person is a fully rational adult then he/she is able to be empathetic more so than an infant's ability to be empathetic because he/ she is limited by his/ her own smaller level of rationality. Therefore, I don't know if defining human based on behavioral perspectives like human nature itself will help us move past the issue of whether or not rationality is the defining characteristic of a human being.


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