What the world needs now is ……….compassion, sympathy and empathy

What do one of Australia’s leading social researchers, the former British Chief Rabbi, a US philanthropic organisation, Adam Smith and David Hume have in common?

All are concerned about how societies live together and the glue that creates communities which Hugh Mackay, the researcher, says “nurture, sustain and protect us”. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a TED talk, quotes Thomas Paine’s words about times which “try men’s souls” and says “they’re trying ours now.” Adam Smith devotes the first chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to ‘sympathy’ or what we call empathy. Daniel Lubetzky, founder of the KIND Foundation has launched a program, Empatico, which is developing an online learning tool that “will connect students across the globe….(and give them the chance) to explore their similarities and differences, expand their horizons and strengthen their empathy muscles.” David Hume wrote that “whatever other passions we may be actuated by …the soul or animating principle of all of them is sympathy.”

Hugh Mackay, in an article in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations, recently asked: “What is the common thread that links the following seven facts about Australia in 2017?” He then lists holding asylum seekers in conditions which amount to mental torture; increasing inequality despite 26 years of economic growth; tens of thousands of attempted suicides; anxiety or depression at epidemic proportions with about three million sufferers; loneliness as a greater social issue; 100,000 Australian homeless; 800,000 children living in poverty, and 16 percent of our children lacking regular, reliable access to fresh, nutritious food.

“So what’s the link?” he asks. “Answer: Those seven facts about us, each in its own way, are symptoms of a national compassion deficit (NCD) that is far more dangerous than the budgetary deficits we are so accustomed to hearing about.”

“Compassion – our willingness to act kindly, respectfully and charitably towards others – is the noblest of all human qualities. It’s also the quality that, more than any other, exposes the depth of our commitment to fairness and equality,” he says. “We are living through a period in the evolution of Western societies like ours where we seem to have lost our biological destiny as communitarians. We have allowed ourselves to yield to the blandishments of commercial, political, economic and cultural propaganda that lulls us into thinking that the relentless – even ruthless – pursuit of self-interest is an appropriate strategy for living in a competitive, uncertain world.”

Rabbi Sacks says we are at a “fateful moment in the history of the West. We’ve seen divisive elections and divided societies.” He points to our relentless emphasis on ‘self’ and the “wonderful new religious ritual we have created…called the ‘selfie’.” He accepts the liberating and empowering aspects of self-esteem but points out that we are social animals and “need.. ..face-to-face interactions where we learnt the choreography of altruism and we create those spiritual goods like friendship, trust and loyalty and love that redeem our solitude.” The answer, he suggests, is “safeguarding the future ‘you’ (by strengthening) the future ‘us’ in three dimensions: the ‘us’ of relationship, the ‘us’ of identity and the ‘us’ of responsibility.”

Rabbi Sacks says ‘magical thinking’ has taken over politics in beliefs about strong leaders, extremist thought from the left and the right, and between the religious and the anti-religious. (Regular readers would know the blog doesn’t accept the view, even that of the wonderful Jonathan Sacks, that the extremism of the anti-religious matches that of so many of the religious). However, it is hard to disagree with Rabbi Sacks’ suggestions that we need, instead of the magical thinking, to pursue those “beautiful counter-intuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when is cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable. That is what makes great nations.”

Daniel Lubetzky’s project starts with 8-10 year olds because “during this sensitive period, children are beginning to understand their identities in relation to others, and their biases have yet to become deeply rooted. While in-person global interaction among children is hard to achieve at scale, we are fortunate to have the technology that can connect classrooms living worlds apart….to take kids out of their bubbles, giving them an opportunity to tell their stories and learn with and from other kids.”

“We want kids to adopt a sense of responsibility to other human beings, This should help them understand how to prevent conflict and how to develop critical listening skills,” he said.

MIT’s Sherry Turkle has written much about the impacts of technology and social media, including in Alone Together, and its capacity to create fear and vulnerability. Hugh Mackay, Rabbi Sacks, and Daniel Lubetsky are proposing how we can address the fear and vulnerability and, in Empatico’s case, using the technology which has contributed to some of these problems in new, positive ways.

Yet interestingly all of them are underscoring just how important Smith and Hume’s contribution (more than 200 years ago) has been to the understanding of the importance of, and need for, empathy. Smith is muchly misunderstood and the free enterprise zealots and modern day neo-liberals have conveniently overlooked both his devastating critiques of business and the philosophic underpinning of ‘sympathy’ outlined in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In a new book, The Infidel and the Professor, Dennis C. Rasmussen explores the friendship between Smith and Hume and how it “shaped modern thought.” Now the book is no substitute for the Mossner and Ross biographies of Hume and Smith respectively but it does serve as a wonderful introduction to their friendship and intellectual interactions – particularly Hume’s influence on Smith’s thinking and where Smith’s ideas diverged and developed independently. The descriptions of Hume’s problems with Rousseau and the famous Letter to Strahan about how Hume died unrepentant – much to the chagrin of the Kirk and others – are excellent. But most importantly – together – they provide a basis (along with Kant) for understanding the significance of compassion, sympathy and empathy to our modern communities.

(The blog’s friend Gary Max drew its attention to the Sacks broadcast and the blog’s son is Empatico’s CTO)