Seven Precepts of Empathy

Chiricahua Range — an Island Range in Southern Arizona

I’ve been working on book readability, and on the advice of Braden, Kevin and Ryan, I’ve been attempting to boil down the complexity of all my empathy work to seven, easily recallable precepts, or principles.

Here they are:

  1. As we relate, so we think.  And how we relate depends on empathy.
  2. Growing in empathy depends on a feeling of safety.
  3. Social structure, controlled by empathy, dictates how we shape and pattern the knowledge we create.
  4. How we think is characterized by how we structure knowledge – from fragments to connected thoughts, to guiding principles.  That practice feeds back to our own empathetic development.
  5. Different social structures and their varying levels of empathy grow or impede our personal development.
  6. All our solution paths to innovation emerge from social structure and empathy.
  7. Our empathetic development scales both our timelines and our sense of responsibility, and informs us when conflict is likely with others at different levels of development.

Thanks to Kate Raworth and her excellent book, Doughnut Economics, for the patterning example.

Feel free to leave comments or criticisms!

11 thoughts on “Seven Precepts of Empathy

  1. There is a book review in June 18 Science magazine of ‘the war for kindness’ by Jamil Zaki . It says compassion can be cultivated—-maybe i’ll try to grow some in my garden (5 blocks up from aspen street, on eden street; my current neighborhood, called ‘brightwood’ , has most of the streets named after trees–thy sort of used up the single letter names like a,b,c…1,2,3…).

    I like these little lists of main points (or axioms–both peano arithmatic and ZFC set theory have 9 axioms according to wikipedia–i have to look these up; i keep my memory on wikip ). The science mag review cites a book also with 7 items for empathy (and also cites another book by P Bloom ‘against empathy’).

    a famous song by Glen Campbell is called ‘try a little kindness’. Perhaps after i cultivate some compassion in my garden one can serve it with kindness as a condiment.

    The 3 star review by A J Sutter of ‘Donut economics’ on amazon is interesting if long. My own view is the economy (and world ) may be more like a Mobius strip than a donut.


  2. That is a good summary. Have you thought of studying more into some other directions: anthropology, consciousness studies, and philology? Maybe you have covered some of this in earlier posts.

    I’m thinking of Ruth Benedict, E.R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, Julian Jaynes, Tanya Luhrmann, Iain McGilchrist, Susan Blackmore, Charles Fernyhough, Daniel D. Hutto, Lewis Hyde, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Carl Jung, Daniel Everett, David Graeber, Lewis Hyde, etc. Or consider Karl Marx’s view of species-being as it relates to the superstructure of a society.

    Not all of these thinkers directly discuss empathy. But all of their work touches upon it and related issues: mind, identity, relationships, culture, and such. Particularly of interest could be such things as theory of mind and bundle theory of mind.

    By the way, if you want to see some truly fascinating research about how other societies structure knowledge, read Lynne Kelly’s work on indigenous mnemonic systems. Empathy could mean something entirely different within a culture such as the Australian Aborigines with their Songlines.


  3. Great comment — I’ve read a ton, and all those people are awesome. My knowledge structures stuff, though, is universal — and would exactly predict the Aboriginal Songlines as an acceptable form.

    I still maintain sentience is sentience is sentience. There are no “different” humans, and when we talk about animals, we’re talking about processor/bandwidth speed as limiting factors. Crows even have differently shaped brains, yet the patterns of self-organization apply to them as well.


    1. I’m thinking about how the social sciences, in particular, are going through a replication crisis right now. This relates to WEIRD biases, as I’m sure you know about. In recent years, much of what was assumed to be universal has proven not to be so, once other societies were included as test subjects. It feels like we are in terra incognito about many issues, that we know less than we thought we knew.

      We don’t need to be different humans for there to be different ways for humans to think, perceive, and behave. Linguistic relativity has already proven that over and over again — there are several great books surveying the research so far. As another kind of example, the fluid identities of many hunter-gatherers seems truly alien to the modern mind. Some have noted that the Australian Aborigines seem to change personalities when following a particular Songline. And ‘possessed’ Piraha don’t respond to their human names nor do other Piraha recognize them as people they know. Many such populations also have a larger and amorphous sense of self that not only overlaps with others but extends into the environment around them.

      I can’t speak to your personal theory on knowledge structures. I’m more thinking about empathy and other psychological factors, although obviously that would relate to knowledge structures. The way some other societies act makes no sense according to what most modern Westerners believe about human nature. Take the Piraha’s concrete focus on the immediate world around them that is structured into their language, in that they can only speak of what they personally experience or what someone they personally know has personally experienced, related to their apparent lack of interest in death and afterlife. The lack of recursion among the Piraha challenged Chomsky’s belief in a universal language module. See Daniel Everett’s work. Also, his son, Caleb Everett, has a great book on linguistic relativity.

      So, I don’t know. I’m not making any particular argument, other than humans are psychologically and socially diverse. Yet we are all the same species. If a metaphor is needed, one can think of it as the difference of software vs hardware.


      1. Understanding the knowledge structures that any given social structure generates deconstructs all this WEIRD nonsense. And yes — in many of my writings, I make the difference between hardware and software more explicit. Kinda surprised you haven’t read my argument about this, because you’re such a loyal reader!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m sorry if I came across as being critical. That wasn’t my intention. I wasn’t trying to offer an argument against your position. And I wasn’t even sure exactly how these other thinkers might relate to your ideas. I was just throwing out some stuff.

        I can’t say I fully grasp your knowledge structure theory. I have been following your blog for a little while, but not that long. I have gone to some of your old posts. I understand some of it better than other stuff. I’m still learning about your way of thinking.

        I do find what you write to be extremely interesting. You’re one of my favorite bloggers. My comments here were more an expression of curiosity, an exploratory query. It helps me to learn something new by connecting it to other things I’m already familiar with. So, I was wondering how your thoughts might connect to these others.

        That is really the only point of my comments. So, I was hoping maybe you had written about some of this before. Or maybe had some thoughts that have been on your mind, even if not yet written down. I’d love to hear your views on any of this.


      3. About my personal biases, I’ve long been of two minds about universal theories.

        Because of my upbringing, I’m drawn to such views. The churches I grew up in, Science of Mind and Unity, are quite idealistic in the progressive tradition that came out of the Enlightenment. Your kind of thinking here about empathy would fit well into the liberal theology of my childhood. It’s the reason I was attracted to thinkers like Ken Wilber.

        Yet there is the other side of me. I’ve had decades of severe depression. And it has instilled in me a highly skeptical depressive realism. There is an antagonistic impulse that comes out at times toward universalistic claims. It’s me working through my personal issues.

        Still, it doesn’t stop me from finding value in universalistic theories. And in the end, I don’t doubt that there is a common humanity. I’m equally, if not more critical, of those who deny a common humanity. That really irritates me, especially as it feeds into reactionary thought and right-wing politics.


  4. I learned a bit more from a 2nd reading and comments–looked up some of the references. I was taken by phrases like this model ‘deconstructs all this WEIRD nonsense’, and that it would ‘exactly predict Aboriginal songlines as an acceptable form’.

    To me the WEIRD idea is common sense (ie don’t expect to gain some universal knowledge of human economic or social behavior by doing experiments with a small group of PhD economics students’ (as has been claimed in some behavioral economics studies) , and in social sciences ‘exactly predicting’ anything may not mean the same thing as in quantum theory or chemistry (where one can predict with some, possibly limited accuracy what kinds of particles you will find, or what the periodic table of elements is, or what the phase diagram of some condensed matter system is—where phase transitions are, what critical exponents are, etc. ).

    I looked up Leachman, who equates ’empathy’ with ‘entropy’ in his ‘social thermodynamics’ model. Ok, so now I know what empathy is At least in this model). I have seen papers in economics going back 100 years which attempt to find thermodynamic analogs or money, utility, etc. Some of these apppear to be contradictory—eg some say money is energy, others say its entropy. (Its possible the dust has settled and there are some generally agreed on definitions–e.g. money is free energy.)
    There is a web site called ‘human thermodynamics’ which collects lots of references to models of social systems using thermodynamics and other physics concepts, including quantum theory.
    To me looking at these is more like going to a zoo, art gallery, or some wilderness area or other country—I don’t really know what i am seeing, but there are some shared characteristics. There are some weird animals and artworks out there.

    I am not going to judge what is an ‘acceptable form’ –which is partly a subjective and personal decision. ‘It is what it is’.

    I didn’t realize Dan Everett’s son had written on Linguistic Relativity—one of my favorite topics (though mostly dismissed in the ‘mainstream’ until recently—though less so in journals like BBS (brain and behavioral sciences)). I had an email exchange with Everett on recursion among Piraha—i sort of disagreed with his view, but my view is even animals have a kind of recursion—and Everett agreed with me. . Some critics of Chomnsky have said while Chomsky used recursion as one basis of his lijngusitcs theory, he really didnt define what he main until after 2000 –in a paper by M Hauser in Science. (I am n9t a fan of that fairly long paper—seemed mostly a collection of irrelevant scientific findings—similar to if i included in this comment the value of planck’s constant, speed of light, and a proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Looks good as filler . Similar to the long rock guitar solos which caused many to turn to punk rock—in punk rock, no guitar solo was more than 1 minute long–you played any longer, and you be booed off the stage.)

    I think there are many somewhat equivalent ‘universal systems’ or dialects. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, and some call sounds noise, while others call it music , and some see some area as a wasteland while others see it as a beautiful wilderness area. I have found in a library you can go sections devoted to entirely different fields, and people are talking about similar things.

    This book appears to be written for people possibly going into business–has terms like innovation, maybe entrepeneurship, leadership, etc. Those are all foreign to me. (Animals do have some analogs of innovation–figure out a new way of doing something, though they may not get patents on it.)

    Some other old ‘models’ are in o Spengler’s ‘decline of the west’ (related culture to math and physics) , Mannheim’s ‘sociology of knowledge’, H White’s ‘metahistory’ , (which says historical facts are determined by what linguistic trope was popular at the time), and one called ‘sociology (or geneology) of philosophies’. There are some more current ones somewhat based on nonlinear dynamics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Ishi Crew – You wrote that, “I had an email exchange with Everett on recursion among Piraha—i sort of disagreed with his view, but my view is even animals have a kind of recursion—and Everett agreed with me.” On many occasions, Everett has made that admission. His point is that, if we are to call this recursion, it isn’t the linguistic recursion of universal grammar and language modularity that Chomsky is positing. But yeah, if you broaden the concept far enough, you can find examples of it in all cultures and in other species.

      Another point that others have made touches upon this. Anthropologist Chris Knight in Decoding Chomsky points out how Chomsky’s views have continually morphed over time, such that later versions are unrecognizable according to earlier versions. There is a trickster-like quality to how Chomsky constantly evades criticisms. But it is not always clear which version he and his supporters are defending at any given time. The theory, some argue, has become so broad and amorphous as to be meaningless, indecipherable, or simply confused and unrooted from concrete evidence. In a review of Knight’s book, Daniel Everett points out that Chomsky’s theory requires the ignoring of most of the research that has been done in linguistics and fields related to it. Chomsky simply dismisses social science out of hand and claims that understanding linguistics doesn’t require studying actual languages in the real world.

      “Knight is not amused. He says that such vague statements should not be confused with science. And Knight is indisputably correct here.[14] Knight is also right to point out that Why Only Us? is deeply flawed because it lacks any engagement with the social origins of language, much of which is not “completely unknown”.

      “In fact, the ‘argument’ by Berwick and Chomsky seems to be based largely on Chomsky’s reputation rather than any solid evidence, the ‘ad-hominem danger’ that I mentioned earlier. They offer the thinnest of speculations, ignoring huge amounts of work in anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, appearing to be utterly unaware of huge amounts of recent work in archaeology and Peircean semiotics that bears directly on the origins of human language, appealing instead implicitly to Chomsky’s non-existent authority in this area. Knight is absolutely correct to knock a hole in their conjectures on the non- Darwinian appearance of language for, along with other things, ignoring the social aspects of language and, from my own perspective, inflating the importance of grammar in language. (There are languages today, such as Pirahã and Riau, that seem to use linear grammars, avoid embedding, yet people communicate and think in them just fine.) Moreover, though Knight doesn’t mention this, the crucial component of human languages is not grammar but the symbol, in the sense of Peirce’s semiotics. Development of the symbol was the birth of language, not grammar (see Everett, 2017a, 2017b).

      “On various pages Knight takes Chomsky to task for his Cartesianism. Interestingly, C. S. Peirce, the founder of Semiotics (and Pragmatism) invested a good deal of space in his writings to criticisms of Cartesian ideas – Dualism, the Cartesian concept of intuition (to Peirce, Descartes’ notion of intuition was but another example of some philosophers’ confused thinking), and Cartesian epistemology, among others. Cartesianism and Rationalism, by avoiding the social, the cultural, the background knowledge that Peirce and Hume occasionally labeled ‘instinct’, have done linguistics no favors. Among the consequences, again, is the failure of some Chomskyans to regularly apply standard social science methodology, to an aversion to evidence that supports the communicative basis of language, towards a shaky empirical foundation based on the Cartesian notion of intuition, and so on (see, e.g., Peirce, 1878).”

      About the Piraha, they don’t only lack recursion. They also lack terms for numbers, color, and time. This brings us to linguistic relativity, as these differences somehow either shape or indicate fundamental different ways of self-identity and being in the world. It makes the Piraha to be who they are and they apparently can’t imagine being any other way. By the way, along with a book covering the research on linguistic relativity, Caleb Everett also has a book on language and numbers — I’d recommend both. Caleb spent part of his childhood among the Piraha and that definitely would give him a unique perspective.

      If you’re interested in Daniel Everett, Noam Chomsky, linguistic relativity and the Piraha, I have some relevant posts:


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