“People Who Are Loveable Do Better": Edgar Cahn and the Economics of Empathy

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 10/28/11

Edgar Cahn, an Ashoka Fellow, is the founder of TimeBanks and CareBanks. Founded as a way to involve communities in promoting systems of self-help, TimeBanks offers an alternative currency system to recognize and reward reciprocal contributions of service, and today operates in more than 70 countries worldwide. Considered the father of clinical legal education, Cahn is co-founder of the Antioch School of Law, the first law school in the United States to educate law students primarily through clinical training in legal services to the poor. 

Ashoka recently talked to Cahn as part of an on-going series of interviews designed to explore what empathy is all about, and to uncover specific strategies for cultivating it. 

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Ashoka: What is empathy to you?

Cahn: What you’ve got to understand with empathy is that it has to be linked to one’s own survival. The message that every system is giving is that you need money to survive.

For kids, the closest you have as a medium of exchange is either allowance or grades. Grades and academic credits are a medium, and they’re like money, until kids, as teenagers, learn that when you graduate high school, you can’t get a job, and when you graduate college, you still can’t get a job.

We’re talking bluntly about empathy and the ability of the species to survive: to recognize that our well-being is interdependent with others’.  And we’re getting that message externally, from global warming, from the Internet: connectedness works, and it’s useful. Facebook works when you respond to others’ messages. No one will look at your profile if you don’t look at theirs. 

Ashoka: We have a tendency to see self-interest as a bad thing when it comes to service: If you’re doing it only for the credit hours, chances are you’re not learning much from the experience. How is TimeBanks different?

Cahn: TimeBanking is an explicit way of harnessing self-interest and altruism. When I looked at how TimeBanking would function, I had to deal with the iron law of economics: unless benefit exceeds cost over time, nothing continues.

Is this only useful for people for whom the market has no use—people in the depths of poverty? Would everyone else always choose the cash economy?

There are two kinds of benefit: One is, what can I exchange this for? And the other kind is intrinsic, in the form of self-esteem. Teachers take lower salaries because their self-esteem is based in part on the choice to make the world better. You get psychic income from feeling good about yourself.  

Ashoka: There have been a lot of studies recently about the fact that humans are literally wired for empathy; it is, as you note, core to how we’ve evolved as a species. If empathy is so innate, why hasn’t everyone mastered it already? 

Cahn: The real message of money is that you don’t matter unless you’ve got a marketable skill—one that’s distinct from everyone else’s. Every universal capacity — the qualities that capture our common humanity — is devalued by money. The message that’s unrelentingly poured into us is that you don’t matter unless you’re different and better. 

Ashoka: How do you see that changing? 

Cahn: I think current economics is teaching us that greed and consumption will destroy the planet. Raw self-interest may offer a quick return, but it’ll ultimately lead to a point of no return. 

I started a new law school that was committed to the public interest. We required every student to live with a client family for the first six weeks so they understood there are more important things than exams and class standing.

Students begin law school classes with an essay about an injustice they were witness to, what they would do now, and what they did at the time. Empathy has to be personal, which is why the first day and a half is spent sharing your story. I’m hearing the journey that you took and what guts it took to get you here, and what wisdom you acquired: I’m seeing the quality of the human being living inside that body, which breaks down our self-segregation. 

Ashoka: And it’s working. How do you ensure people take empathy as seriously as their other grades, and the need you mentioned earlier to distinguish ourselves?

Cahn: You couple those experiences with a grading system that leaves you with an “incomplete” until you’ve done community service, and told people your life story. Fifty-three percent of our students are still in public interest law. The nearest to that is Yale at 20 percent, and below that it drops to 5 percent, 3 percent, and less.

We’re creating a peer culture where your relevant realm of approval is different. You’re measured on how you lived up to the ideals you professed when you came into this law school.

Ashoka: What conditions are necessary for that kind of culture to thrive?

Cahn: In order to create trust, you need memory. You protect your credit card rating because if you don’t pay it, it’s a black mark and you can’t extend it.

If I’m only going to meet you once, I can be a predator or play by the golden rule. But if we’re meeting again tomorrow, it’s not in my interest to hurt you. I can’t exploit you tomorrow if I’ve done you in today. If my deeds leave footprints that are known to other people, then I’ll behave well.

In the millions of transactions we’ve seen over 30 years, we’ve only had one case of deception, and that was caught within minutes. It’s not because people are angels — it’s because their actions are picked up. Public shame is nothing if it’s not privately felt. 

Teach people that empathy pays off in subtle but important ways. Kids will be empathetic if that will get them acceptance by their peers or praise from their teachers. People who are lovable do better. It’s that simple.