Reason Provides the Push to Widen our Circle of Empathy


Our ancestors were tightly connected with each other, which is why they felt only the pain of their family and the people in their village. As we started to travel more and learn new things, we expanded the circle of sympathy to the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race, and maybe all humankind.

It was a process that at its origin had what physicist David Bohm called “participatory thought” — in some cultures there was a shared understanding that everyone was part of the same experience. In his excellent On Dialogue, Bohm explains the meaning of participatory, it's about “to partake of,” and the idea was everyone drew from the same source of energy.

“Literal thought” stands in contrast to it:

Literal thought aims at being a reflection of reality as it is — it claims just to tell you the way things are. We tend to say that's the best kind of thought. Technical thought, for instance, aims to be literal. Such thought intends to be unambiguous; it may not succeed, but it aims that way — to know something as exactly what it is.

British philosopher Owen Barfield has compared such literal thought to idol worship. It starts as the symbol of something greater that itself, and gradually it stands in for that. That's how the object borrows literal value.

In a way we are worshiping our words and our thoughts, insofar as they claim to be descriptions or statements about reality just as it is.

But then we're inconsistent because we say we think literally, but in reality we're still tacitly giving a lot of value to participatory thought. For example, when a country is attacked, people think “I am attacked.” So inside the tribe and clan there's this sense of “we're it,” which is difficult to anyone outside, because being a person or human becomes identified with being a member of the tribe or clan. Anyone not in the clan is not human. We can see where this kind of thought leads.

Words have tremendous and lasting power to affect how we think about things and the actions we take as a consequence. We didn't need literal thought much when we lived in small groups, everyone knew everyone else. With population growth and scale through agricultural and industrial ages, literal thought became more a necessity.

Organization was important to function:

They organized society by saying, “you belong here, you do this, you do that.” They began therefore to treat everything as a separate object, including other people. They used people as a means to an end. The further civilization went, the more these societies went into this area of using thought as a means to an end.

Treating people as objects was transferred to treating countries as objects and literal thought kept spreading to more and more areas, fragmenting experience into discrete and separate parts. If we're to do anything together, as a group, however, we need participatory thought. We never got to considering humankind a collective entity. What we have instead is separation.

Something interesting happens in the way people treat a group of others, which in the world of tribes was logically inconsistent with the way they insisted on being treated themselves. Which means that empathy can go only so far in human relationships.

Economist and philosopher Adam Smith said:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe would react on receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people. He would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened.

If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight, but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.

Without the idea of participation, we lose the more compelling aspects of sharing in common humanity and that is cognitive empathy. We miss the understanding piece, and thus we fail to use reason for we never engage the conscious ability to understand someone else’s perspective. We don't really “know” what it feels like because we don't internalize the thought, we don't participate.

Philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein says:

Reason has muscle. It's reason that provides the push to widen that circle of empathy. When thinkers through the ages give reasons for why some practice is indefensible, they demonstrated that the way people treated some particular group of others was logically inconsistent with the way they insisted on being treated themselves.


Contradictions bother us, at least when we're forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying that we are susceptible to reason. And if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel.

Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held. Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons, and at dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency, erasing the tracks of the original argument that had gotten us there.

Few of us today feel any need to put forth a rigorous philosophical argument as to why slavery is wrong or public hangings or beating children. By now, these things just feel wrong. But just those arguments had to be made, and they were, in centuries past.

It was John Locke who argued that slavery was inconsistent with the principles of rational government. Once that movement for the expansion of rights was in the public domain, it inspired another with the same logic. Which is how reason provides the push to widen our circle of empathy.

Literal thought, which has gotten muddled in with participatory thought, sees individuals by their function — we say “I'm a banker,” “they're an accountant” and so on — and thus separate them into a hierarchy where we have people as objects. Eventually that tendency becomes self-inflicted, where we say, “I must fit here, and I must do this and that and become better.”

“But society is not an objective reality,” says Bohm. “it is a reality created by all the people through their consciousness.” It's the same with physics, when we try to measure an atom exactly, we can't, because it participates. We can get average behaviors in society, even predictable ones, though not significant, but we don't have an average person.

The things that really move us, we don't look at those. And we don't take into account the context and experience in which these things happen in relationship to each other. That's what art expresses, the connection. Science tries, it succeeds in some limited ways. Which is how we lost the bond with nature as we try and fail to manage it as an object.

So we have reason to help us with cognitive empathy, and we have thought to direct our attention. Here's where we want to make a distinction between two kinds of attention:

  1. limited — what we call concentration, the brain is occupied by it. This is useful to earn a living.
  2. unlimited — the fundamental kind we tap into when we're in silence and lack occupation. This is important to participate at a higher level. Bohm notes how the root of the word “leisure” means “emptiness, and empty space of time or place.”

To be productive in making use of reason, we want to think of thought as a process. When things don't go as we anticipated, maybe they're going to pieces, we want to identify the distractions. That's part of the learning process. This is how we connect to everything.

“Reason is intelligence taking exercise,” said Victor Hugo. In a letter to Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo Galilei wrote, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Making good use of this tool means having a glimpse of the daily illusion  that objectifying, separating, and fragmenting are the answer when there is so much more we can work out for ourselves through reason, and find those commonalities we often hold in contempt.


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