RSA ANIMATE: The Empathic Civilisation

RSA ANIMATE: The Empathic Civilisation

Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society. Taken from a lecture given by Jeremy Rifkin as part of the RSA’s free public events programme.

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Produced and edited by Abi Stephenson, RSA. Animation by Cognitive Media.

50 replies
  1. Illasera
    Illasera says:

    was interesting till about 8 mins into the video
    when the "moral" laser pointer started interfering with science
    and started pointing us towards "the right thing to do"

  2. Stephen Stacey
    Stephen Stacey says:

    For sure there is a role for empathy and compassion within the human family. There are certain moments where it should be the primary value we hold. On the other hand, it is a very dangerous thing to suggest that empathy and compassion should be the primary value in most situations. But the push to make empathy and compassion a primary value in most situations is an ongoing goal of culture destroying, post-modernism. In most moments in life, other values are far more important. For example, I should expect honesty from children even if their family background is fragile. For example, get things wrong and your sense of empathy can end up enabling an alcoholic partner, relative, or friend. For example, having too much empathy can cause an elderly person to stop being self-sufficient… sometimes tough love is needed.

    The limitations of empathy and the REAL dangers that too much empathy can give rise too were not even touched on in this video. If empathy is applied as suggested, the world would increasingly become a place where increasing numbers of people would feel that they could live dysfunctional lives and that others have to feel empathy for them and step in and help them. A negative downward spiral would set in and we would all have to be pushed to the limit of our ability to offer empathy. Look at the dysfunctional, empathy-driven, safe-spaces idea on universities. You first need to expect that both yourself and others are doing their best to get on with their lives. Then having empathy for the individual who met struggles that got in the way is a much more natural, healthy place.

    Of course, there are some of us who have empathy AND the skills needed to actually help people who seem to be unable to help themselves. And they can raise people up. But having this set of skills is for a specific group amongst us. Most of us are not built like this. We have other values and talents to offer. If we got involved with struggling individuals, many of us would make things worse, enable the struggler, or lose hope in ourselves.

    As the video says, most of us are born with a sense of empathy. The primary goal in life, however, has to be that each of strives to live a wholesome life that places little demand on the community to feel empathy for us. Get that right, and there will be more than enough empathy around to help the relatively few of us who are going through accidental or short-term crises. Teach a woman to fish, get her to be self-sufficient, and you don’t need to feel empathy for her. You can rejoice at her success. The ‘we must have compassion’ movement, however, also encourages the young to live lives that lead to more struggles in life. For example, rather than teaching her to fish, they teach her a sexual norm that can only increase her risk of struggling in life. You can’t teach empathy and then shove women under a bus. That is no very empathic. You have to teach responsible social behavior – how to look after youself so you are less likely to encounter risks that seriously can harm your life.

  3. Optimus6128
    Optimus6128 says:

    I am not sure if empathy is so inbound. One thing that is said in the video, the need to belong (or as I say the need to be appreciated, to be liked, and also the avoidance of acts that will make you be disliked) is something I really believe is very primary and can explain a lot of things about the human condition. Now, empathy I think can be selective. It’s hard to imagine it universal. I for example can’t feel any empathy for poor people in the street, not that I believe they deserve it (that would be a lazy rationalization) but because I haven’t been in that condition, no matter if logically I wouldn’t want to be. At the same time, I am very empathic for other kinds of people because they mirror my own experience, like I would get angry and annoyed or sad when people getting bullied, if I had the same experiences at school. Or other experiences which are in my list of fears, would make me feel bad about some people’s misfortunes. In the same way, I wouldn’t blink about the Haiti earthquakes, it’s far away, I haven’t been in an earthquake, it’s not the kind of misfortunes I am afraid or makes me sad. But here is the thing, many people twitted hopeful messages and such about the victims? I believe, a lot of them did under social mirroring because everyone else does and why am I out? Or the thought that "If I show I care about these people, I will be appreciated". I think there is a social current that feeds our need to be appreciated or be liked, or our fear of being disliked (for example the thought "if I don’t send a tweet like my friends, people will think I am not caring, maybe a psycho or egoist"). I have this theory that liking/disliking urges really push humans, and not all behaviours can be explained as empathic, but a lot of things are more egoistic (without this being necessary bad, it’s just our nature) than we would like them to be, because if we accept that fact it’s gonna paint our selves as more egoistic people than we’d like to imagine ourselves. I also believe people will get mean when they get the green light from society, if society tells them that one person deserves to be treated badly, they switch and do or say nasty stuff. Because then the majority won’t dislike them but may even say they did the right thing. I could write examples, but youtube these days doesn’t keep carriage return, and this is a big paragraph so I’ll stop here for now.

  4. Blunton Glutine
    Blunton Glutine says:

    also just as human being image of God angels being image of God angels have a freewill and beliefs a conscience creatures indignation and compassion are righteousness are a judgment of conscience.

  5. نادیا نوری
    نادیا نوری says:

    This completely explains why Progressives are obsessed with the disenfranchisement of anyone they disagree with.
    Simply run the capacity to empathize in reverse, but add cultish contempt overdriven by hysteria.

  6. Lucas Jarrett
    Lucas Jarrett says:

    One major problem: even in a "utopia", it’s feasible that we would empathize with the positive experiences of others in a way that created additional beauty, despite having no basis of "unhappiness" against which to compare that beauty. We could at least conceive of a world wherein beauty would simply be infinite, and feedback loops that demonstrate its diversity would be valuable to people as experience, without creating any resentment or envy or jealousy or what-have-you. I’m not saying that such an ideal is possibly achievable, but I am suggesting that it is at least conceivable within the imagination. In other words, empathy is not necessarily dependent on an understanding of death. Positive empathy has been observed in very young toddlers who don’t yet realize that creatures die.

  7. danny gunter
    danny gunter says:

    Okay, I for the most part can not say what the man in this video is explaining is wrong and to me he actually did a very good job. But he is describing typical human empathy, most of us have this, there are a lot of seriously non-empathic people in the general population. But what he describes is not what we are talking about or discussing here. A sensitive empath, is psychic (as I understand), we can’t read minds, we are simply impacted by another person’s emotions unpleasant, peaceful (my personal favorite, but they are rare), happy, sad, etc. What this man is describing is an innate initiative to appreciate and grasp the simple day to day things that go on. The Empath I interpret doesn’t just observe, we are assaulted or attacked maybe even violated, I honestly do not know the word to call it and we absorb or actually feel whatever another person is feeling, this occurs against our will (there is a word for this I just cannot recall it right now, we inherit that feeling and it is disturbing, especially when you don’t know where it’s coming from. Have I said this correctly? Or am I mistaken?

  8. Han Boetes
    Han Boetes says:

    Amazing how these empathic creatures that we are manage to breed and slaughter animals and kill many many more sea creatures on a yearly basis!

  9. George George
    George George says:

    one of the main problems is the different narratives people teach their children all over the globe..information and the narrative such as the one in this video does ‘paint’ a completely different ‘picture’ for every human who sees,hears,understands,believes it to be true and then integrates it into their world view. Well, 3 million people out of 7billion saw it..that’s not going to work. You have large chunks of populations all over the globe that believe the planet is 5000 years old or something like that. To those people is almost impossible to explain otherwise. Progressive governments need to emerge and distance government and government education from religions in order to create a new/next wave of enlightenment.

  10. Tom Ato
    Tom Ato says:

    Empathy is what creates a Utopia (Heaven) where good will, comfort, pleasure, and harmony are naturally shared.
    Apathy is what creates a dystopia where ill will, discomfort, pain, and chaos are unnaturally diseased in humanity.
    Sympathy is what is needed for apathy to make its way back to Empathy so that humanity is eased back to bliss!

  11. Anji Todd
    Anji Todd says:

    psychopaths,sociopaths and severe malignant narcissists have a malfunction of the mirror neurons,.. and other brain differences in the frontal lobe and amygdala. Thus the lack of empathy and compassion. no emotional memory. no conscience or remorse, and heightened reward centers… essentially making them predators.

  12. EvilEddtheRed
    EvilEddtheRed says:

    Great talk, and animation. If you like this, you might like Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk ‘My stroke of insight’, and Richard Wilkinson’s TED talk ‘How economic inequality harms societies’.

    You might also like Temple Grandin’s book ‘Animals in Translation’, or her TED talk ‘WE need all kinds of minds’; and ‘The Master and his Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist (who also has some excellent talks on YouTube – as I suspect Temple Grandin might, come to think of it).

    For a look at what the absence of empathy can look like on the large scale, Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ is unbeatable – you read it, and instantly realise how right the author is; though it’s not all cheery reading.

  13. andrew beattie
    andrew beattie says:

    Nonsense. Empathy is only extended either when the extender is economically secure or there is expected reciprocity. Maslow was right.

  14. Earth+
    Earth+ says:

    The biggest obstacle is that we still haven’t completely gotten rid of ‘racial ties’ and ‘religious ties’. Before we try to get rid of national identiites, we need to get rid of those first.

  15. Joshua Knoll
    Joshua Knoll says:

    The only question I have about all he is theorizing, is this: what do you say to the idea that tribalism never ended, and nation states can be just as tribally vicious as family-based tribes?

  16. Blunton Glutine
    Blunton Glutine says:

    heavenly are angels are perfect image of what humanity was supposed to be perfect human beings perfect angels are empathetic beings.

  17. T'was an old username and I'll change it soon.
    T'was an old username and I'll change it soon. says:

    **inserts Adam**, "the Bible was right"
    This was a good and informative video, but please leave religion out of this.

  18. Joy Love
    Joy Love says:

    Even though we share almost all, our experiences have been different; some experiencing family violence, murder of a parent, sexual molestation and a host of other negativity as well as others who have had a almost perfect childhood, family, etc. Persons who have been sexually molested can understand others who have been molested as it is with almost all who have shared the same experience. However the person molested cannot understand the suffering of the molester and here lies the problem. We can not empathize with those who have suffered from experiences different from ours, even though we may understand the suffering of those persons who have shared our experience or similar experiences.

  19. Petar Stamenkovic
    Petar Stamenkovic says:

    It’s funny how religion got into this. Presented clearly by an atheist who rejects religion on the surface, but also acknowledges that the golden rule is paramount and that there were an actual Adam and Eve. Still he takes time to point out that there is no empathy in haven. How does that even make sense? Why wouldn’t there be empathy in haven? It’s the one place you’d expect there to loads of it, if haven were real.

    I can’t help but think that it’s this sort of convoluted thinking that creates conflict where there is none, that made him an atheist in the first place. Good video though.

  20. Philippe Defossez
    Philippe Defossez says:

    "Contrary to prevailing philosophical mythology, moral behavior isn’t just about people’s individual nature, their education, parenting, peers, social bonds, personal intentions or other such factors commonly discussed concerning a person’s character. This mythology—that morality is only about individual behavior—ignores the incredible, stress-inducing pressure placed upon a civilization that is based upon its members fighting with each other to survive. In such a world, ethi…cal behavior as we traditionally consider it is severely limited in its capacity for expression. It isn’t that people aren’t capable of more caring, compassionate, helpful, and socially respectful behavior—it is that the socioeconomic system won’t support it. In fact, I would argue that the more ethical you are, the more likely you will fail in the game of commerce. The system simply doesn’t support real human compassion on the sociological level. It isn’t designed to." – Peter Joseph : ‘The New Human Rights Movement.’ –

  21. Kurt Coleman
    Kurt Coleman says:

    Utopian civilization would ensure its denizens develop proper empathy. Perhaps its denizens start out their existence within an ancestor simulation so they are able to experience the pain and disparity experienced by their fore-bearers.

  22. iranjackheelson
    iranjackheelson says:

    obviously extending our empathy globally is nothing new…. the real problem is the limitation of resource. if we have exact same level of empathy for every human being in the world, let alone creatures other than humans, can we provide equally good conditions to every one of those human beings? if not, who gets the priority? that’s the tough question

  23. TheBlundert4ker
    TheBlundert4ker says:

    If any theory is to be important or useful, it needs to be able to withstand critics. There must be no alternative explanation as to why the phenomenon in question occurs. I immediately began thinking of counterarguments to Jeremy Rifkin’s condensed speech on the empathetic civilization to test its viability. Unfortunately, the theory does not hold.
        I first realized that Rifkin’s theory was incorrect when he mentioned, after approximately eight minutes into the video, that we have the technology necessary to be empathetic to people across the world, using the example of the disaster in Haiti. Having the technology necessary to empathize with other does not in any way guarantee that empathy will be exchanged or acknowledged. Since the RSA Animated Video only used the example of Haiti to further the argument that technology brings empathy, I will only use the interview Conan O’Brien had with Louis C.K, posted on the Team Coco youtube channel, titled “Louis C.K Hates Cell Phones” to argue the opposite point:
    “You know, I think these things [Cell Phones] are toxic, especially for kids… They [the kids] don’t look at people when they talk to them. They don’t build the empathy. Kids are mean and it’s because they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘You’re fat’. Then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and say ‘Ooh, that doesn’t feel good’. But when they write they’re fat, they go, ‘Hmm, that was fun’… The thing is you need build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something; that’s what the phones are taking away”.
        Another glaring issue with the theory is its insistence on the idea that, essentially, we empathize with people because we all share the fear of death. This is ridiculous: let’s assume for a second that people follow this logic with the utmost strictness in the context of the 2016 election. All the toxic commentary about political ideology from all over the political spectrum should not even exist if we remind ourselves that we will all die. Trump’s going to build a wall? Who cares, let’s just enjoy having a fellow member of the human race around while he lasts. Hillary’s going to let in more refugees? Well, as long as each and every one of them is mortal, it’s no big deal. Empathy from mortality indeed…
        To conclude, Jeremy Rifkin’s theory is incomplete. While I do legitimately believe that he has a point regarding how we should govern ourselves, his assertion that technology and mortality are the biggest factors into how we empathize with each other is simply wrong.


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