Another Look at Empathy, in an Era of Selfishness and Alternative Facts

A recent Guardian headline:
Think empathy makes the world a better place? Think again …
Well we’ve “thought again” and we DO think empathy makes the world a better place.
As do many of those who posted comments below the article:
“An attack on empathy goes with the Randian/Trumpian times very nicely.”  herero
“The idea that empathy is second best to cool reason is a dangerous one.”  exmaiers
We live in an age when anyone who shows pity or compassion for the less able, the underprivileged, refugees, etc, are called ‘snowflakes’, and much worse. 
Of course empathy is not, of itself, “a good thing”. It’s blindingly obvious. Do you really want to ’empathise’ with Nuttall or Farage, or for that matter Donald Trump, on account of the criticism and sometimes the abuse they get from some very decent people? Do you want your daughters and your sons to empathise with Katie Hopkins (keen to let refugees drown)?
Empathy is a key component of social intelligence. It’s essential for all social beings and all social creatures. We can even witness empathy between species. Most of us are born with empathy and most of us can increase our empathy as we mature and develop, given the right home and the right school circumstances. (Even sociopaths and psychopaths can learn to manage their inability to empathise.)
Nevertheless we’re bound to see continuing attacks on ’empathy’ and compassion, given the prevalence of authors who want to sell books, and people in the political arena who want to attack anyone who shows generosity and decency towards the underprivileged, the homeless, the stateless, etc. 
The way we talk with children and young people about empathy and social intelligence in our schools becomes more important than ever. We don’t need to indoctrinate them, of course: most children are highly empathetic, in our experience. But one of the key components of personal, social, spiritual and emotional learning is learning about empathy, and learning about the value of cooperation and collaboration. They also need to learn about the opposite of these qualities and characteristics – violence, meanness, aggression and bullying. The very last thing children need is indoctrination. What they DO need are opportunities to discuss, debate and learn from one another about human behaviour and codes of conduct. We can’t force and we shouldn’t coerce children into becoming ’empathetic’. We don’t need to – they can see by the example of decent parents and teachers (etc) that empathy is necessary and desirable. They can also see for themselves the consequences of a lack of empathy and a lack of social (and spiritual) intelligence. 
It goes without saying that there’s also a real need to consider human issues and dilemmas logically and philosophically, through the proper use of our intellects. Can children be philosophical? Of course they can, and they should – in carefully planned sessions of PSHE, etc -they can learn to ask pertinent questions and learn to engage in Socratic dialogue, seeking to uncover misconceptions and deceits, and to zero in on indisputable truths. In the age of Trump and #fakenews this becomes more important than ever. These are essential life skills, and they need to be developed systematically in schools, as well as informally elsewhere. 
In other words, the world needs different types of intelligence, and it desperately needs both intellect and empathy. Our best schools ensure that every type of intelligence is recognised, valued and developed. Why do we even need to discuss this? 
To sum up, we survive and thrive thanks to the interaction of all of our intelligences – which operate simultaneously and continuously. This is most definitely NOT a matter of either/or. Apologies for restating the bleeding obvious. 
The author of this article talks about “moral imagination”, “other forces”, “motivations for good action”, “compassion” and “lovingkindness”. In his own clunky fashion he’s describing “spiritual intelligence”, which is on our vital 3rd axis of intelligence. He’s talking about values and virtues, which are understood through our intellects but are actioned and given substance through our social intelligence and our interactions with others. We have three axes of intelligence. They are of equal importance. We need to use all of them, every day of our lives. 
  See also:

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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