(This essay is a response to Matthew Taylor’s lecture, “21st Century Enlightenment (2010)” on TED Talks)
“The unexamined life is not worth living” still has great bearing centuries after Socrates first said it. It is no less different from the empathetic attitude that is the précis of RSA’s “21st Century Enlightenment”. It cunningly uses empathy to encapsulate the various ideas of this positive propaganda into a simple philosophy, one that not only encourages us to be aware of our own lives as Socrates tried to preach, but also to be sensitive of others.
I agree that this attitude is what we need to counter the pitfalls of modernity. The indifference of technological progress and economic markets to the general good, the unyielding methods of bureaucracy, modern culture’s equating of material progress to human happiness, and our authorities’ propensity to seek short-term solutions to social problems can be summed up into an attitude of selfishness that is the antipode of empathy.
It makes sense why among all the Nobel prizes, the one that caps them all is the Peace Prize – that’s because all the outstanding feats in physics, economics, biology, or mathematics will never add up to anything worthy unless they are used for the greater good – peace. Peace is the one virtue that we need in our modern world of diversity and convenience. If in the pre-modern era our heroes were those that pursued freedom, justice and progress, goods that Taylor dubbed as simplistic and inadequate ideas in this current period, the 21st century needs those that can pursue peace foremost.
Empathy, the ability the put oneself in another’s shoes, cannot be accomplished if one does not first come to terms with oneself. Taylor’s lecture aptly asserts that we must “reconnect a concrete understanding of who we are as human beings”, to look at what we aim for instead of just focusing on what we can achieve. This mindset puts things in a clearer perspective. Is it worth living a significant portion of our lives striving for material things that are supposed to make us happy? Mo’ money, mo’ problems as simply put by a rap song sums up the volatile and unpredictable conditions of our society today, despite the leaps that we have achieved in science and industry. New insights of human nature reveal that richness can make us happy at first, but not so much afterwards. Indeed, “we are very bad at predicting what will make us happy and we are even bad at describing what made us happy in the past.”
Hence a closer scrutiny of what will be really good for our own welfare is crucial. The lecture provides a solution by autonomy, or self-awareness, “requiring us to have a relationship with our own reactions rather than be captive of them”, and understanding aspects of our behaviour in order to “exercise control and distinguish our needs from our appetites.”
Once we understand and value what are really important and effective for our well-being, it becomes easy to focus our energies to achieve them. But this is not a guarantee for peace because the different peoples and sectors in the world are not in the same standpoint as dictated by the differing economic status, cultures, religions, and values that separate the global community. To some developing nations, food, water, sanitation and shelter are priorities. To the developed nations, economic security, power, and influence are most sought for.
But no matter where we stand in the scale of progress, our humanity is one that binds all so that empathy towards each other will never be insignificant. Autonomy, universalism, and humanism will always be at the forefront of our priorities in every single stage of our society’s evolution. Empathy sums up these three concepts: autonomy, the understanding of self; universalism, understanding that dignity and human rights are deserved by all; and humanism, the understanding and constant exploration or what is best for human beings.
Empathy works in the 21st century and in any other era of human civilization because its two-way direction is the very foundation of morality, the thread that keeps us together in society. The rightness or wrongness of any human act requires a thorough understanding of what one considers moral versus the rationality of the actor being judged, versus the values of the majority. It employs ethical reasoning to arrive at a conviction. To understand and judge, one must employ reason. Rationality with ethical reasoning is empathy at work.
But what makes empathy more significant now than in any other period is that when it becomes the driving force in societies, it culminates in peace. It lets us rise above our differences in priorities, values, even morals – diversities that are more prevalent now than ever before.