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8th November 2017

On the lack of Empathy as a major threat to Peace

coauthored by Victoria Scheyer

Table of Contents


What is the most important threat to peace?

If one were to wager what would be the single most important threat to peace, it would have to be the lack of empathy. In his book “The Empathic Civilization”, Jeremy Rifkin puts the problématique in pointed terms: “Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?” (Rifkin, 2009).

The dearth of what one could call applied methodological empathy may be the most important variable explaining why humanity at the beginning of the 21st century still faces so many challenges in what should be our most uncontroversial shared goal, namely that of gradually building a more peaceful world for both the generations alive and yet to come.

It goes without saying that values and interests of both individuals and collectives are very different or even incompatible and may clash when brought into contact with one another. This may or may not cause Violence, as in any case, conflicts are not at all exclusively negative and can just as well lead to great development and growth for either of the parties involved. This may apply most truthfully to conflicts carried out on the basis of cosmopolitan values. On the other hand of course, conflicts paired with the pseudo-darwinian concept of survival of the fittest and egocentric mind-sets can lead to inequalities, frustration and can ultimately turn out Violent.

Violence with a capital V spells out direct forms of physical violence like harming, hurting, maiming and killing, but also its cultural and structural expressions. All three types of Violence as well as their underlying unsolved conflicts are great threats to peace at the micro, meso and macro levels of social organization. What is needed is of course Violence prevention, based on conflict solution literacy and conciliation skills on all levels. In addition to violence prevention, what is required is work towards positive peace. Both practical tasks in peacebuilding require methodological empathy. In this perspective, the ultimate defence of peace is to be found in cosmopolitan structures built on equal and mutually beneficial projects driven by a culture of empathy. Such a culture of empathy would ensure that non-materialistic intrinsic motivations and humane feelings of reciprocity steer political action. For some strange reason, academics shun the relevance of positive emotional resonance in the sphere of political processes, as though humans could act without emotions. The point here is that nothing should stand in the way of empathy leading to the emotional traceability of people’s motives to act. After all, there is nothing objectionable about empathy turning into sympathy for constructive and nonviolent aspirations, when building relationships between human beings across cultures and borders.


Empathy and Cosmopolitanism: Prerequisites for Peace

A plethora of theoretical frameworks and Weltanschauungen exist for describing the worlds’ interrelated political system. Often an intellectual spectrum is constructed, the antipodes of which are referred to as realist and liberal perspectives, the erroneous implication of which is that realists are more objective and liberals more normative. Irrespective of these denominations, the case made herein is that with more applied methodological empathy, the world would be more peaceful. This stance may most clearly have been echoed by the intellectual framework of Cosmopolitanism, as empathy seems to be the latent underlying assumption carrying its theoretical framework. In what follows, the prominent relevance of empathy within the framework of cosmopolitanism shall be examined.

Cosmopolitanism, much like peace studies in a Galtungian key, puts the human being at the centre of its focus instead of the state. And contrary to Neo-realism and Neo-liberalism, national interests and capitalist benefits are no longer the towering priorities but human health and wellbeing. The human-centred framework of Cosmopolitanism is an unashamedly normative theory, which consists of moral and ethical values and insists in a somewhat anthropocentric tone, that the welfare of the whole species is most important (Held, 2003). It advocates for the “world citizen” and a global identiy/community, which ultimately overcomes geographical space and time. This doesn’t entail giving up on diversity or homogenizing the citizens of the world. Rather this approach accounts for the simultaneous existence of diversity and universality among the world’s populations; a perspective in which furthering methodological empathy would invariantly contribute to reducing and dismantling discrimination and racism because it deliberately builds on similarities instead of focusing on disturbing differences. This approach – irrespective of cultural, religious and geographical diversity – suggests building a global community by focusing on equality and impartiality (Sanders, 2010) beyond borders an understanding is echoed at the Galtung-Institut through its programmatic embrace of the “Global Domestic Politics” research framework.


Empathy beyond state level politics

The Cosmopolitanism framework calls on civil society actors to gain agency for international and interstate political levels (Held, 2003). The key point being to build on humanity’s shared identity as the core item on the agenda of such social movements & associations advocating against inequalities and human rights violations at the global level. As mentioned above, there is a need for empathy to be applied not only at the micro-level, but also at the meso-level between societies and at the macro-level between states and their many nations. Currently, civil society institutions or organizations in the inter-state political context have little influence and hardly any impact. The United Nations, particularly the United Nations Security Council, should not be seen as a representation of civil societies internationally but more as an association of states supporting each other’s sovereignty instead of focusing on the human needs of their populations, a job much better carried out by the non-political UN organizations like the World Food Programme or the United Nations Development Programme.

Applying empathy methodologically at the state level would require states to not only acquire a sophisticated understanding of what contradictions other states are experiencing within their jurisdiction, but also to identify where they would need assistance and most importantly how those particular governments would want to be supported in assisting their societies best. Any kind of political intervention after systematic empathic deliberation would most certainly exclude military forces intervening to solve social ills and certainly rule out overthrowing regimes under the guise of human security. Rather, governments may be convinced to see more value added in elicitive mediation and humanitarian assistance in fulfilling basic human needs.

In summary, Cosmopolitanism doesn’t reject the existence of states, but it emphasizes the importance of including more actors in the international community. The framework names civil social movements, networks, NGOs or individuals (Held, 2003) as new actors who ought to gain more prominence. Though civil society hasn’t gained enough binding political influence yet, there is a growing number of movements attached to global causes. There are numerous forms in which individuals are uniting and again, empathy is the strong connecting force. Kaldor (2003) elaborates “two-way street” transnational civic networks between the so called south and north, where social movements in the north campaign on behalf of southern challenges. Southern civil society becomes the agenda setter and northern civil society uses their access to funds, media or attention to address inequality and human rights violations (Kaldor, 2003). Without an understanding of empathy which entails more than enlightened self-interest, this kind of cooperation is hardly viable, because one has to understand the complexity of the context and of the struggles being advocated.



To conclude, the capacity to consciously and carefully express our respective inner motives and aspirations in intercultural dialogues can help reduce our respective “Otherness” to each other. Making sure that all interaction enables involved interlocutors to understand where they come from – beyond their spatial attachments -, what norms and morals they are driven or bound by and what they imagine are viable contributions to peace may well be humanity’s best bet at uncovering similarities rather than differences in order to allow us all to see one another as equal citizens of one world. The point made here is to create the possibility for people to relate to each other as the genuinely complex humans they are, by giving them the opportunity to share their experiences and by listening deeply to their moral positions and Weltanschauungen.

As an illustration, due to US bombing campaigns in the Middle-East, the number of people seeking for asylum in Germany has increased tremendously over the past few years. Harmonizing relations between (1) Germany as a host country (2) its citizens and (3) refugees has become a high stakes political challenge. A careful prognosis: Were the war affected people given more room to share personal stories of what they have been through to (a) a large audience in the public sphere on (b) a regular basis, the level of empathetic insight towards them might well rise and as a consequence, political decisions by the German government to increase assistance for them may well be received with less animosity by the German population at large. Alas, there are no measures currently being implemented which would amplify the dissemination of their subjective narratives about their plight. As a matter of fact, based on first-hand experience from humanitarian work and refugee assistance in different European countries as well as on insights from the Galtung-Institut’s integration consultancy programme “Von der Willkommenskultur zur Willkommenspraxis”, it is the authors’ understanding, that multiplying and increasing the visibility of such subjective narratives can significantly reduce the likelihood of xenophobia, hatred and prejudice in the host countries.

Hence, bringing members of different nations together for respectful dialogue while creating bonding- and confidence-building experiences seems a highly practical approach to crafting a more empathic and why not also a more caring world. Ultimately, the most radically useful way to foster empathy in our societies throughout the world, is to start teaching how to apply and exercise it in Kindergarten, where children at a young age can learn to recognize, resist, overcome and transcend polarization in constructive ways, just as is currently being done via TRANSCEND International’s SABONA School-Project Group in Norway, where Peace Education with a strong focus on empathy-literacy is offered to children as young as 4 years old.



Galtung, J. (2003). Cultural Peace: Some Characteristics. Retrieved 06.10.2017, from

Held, D. (2003). Cosmopolitanism: globalisation tamed. British International Studies Association.

Kaldor, M. (2003). Social Movements, NGOs and Networks. In K. Mary, Global Civil Society – an Answer to War. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 9780745627588

Rifkin, J. (2009). The Empathic Civilization. New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 9781585427659

Sanders, J. (2010). Cosmopolitanism as a Peace Theory. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195334685



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