In our world today we are dealing with a lot of tragedies and negativity. Our political parties are polarized and don’t seem to be willing to cooperate. This last weekend there was a mass shooting at 4th of July parade. Women face incredibly awful sexist comments online. As a response to the negativity, many people are calling for increased empathy in the world. The idea is that we need to work together to be more empathetic, more aligned and aware of each other, and to care for each other’s emotions to a greater level than we currently do.
However, as always for me, I would argue that trying to develop more empathy is not enough. I think we need to develop better institutions that bring about the kinds of changes that we want to see in a more empathetic world. Steven Pinker, based on what he wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature would likely agree:
“The overall picture that has emerged from the study of the compassionate brain is that there is no empathy center with empathy neurons, but complex patterns of activation and modulation that depend on perceivers interpretation of the traits of another person and the nature of their relationship with the person.”
Pinker explains that singular people going out and trying to be good people, trying to display empathy, and trying to make the world a better place by being empathetic is not likely to change the state of empathy in the world and bring about the subsequent changes we would like to see. Trying to be empathetic with a woman who has been criticized online could backfire if you are not seen as part of the right group, a major challenge in our politically polarized society. Gun violence may not be reduced, and may not be reduced quick enough, if we try to build empathy at an individual level. What needs to change are incentive structures and relationships between people.
Similarly to how Pinker writes about empathy, he writes the following about sympathy, “sympathy is endogenous, and an effect rather than a cause of how people relate to one another. Depending on how beholders conceive of a relationship, their response to another person’s pain may be empathic, neutral, or even counter productive.”
At this point, I believe we need new institutions that will reduce access to guns and create new taboos around guns. I would support a constitutional amendment banning guns or even a program that tried to purchase guns from people (especially for people with suicidal backgrounds – however these programs are often not effective). I would also push for reduced anonymity for online social media companies, hopefully bringing more visibility to awful sexist comments. Other institutions, like changes to our voting system could help address the political polarization and possibly have other positive effects down the road. Institutions can shape behavior much stronger and much more quickly than individual kindness and acts of empathy. To get beyond our current world of tragedies and negativity, I think it is time we start experimenting with new institutions.