"Empathy is the invisible force that holds society together"

For four centuries, we have embraced a narrow view of human nature. Roman Krznaric has set out to widen our perspective. He talked with Martin Eiermann about human empathy, self-absorbed psychologists, and the importance of a little bit of madness.

The European: Your current book is titled How to Find Fulfilling Work. What is the idea behind publishing something that might be classified as part of the growing “self-help” literature canon?
Krznaric: In a way, the book series from the School of Life – of which How to Find Fulfilling Work is part – is trying to reinvent the self-help industry, which is actually a very esteemed tradition: From the ancient Stoics to Montaigne in the 16th century to Bertrand Russell in the 20th century. But self-help has been highjacked in the last few decades by psychology, and our idea is to broaden the scope again. Let’s draw on the full wealth of human knowledge about the big questions of life and death and love and work.

The European: You talk a lot about “the art of living.” That interpretation strikes me as a rather particular way of seeing human life, because someone like Marx might talk about the “burden of life” instead, or Kant might talk about duty.
Krznaric: The reason I use the word “art” is because there’s a strong connection to imagination and creativity. When someone is thinking about how to live their life, it is essential to approach it with an imaginative intent. When I graduated from university, I thought to myself: “I have studied economics, philosophy, and politics, and now I need a job.” I could only think of three jobs: I could become a banker in London, I could join the civil service, or I could become a journalist. That’s an appalling failure of imagination – think about how many other jobs are out there! But I only considered the jobs that my peers were interested in as well. I applied for jobs as a banker, and luckily I failed all my interviews. I was more interested in talking about my bonsai tree collection than I was interested in discussing exchange rates. Then I applied for jobs in the civil service, and luckily I failed the entrance exam. So I became a journalist.

The European: The occupation of last resort.
Krznaric: I wish I had been more creative in the way I thought about my career options. That’s where the idea of art comes into it. But I like that you juxtaposed it with the concept of duty. Duty and ethics have often been missing from contemporary approaches to self-help. It is considered a taboo to talk about morals, and one of my projects has been to bring it back into the discussion. Ideas about duty and morality have driven human history for centuries, and it seems bizarre to exclude them. To quote Aristotle: “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.” If you can do something that you are really good at and that you also care about, that is probably where you will find the good life.

The European: Philosophers have talked about the concept of “the good life” for millennia, but have disagreed starkly on what it might entail. Virtues – maybe. But what virtues? Or utility? Or progress?
Krznaric: Our conceptions of the good life are historically contingent. At this particular moment in history, the prevalent approach to the good life is the idea of living in the present, of living in the Now. This approach might seem very pertinent today, but throughout history there have been many alternative traditions. One of them is the idea that the good life requires a sense of purpose. Nietzsche writes, “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Aristotle said that “to not have a goal in life is a mark of much folly.” The idea is that as long as we have a will to meaning, any problem can fade away. This seems quite different from living in the Now: It’s oriented towards the future.

The European: Where do you stand?
Krznaric: I think we have gone a bit too far towards living in the present. We need to recapture the idea of stepping out of ourselves towards a transcendent cause.

The European: There are at least two ways to approach the question of purpose: One could try to reason about what it means to be human, and whether our conception of humanity and our endowment with the faculties of reason yield a general human purpose. Or one could reason from within and regard purpose as a highly personal expression of desires, talents, and inclinations.
Krznaric: In the 20th century, we have spent too much time gazing at our own navels and trying to distill a purpose through introspection. Psycho-analysis and the self-help industry both encouraged that trend, and it has gone too far. Too much introspection can lead to paralysis. We now need to nurture the art of “outrospection” to discover who we are and what our purpose might be. Discover other cultures, discover our past, examine our present. It doesn’t mean that I am against self-reflection, but when Socrates talked about “knowing thyself,” he wanted us to look both inward and outward. The philosopher Peter Singer recounts the story of when he first moved to New York in the 1970s, his fellow academics were spending a quarter of their salaries on psycho-analysis. Singer thought that they ought to devote less time and money to introspection but instead find a cause in the world that they could devote themselves to and that would free them from a kind of existential paralysis.

The European: So you’re saying: Be more aware of the world, and more aware of your surroundings?
Krznaric: The historian Theodore Zeldin once said to me: “The thoughts in other people’s heads are the great darkness that surrounds us.” That’s a very beautiful way to point out the potential for self-discovery that lies in other people. So we need the courage to stare into our own souls, and then we need the courage to turn out attention outwards.

The European: I was in Egypt just after the revolution: The country is in turmoil, protesters are everywhere, but inside the metro stops in Cairo, amidst crowds swollen with energy, people always stopped to move aside bits of food that had been dropped. You push them to the side of the stairs so that the stray animals can find them. That struck me as a very observant thing to do. I know that you have written a lot about empathy, so I want to get your take on those forms of social behavior.
Krznaric: It’s a really interesting example for a few reasons. It’s a custom, and if we want to make our society more empathic, we need to develop those customs that exemplify empathic behavior. They are great signs of hope. But there’s another reason why I find this interesting: Empathy is all around us, but we usually don’t label it or identify it. For the past few hundred years, the story we have been told is that human beings are essentially self-interested and selfish creatures. This is what Hobbes told us in his “Leviathan” and what Golding told us in “Lord of the Flies.” But look around yourself: We’re constantly engaged in empathic acts, from the everyday act of buying a present for someone and taking their interests into account to parents’ reactions to the cries of a young child. Imagine a world in which empathy were absent, a world in which parents would ignore the cries of their children, a world in which someone in a wheelchair is waiting in front of a shop and nobody opens the door for them! Empathy is like an invisible force that holds society together, and we need to learn how to see it. It’s part of the process of changing our conception of human nature.

The European: Instead of talking about the homo economicus, we should talk about…?
Krznaric: It’s important that we shift away from the Hobbesian conception of what human nature is, and also recognize that we are wired for empathy and mutual aid. There is a homo empathicus inside each of us. Indeed, that is precisely what contemporary evolutionary biology and neuroscience have taught us. The same parts of our brain light up when we are pain and also when we see someone else in pain – empathy is hard-wired into our neural systems. Of course that’s not what you learn when you study economics at MIT or Cambridge.

The European: The example I gave you isn’t about human-on-human empathy, but about our relation to other species. How does that factor into the discussion of empathy?
Krznaric: There’s a real question about empathy towards animals or trees or the planet itself. Those are very complicated issues. Unlike the deep ecologists, I don’t think that one can empathize with a tree or a rock. It doesn’t make sense to try and understand the perspective of a rock on the world, even though I do recognize that trees form an important part of our symbiotic relationship with the planet. But we certainly can empathize with animals, as anyone who spent time with primates like chimpanzees could tell you.

The European: Technological change is now eroding some of the seemingly firm boundaries between animate and inanimate life. We can foresee a future in which artificial intelligence is very advanced, or in which synthetic organisms can be created in a petri dish, or in which we can seamlessly communicate with nearly anyone in the world. How do you deal with a world in which the borders of the universe of empathy are less clearly defined?
Krznaric: We’re at a very early stage of understanding the relationship between empathy and technology. We know that a lot of social networking platforms are designed to spread information efficiently, but they don’t necessarily allow for intimate connections. So one challenge is to figure out how to import intimacy into the realm of technology. One example: Every Sunday morning, my children have breakfast with their grandparents. My children are here in Oxford, and my grandparents are in Sydney, so they are talking over Skype. There’s a very real human bond. But I don’t think that the spread of social networks throughout the world has led to an explosion of global empathic action. When a protester is killed in the streets of Iran, hundreds of thousands of people may see a photo of that within minutes, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into sustained social action. We’re still learning to harness the power of technology. You would think that the ability to almost touch someone at the other end of the world would lead to a real revolution in human interactions.

The European: Do you think those questions can be examined in the abstract – for example through introspection and pure reasoning – or do we really have to engage in new and controversial practices to grasp the full scope of their moral consequences?
Krznaric: It makes me think of the saying, “act first and think afterwards.” How do we learn something about the world? Through experience. ‘Experience is my mistress,’ said Leonardo da Vinci.

The European: I want to go back to your earlier response about the homo economicus, when you talked about neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Do you think that the social sciences and the humanities should be more open to the natural sciences?
Krznaric: I think there are four culprits that are responsible for our narrow conception of human nature. The first is Thomas Hobbes and his idea from the 17th century that the state of nature is a war of all against all, that life is “nasty, brutish and short.” In the 18th century, the great culprit is Adam Smith and his idea that the pursuit of self-interest can be beneficial to the community at large and to progress. He provided justification for a narrow view of human nature. Of course, he also saw that human beings are far more complex…

The European: His Theory of Moral Sentiments is a very different book from The Wealth of Nations.
Krznaric: A very different book indeed. But the way Smith was used by business elites in the 18th century gave a lot of weight to the idea of self-interest, and we lost his ideas about our natural talent for empathizing that appear in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In the 19th century, the culprit is Charles Darwin, and particularly the ideas of Social Darwinism that were promoted by the likes of Henry Spencer. They took Darwin’s idea about the survival of the fittest and used it to weed out the weak from the strong. In the 20th century, the culprit is Sigmund Freud, who had such a dark picture of humanity. He was appalled by what human beings did to each other. After the experience of World War I, he eventually wrote “Civilization and Its Discontents,” in which he argued that we are so preoccupied with satisfying our instincts and sexual desires that we’re willing to trample on other people. With four huge thinkers pushing the argument about human self-interest, what hope did we have? No wonder that we have inherited this very narrow conception of human nature from the arts and the sciences. Today, the natural sciences have a moral obligation to challenge that view.

The European: A challenge based in empirical observations or moral considerations?
Krznaric: Based in psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience. In the field of psychology, we have long known that empathy comes naturally to human beings. By the age of two, we have developed a capacity to step into the shoes of other people. Look at the work of Jean Piaget in the 1940s, or of John Bowlby in the 1950s. Gradually, those ideas are filtering into our psyche today. In evolutionary biology, you’ve got very important thinkers like Frans de Waal, who studied chimpanzees and argued that empathic behavior is present in primates as well: In the ways they care for their offspring or warn the group against predators. Neuroscience is much more modern, starting in the 1990s with the discovery of mirror neurons at the University of Parma. We seem to have a sort of empathic circuitry in our brains that links the cognitive parts of our brain to the affective parts. This alternative scientific story has been gaining ground and we can say: The traditional story about self-interest is old-fashioned. We cannot work with it anymore. If we want to confront the great social tragedies of our age, we need a different conception of human nature. We need to believe that we are capable of empathy. We have to fight the legacy of four hundred years of narrowness.

The European: One counter-argument: The realization of empathy alone won’t help us overcome the structural factors that are at the root of these social tragedies: Dependency on fossil fuels, economic inequality, and so forth.
Krznaric: I think there are four structural forces that stand in the way of empathy. One is prejudice; an inheritance of politics and power and religion, from the idea of the Untermensch to everyday labels we put on people. Stereotypes create a sort of black hole that empathy cannot penetrate. The second impediment is obedience to authority.

The European: Hannah Arendt’s classic argument.
Krznaric: Yes, the argument from the Eichmann trial and from the Milgram experiments. The banality of evil. But this tendency to obey is not innate, it is conditioned by society. People tend to quote Milgram to say that empathic concerns are so easily overcome by obedience. But what Milgram found was that obedience has huge variations. Milgram conducted many different versions of his famous experiment: when test subjects were accompanied by other participants – who were really actors – who walked out of the experiment, 90% of the test subjects walked out too, disobeying the order to administer electric shocks. When the subjects could see the person in the other room to whom they were supposedly administering shocks, the percentage dropped as well. Milgram himself said that what makes us is our environment. The third impediment is physical, social and temporal distance: We care less about people in far-away places, about people with different backgrounds or about future generations. The final impediment is psychological denial: We easily turn ourselves away from ideas and information that challenge and upset us. But it’s liberating to realize that all these impediments are grounded in culture and society, so they can all be overcome.

The European: What about the status quo bias: The belief that current arrangement are rational, or natural, or inevitable. Do you see that as an impediment to confronting what you’ve called “the great social tragedies”?
Krznaric: Goethe once said, “he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” There are two parts to that idea: Looking towards the past can highlight alternative ways of living. The ancient Greeks knew six different kinds of love, which is a great antidote to our obsession with romantic love and “soul mates.” The other aspect of looking at our history is inheritance: We learn where we came from. Many psychologists seem to conceive of man as an ahistorical creature and don’t appreciate that we have been shaped by our culture, our society, our past. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: the power of thinking without thinking” is a good example. He says: We’re so good at snap judgments that we should really trust our instincts. Actually, no, we should not. Let’s be a bit careful about that. Our instincts are full of prejudice and cultural inheritances. This is why Eric Hobsbawn or Karl Marx are so important, or Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of the “habitus.” We live inside the habitus and often don’t recognize our self-delusion and our prejudices.

The European: How does religion factor into those considerations? Arguably, it can really entrench prejudices or provide a really transcendent, emancipatory framework.
Krznaric: It’s extraordinary how many people who have changed their own lives or have changed society were influenced by religion. I am an atheist, but I have to acknowledge that religion has been an extraordinary force. One of my favorite thinkers is Albert Schweitzer. He was the son of a pastor and had become one of Europe’s great organists and theologians and literary scholars before he turned thirty. And suddenly he gave up that life to go and be a missionary in Africa. The idea of Christian service and the project of spreading medical knowledge were very important to him. Religions have been unafraid to make ethics important, but they have also been responsible for some of the great periods of empathic collapse in the last thousand years: the crusades or the inquisition, for example.

The European: Can religion help us in the future?
Krznaric: We might think about issues like climate change and ask: Can religion play a role? Christianity has a pretty mixed record of protecting the natural environment because it often frames the earth as a place for man’s dominion and exploitation. But you do have alternative streams of thought in Buddhism. We should take the good bits of religion and work with them. The big problems often arise when religion becomes institutionalized and mixed with state power. Tolstoy rejected any form of organized religion in favor of a radical Christian aestheticism and communal life. It was completely obvious to him that institutionalized religion can easily become narrow and dogmatic. Power corrupts.

The European: Do you think intentions matter? Can we do the right things for the wrong reasons?
Krznaric: Let me answer tangentially. How do you combine the pursuit of the good life and the pursuit of social justice? We don’t thrive on solitude but through social connections, so part of what is good for us is the creation of empathic bonds with others. We are not homo self-centricus. So I am trying to find the place where the art of living and social change overlap – that is where empathy is located. That’s much better than telling other people what to do by shouting at them. I did a lot of shouting in my twenties and wrote a lot of very polemical articles. What I have learned is that people want to do good, they want to help others, and we need to take account of that when thinking about how to create social change.

The European: What about the politics of anger? A lot of social change comes from a position of profound anger or frustration.
Krznaric: The modern happiness industry has a slight obsession with positive thinking that blinds us to the virtues of negative thinking. Martha Nussbaum writes about this rather nicely: Anger can make us care about injustice. I used to do research in Guatemala, and when I first worked there as a human rights observer at the end of Guatemala’s civil war, the village where I was based was under constant threat of violent attacks from the army. More than 200,000 people were killed during the civil war by the military. This made me incredibly angry. For ten years, a lot of my work was focused on human rights, especially in Latin America. But anger turned out to be a bridge to empathy. Empathy isn’t a nice and fluffy concept, it’s fiery and dangerous and radical. It’s ultimately a revolutionary force – not in the sense of overthrowing institutions, but by revolutionizing human relationships.

The European: For someone like the playwright Samuel Beckett, the question was not so much about success as it was about “how well you can fail”…
Krznaric: I am an optimist. Hope is an inspiration for change. I believe that there are many crevasses through which we can crawl that bring us a sense of fulfillment. We don’t need false optimism, but we should recognize our ability to enact change. We can look to history to see people who have defied authority, who have challenged social norms. We can see people who have discovered within themselves a healthy form of madness. Zorba the Greek said, “a man needs a little madness, or else he never dares to cut the rope to be free.” If you just talk to yourself about the very real possibilities of failure, you are probably not going to be as mad as you should be.


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