Crime and (lack of) empathy in a changing world Edvard Munch - The Lonely Ones

Crime and (lack of) empathy in a changing world

Research has established a link between lack of empathy and crime. It is interesting and illuminating to look at both phenomena from the context of the historical development of human consciousness in the Western world.

In a previous blog I argued that developing our sense of empathy might help to make us feel more secure in the world. I want to extend those thoughts on empathy a little further here, by focusing on the relationship between empathy and crime, and how it fits in the development of Western consciousness.

The roots of empathy

Research, for instance from Chad Posick et al., confirms that this relationship exists: ‘Several researchers have established an empirical link between lack of empathy and criminal behaviour, and conclude that empathy is an important trait that is responsible for explaining a portion of poor behaviour by adolescents.’ It is interesting that in this article it is also acknowledged that empathy is not a purely human phenomenon, but – following the findings of the primatologist Frans de Waal – has its roots in the animal world.

History and consciousness

If empathy is already present in the animal world, then it’s likely early humans were also empathic. Although some researchers still hold on to the Victorian conviction that ‘primitive’ people were basically uncivilized, warlike savages, archeological and anthropological evidence is growing that hunter-gatherer societies were often (and still are) peaceful and egalitarian societies. To have those qualities the inhabitants must have been empathic.
Interestingly, there are researchers who have tried to put empathy and crime in a historical perspective, in an attempt to understand both phenomena as part of the development of human consciousness. One of them is the English psychologist Steve Taylor and another is the American cultural philosopher Charles Eisenstein. Below I give a brief outline of their views, which add – I think – an interesting dimension to the theme.

The ego-explosion

In his book ‘The Fall’ Taylor also stresses the link between lack of empathy and crime. He shows that both are ways in which ‘ego-separateness’, that has come to dominate the Western world, expresses itself. This ego-separateness has a long history, according to Taylor: its domination goes back all the way to a traumatic event which happened about 4000 BC, when a widespread and persistent period of extreme drought caused what he calls ‘the ego explosion’. This probably triggered a dramatic change in Western consciousness which has lasted until present times. Taylor thinks ego-separateness still creates a permanent restlessness in us, keeping us continually engaged in (escape) activities, and a sense of incompleteness, through which we never feel whole, or at home in the world. Lack of empathy and crime are directly linked to this mental state.

The rise of the Separate Self

Charles Eisenstein also thinks that lack of empathy is deeply rooted in the mental state of Western people. In his book ‘The Ascent of Humanity’ he describes the development of ‘the Separate Self’, the distinctive Western way to experience the world, all the way from the rise of agriculture to the present day. Identifying with the Separate Self means that we have learned to see ourselves as separate from others and from the surrounding natural world, and – as a result – are engaged in a permanent struggle with these others and with the environment.
It is through this identification with the Separate Self that we have lost contact with our deeper empathic side. As Separate Selves we consider empathic behaviour a dangerous exposure of our vulnerability to people who (we think) are only waiting to take advantage of us. That’s why it’s not strange that relatively few people in the Western world have been able to fully develop their empathic potential.
In a society where there is a general lack of empathy among all citizens, of course it is not realistic to expect criminals to rediscover their own empathy (through restorative justice programmes)!

Back to sanity

But there is good news too! Taylor shows (in his book ‘Back to Sanity’) how ego-separateness has turned our life into an individual and collective madness, that we need to be healed from in order to survive as a species. This healing starts with evaluating our experiences of inner harmony and cultivating them to a more permanent state. The end result will be a saner world, which will naturally also be a more empathic and less criminal world.
To realize this fully he thinks it is important we finally start taking the cultures of indigenous people around the world seriously. According to him their sense of identity is not yet spoiled by ego-separateness, and includes nature, animals, and other people. They can help us to rediscover our inner state of harmony.

Towards the Age of Reunion

Eisenstein thinks this transformation process has also already started. In his terminology, the ‘Age of Separation’ is gradually transforming into the ‘Age of Reunion’, and on an individual level we are ‘in between stories’: between the story of the Separate Self and what he calls 'Interbeing’ – a term borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh which refers to our true being that is connected to others and the natural world. Although Eisenstein – like Taylor – considers this far from an easy transformation, he is convinced we are heading in the right direction, towards (as the title of his last book calls it) ‘the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’.

I think it is important that both Taylor and Eisenstein show us, that we can understand the relationship between crime and the lack of empathy much better if we look at it from the perspective of a dynamic world that has gone through and is still going through major changes.


Wim Bonis

Hi Kevin,

Thanks a lot for your reaction to my blog. You’re right that the materialism and greed fostered by Western governments fits in with the human identity of a Separate Self. Coincidently, Charles Eisenstein has written a very interesting book on this theme (that I haven’t mentioned in my blog): ‘Sacred Economics. Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition’
He reckons that our economic crisis is primarily caused by our capitalist conception of money increasing in value through interest. According to him, an important part of the solution is found in changing our conception of money into a natural product which doesn’t increase, but – like everything else in nature – slowly decays in time. He thinks that this different conception of money can bring about a necessary and beneficial change which – together with a return to gift culture – will provide the answer to the current crisis.

By the way, I think there is nothing wrong with learning about empathy from indigenous societies. In fact, changing our attitude towards these cultures, after centuries of maltreatment by the Western world, would already stimulate our sense of empathy. But of course we can look much ‘closer to home’, in our own society, for examples of empathy. In this sense Steve Taylor has suggested that we can learn a lot from our own (small) children, who have not yet developed a strong sense of ego separateness. And we can always just start to practice empathy ourselves, by regularly having conversations with ‘strangers’, as suggested by Roman Krznaric (referred to in my previous blog: http://leidenlawblog.nl/articles/how-to-feel-more-secure-with-less-police).

Kevin Walsh

You could expand this idea further by looking at the materialism and greed which has been fostered by most Western governments in both good times and bad over the last two decades. Economies have boomed based on measurements of GDP, and when they bust, the reverse policy of austerity is applied to restore the sacred measurements to their rightful place. When governments rule with such heartless policies, empathy is scarce and hardly valued at all.
I think we don't have to look at indigenous societies though; there is enough cultural richness in our own societies to promote empathy if the arts were taken more seriously.

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