Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker


 Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time and The New Republic, and is the author of eight books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and most recently The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.



Reducing Violence, Increasing Empathy in the ‘Humanitarian Revolution’
Pinker explained the details behind the Humanitarian Revolution at the Singularity Summit last weekend.

Steven Pinker on Empathy
"The third historical force has been called the expanding circle, this is a concept that was named by Peter Singer and first endorsed by Charles Darwin more than a century before. The idea is that evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy. Unfortunately, by default we apply it only to a narrow circle of family. Over the course of history you can see the circle of empathy expanding..."


C-span video. he talks about the expanding circle of empathy


The Better Angels of our Nature

Google book Search on:  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

2011-09-30 - The Limits of Empathy  By David Brooks  - New York Times
As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelf loads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.

2013-05-20 - The Baby in the Well,  The case against empathy. By Paul Bloom - New Yorker  
 “The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy,” the psychologist Steven Pinker has written, “but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.” A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy.

Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & "The Better Angels of Our Nature"
Pinker dropped by Reason's Washington, D.C., office to talk with Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey about ideology, empathy, and why you're much less likely to get knifed in the face these days.

“Fiction is empathy technology.”   Steven Pinker


Steven Pinker  - He identifies five “inner demons”—sadism, revenge, dominance, violence in pursuit of a practical benefit, violence in pursuit of an ideology—that struggle with four “better angels”: self-control, empathy, morality, and reason. 



Dec 08, 2012  —  Paul Bloom & Steven Pinker
Paul Bloom (Yale University) and
Steven Pinker (Harvard University, The Better Angels of Our Nature)

  • Steven's book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature"  

  • How immutable is human nature?  

  • Why is America more violent than Europe?

  • 33:00 - Why violence down

    • Empathy - as the world become more cosmopolitan - harder to dehumanize others

    • Expansion of reason - moral arguments become second nature

  • 34:00 - The Mad Max question

    • if social structures collapse then what?

  • 45:00 Against empathy

    • you talked about empathy and how it plays a role in expansion of the moral circle.

    • Your actually skeptical about empathy and so am I.

    • It's not comfortable being against empathy, it's like being against love...

    • But empathy can only go so far. 

    • Adam Smith example - the limit's of empathy and moral problem.

      • many people die in China, wouldn't affect you much

      • vr, your hand got amputated, you wouldn't get it out of your mind.

      • choose between your finger or 1 million people dying

      • power of reason

      • impartial spectator

    • Reason gives a little person in our head judging  consequences from an objective point of view.

  • 42:50 - Empathy won't get you there. Another limitation of empathy is it does moral response at the expense of others

    • Dan Batson has experiment - organ transplant, move person up on the line to get transplant.. that's wrong. Your being biased towards one person over another.

    •  [Example: Not fighting Global Warming Caused by Empathy]

      • for statistical used - i.e. global warming - empathy fails us. - yes that's true

      • a carbon tax will put a poor guy out of a job

      • I can't resonate with the future consequences of global warming

      • It's easier to empathize with the guy next door in coal mine versus the Bangladeshi n the future who's land will be under water.

  • 44:00 - [Example: World Wide Corruption Caused by Empathy]

    • World Wide Corruption is being empathic to your friends and relatives

    • We now use reason to give out jobs

      • it leads to more efficiency

      •  it means turning off your empathy or forcing people to turn off their empathy.

  • 45:00 -  [Example:  Selective  Care for only caring about Some Animals caused by empathy]

    • Another case brings us back to animals.

    • Dog elicit empathy chickens don't

    • We can be brutal to some animals and not others

    • An empathy only morality is skewed up

    • [the empathy deficit is the fault of empathy]

  • 45:35 Moral psychology in general which you've contributed a lot to

    • normative consequences - can our work tell us what's right and wrong?

    • not mechanically - but can be relevant

    • like when do you discount quirks of our moral psychology but should not be given moral weight.

      • intuitions sacrificing in moral dilemmas - case of warped 

    • disgust an unreliable moral guide

    • dignity an unreliable moral guide

  • 52:00 Steven: To hell with dignity!  



Reason for less violence.

  • enlightenment -books

  • - more knowledge

  • - books lead to empathy -

Causes of less violence

  • rights revolutions



Inclinations for violence


vr. What are our better angles?

  • Self control - anticipate consequences

  • Empathy - feel others pain

  • moral sense - family of intuitions - drive for fairness

  • Reason - objective detached analysis

What tipped the scale?

  • 1. Large States

    • have conflict resolution

  • 2. Gentle commerce

  • 3. the expanding circle of empathy

    • narrow circle - is expanding

    • family

    • clan

    • tribe

    • country

    • other sentient beings

    • taking on the perspective of others

  • 4. Escalator of reason

    • literacy

    • public discourse

    • morality of fairness and rules