On Sympathy

In the war of ideas, the philosophy of personal identity is gradually giving way to the science of human motivation. As we come to a fuller understanding of how and why we tick, from neurological, evolutionary, and ethological perspectives, the puzzles of personal identity that have perplexed thinkers since Locke’s day become less puzzling. In this journey from paradox to plain understanding, perhaps the most important single step is to abandon the idea that anticipation of experience is rationally required.

Giving up that idea is like giving up geocentrism—the belief that motion is defined with reference to the unmoving earth. When people started to see the earth as just another moving object, man was displaced from the centre of the universe. Many were unsettled and alarmed by this idea. Those with a vested interest in the status quo actively suppressed the Copernican revolution. But the idea has proven itself. We now find it liberating and empowering, no longer a threat. It has given us a better understanding of the real world, and has helped enable useful technologies.

Giving up the idea that one’s relationship to oneself is privileged—that self-interested action is sanctioned by a special class of prudential reasons which have no application to one’s actions on behalf of other people—boots the self from its central position in the rational arena. When we see how things are, that anticipation of future experience is just something we do—not justified by any special relation between us and our future selves, because the relations we have to our future selves are the same kinds of relations we have to other people—then our strongly-motivating self-concern no longer has the whip hand. We can take charge of our own motivation.

But we will do so only if we make a concerted effort to break old habits of thought. Self-concern comes as easily as breathing. That sinking feeling when you read bad news about a company in which you just bought stock. The urge to belittle a rival in a social situation. The temptation to help oneself to a bigger piece of pie. Such impulses, which are part of our evolutionary heritage, will not disappear just because we know, intellectually, that they are irrational. Knowing they are irrational is just a good start.

Just as important is to keep an alternative attitude ready to be deployed as a substitute for self-concern. Without another motivational attitude to fill the void, a mere theoretical understanding will fail to keep the hounds of self-concern at bay. I have suggested that a substitute for strongly motivational self-concern can be found in the more weakly motivational attitude of sympathetic concern.

Sympathy as a Way of Life

I recommend giving up self-concern and substituting sympathetic concern for yourself. To appreciate what that means, you have to try it.

First, think of yourself in the future as you would think of another person in a situation similar to yours—a friend, or someone you love, or even someone you don’t know personally but of whom you mostly approve. Sympathetic concern for friends, and people we love, and people we approve of, comes readily to most of us.

Then extend that attitude of sympathy to yourself, as you imagine yourself. Feel towards yourself as you do towards those other people. Allow the emotions of sympathetic concern to displace the more strident, insistent, emotions of self-concern.

Then, ask yourself whether you really need self-concern. If you are a caring person, wouldn’t sympathy be enough to motivate you to look out for your own interests, as you look out for the interests of other people you care about?

Perhaps you think sympathy is not enough; it is too weak a motivator. Ask yourself then if it only seems weak because self-concern is stronger. If self-concern were pulled from the game, would sympathetic concern still be too weak?  If a person’s self-concern is out of action, he’ll be motivated by whatever is left to motivate him. Sympathetic concern will own the field, and therefore should be motivation enough.

The first step—thinking of yourself as you would think of a friend in a similar situation—may pose a problem at the outset for people who don’t love, like, or approve of themselves. If you are unsympathetic to persons similar to yourself because you find such people unlikeable, you may find it challenging to muster sympathetic concern for yourself. If so, I suggest, first, cutting yourself some slack, and then, perhaps, trying to imitate people you do like. If you want to like yourself better, imitating people you like is not a bad rule of thumb. And liking yourself is more agreeable than disliking yourself.

Cutting yourself some slack may also be appropriate if you apply higher standards to yourself than to other people. If you are that sort of person, you are likely to have more sympathy for others than for yourself. One effect of substituting sympathetic concern for self-concern, in your case, will probably be that you cut yourself some slack  (Alternatively, you may begin to hold others to a higher standard. In either case, you start to measure yourself and others by the same standard.)

Whether sympathetic concern for yourself is or is not motivation enough, if you genuinely substitute sympathetic concern for self-concern, your behaviour will change. You will stop sweating the small stuff of self-concern. You will likely spend less energy on personal security. Risks to yourself, particularly risks with low probability and ones further in the future, will seem less threatening. Risks to others, and general risks to everyone’s well-being, whether immediate or distant, will appear, relatively, more important. Twenty-two-year-olds who substitute sympathy for anticipation will be less concerned about contributing to their retirement savings plans, and more concerned to prevent the more devastating consequences of letting carbon emissions to the atmosphere continue unchecked.

Competition with Other People

In describing anticipation as dysfunctional in today’s world, I remarked, “These days, the strong emotions of anticipation primarily motivate human beings to compete with each another, more than with other species.”  Someone might reply that anticipation is necessary because of the intra-species struggle which we are all engaged in, whether we like it or not. If we are to thrive in a world in which others, driven by self-concern, are striving all-out to maximize their personal advantage, we must allow ourselves to be driven by self-concern too. Those who do not will lose this Darwinian competition, ceding the field to the most selfish.

This objection demands a fuller answer than I can give here. The competition of human beings with one another has only intensified as we have become more successful as a species and numbers have grown. The outlook for this Hobbesian struggle isn’t pretty. However, there is strong scientific evidence—to be explored in upcoming posts—that natural selection favours cooperative traits as well as competitive ones in social species like our own. The most competitive, least cooperative human beings are not the likeliest to propagate their genes.

There is ample evidence to support the charge that self-concern is dysfunctional for our species as a collective unit. We are heading off a cliff. Population growth, combined with relentless striving for personal advantage, has brought about an unsustainable situation. I cannot buy the argument that in order to keep up with my colleague in the next cubicle I must be as fiercely competitive as he is, because I am convinced that, if he and I, and the rest of us, continue as we are, we will all suffer great loss.

Although that great loss may not come within my own lifetime, that is no comfort to me, because—since I now realize that anticipation of future experience is irrational—my own values are not tightly linked to my biological life.

It seems there are two possible outcomes: either most of us continue to be driven by self-concern until the inevitable catastrophe occurs, or—looking ahead and seeing the direction we are heading—most of us change course and embrace a different way of life. Put that way, it looks unlikely that we will change, in sufficient numbers, in time. Certainly there hasn’t been much sign of it yet. It seems likelier that the disaster will overtake us.

What then? Inevitably, a sharp drop in population numbers. Possibly, if the environmental disruptions are too violent, a drop to zero.

Planet of the Rats

If self-concern brings about the extinction of our species, we will take many other species with us, but not all species. Life will remain on this planet, and natural selection will continue to do its work, perhaps eventually producing another species with dexterous hands, a language capable of propagating ideas, and the ability to imagine (and fear, and long for) the future. Perhaps it will be a species descended from rats (which have adapted well to environments shaped by human beings, especially to decayed structures rich in detritus and garbage). This species, Rattus sapiens, may, like us, turn out to be endowed with full-blown self-concern, which may contribute to its success in the evolutionary struggle.

Unlike us, the rat archaeologists and paleontologists of the future will have access to a record of artifacts and fossils telling the story of a species who went before them, and who died (unwillingly if not unwittingly) by their own hand. With this benefit of hindsight, the more reflective and sober rat-people may be able to chart a different course for themselves, so as to avoid repeating this evolutionary tragedy. “Tragedy” is the right word—the story has the classic elements of a story in which the hero owes his triumphal success to a trait of character (a ‘flaw’) which, in the end, proves fatal to him.

I would rather not invest all my hopes for the future in trusting the wisdom of our rodent inheritors, millions of years hence. There is a decent chance that some human beings will survive, giving our species a second chance. After all, human beings have proven themselves to be highly adaptable to hostile environments. Very few species besides ourselves (and rats) can live in conditions ranging from equatorial deserts to the sunless winters of the north. I’m hopeful that some of us, by exploiting the wealth of resources left by their deceased cousins, will manage to hang on, survive and have babies. If they do, they may also preserve a significant fragment of our intellectual heritage. That, combined with sharply reduced competitive pressures, will put them in a favoured position to chart a new course.

Still preferable to this scenario, of course, is the one in which we come to our senses in sufficient numbers, soon enough to veer away from the catastrophe, or at least from its full impact.

Whichever of these three scenarios becomes reality, the argument that each of us should embrace a life-style driven by self-concern, because it helps us compete, carries little weight. The stark choice that each of us faces is to continue to be part of the problem, or to be part of what could become a solution.


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One Response to “On Sympathy”

  1. Claudia says:

    Hi Gordon,
    When I read that anticipation of future experience is not rationally required, I balk. Of course, it is! And then I remember that there is a long chain of reasoning that gets you here–the puzzle cases in which it seems equally rational to anticipate being a certain person and not anticipating being her. Anticipation requires an element of decision, it is not demanded by the facts…But it is so hard to keep all this in mind. And when put against the sharp insistence of self concern, it seems such a will o wisp!

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