Self-Concern as Motive

We are strongly motivated to promote the interests of anyone for whom we feel self-concern.  We are moved to prevent that person’s suffering, to work towards his or her well-being.  Motivation seems part of self-concern’s essential core.

A focus on motivation suggests that self-concern is primarily future-directed. We know we cannot change the past, and do not normally try.  But of course, our attitudes towards the past, as well as the future, are infected with self-concern.  Most events I remember in my own past are coloured by pride or shame, personal joy or pain.  Most of my memories of my own life have associated emotions which are qualitatively distinct from my memories of other people’s lives, and of events to which I had no personal connection.

Our mental models of reality include both past and future.  We imagine both (not always accurately).  But the imagined past is labelled, in our models, as fixed, beyond help.  The imagined future (and there are many) is flagged as possible.  The past is manifest, fixed, immutable.  The future is unmanifest, mutable, a realm of possibilities not actualities.  The ‘flow of time’ might be described as the production of the actual from the possible.

Self-Concern Directed Towards the Past

Our memories of accomplishments and failings are often tinged with pride or shame.  The events we are proud of remind us of the kind of person we aspire to be.  The acts we are ashamed of seem characteristic of persons we would prefer not to resemble.  Although directed towards the past, pride and shame clearly are motivational, affecting our behaviour just as do future-oriented emotions like hope and fear.  The effect of past-directed emotions is just somewhat less direct.

Memory has a huge influence on the choices we make.  If a present or anticipated situation reminds us of something we experienced in the past, memory is the guide which  helps us repeat successes and avoid repeating mistakes.  A memory of success encourages me to believe that I can succeed in a similar situation, and also helps shape my behaviour similarly to my successful past behaviour.  Memories of pain, and memories of actions I am ashamed of, strongly inhibit any tendency I may have to act as I did previously.

Some memories once were emotionally charged, but are no longer so.  Memories to which we have become indifferent are ones we have ceased to ‘own’ – memories of ‘past selves’ so distant we no longer identify with them, no longer appropriate their experiences.   Why would the emotional associations of a memory fade?   One reason is that we feel we have changed.   Our attitudes and values are different than they were long ago when the memory was laid down.  Although we may recognize psychological continuity between those remote persons and our present selves, the path is so long and contains so many changes of direction that psychological connectedness is missing.  The changes are too great.

I think back to certain indiscretions of my youth, at age twenty.  I have not committed indiscretions of that nature since.  That is partly because my circumstances have changed, putting me at lower risk of similar temptations.  More importantly, I have changed.  Even if my circumstances changed again to ones closer to my circumstances at age twenty, I don’t think I would make the same mistakes.  I think my character is more fully formed, more consistent, less easily distorted by events.  I have thought through more moral positions.  I have more experience of the world and of people, including, of course, myself; I believe I am less liable to self-deception.  I could be wrong, of course; but that is what I think.

I have not become indifferent to my earlier life.  I still blush to remember my bad behaviour at age twenty; it is not just like thinking about someone else’s indiscretions.  But neither is it the vivid shame I would feel if I had done such things last week.

If I look back further:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1st Corinthians, 13:11)

  • I remember deliberately dropping a window sash weight on the toe of a friend, while he lay on my bed innocuously reading comics.  I don’t remember being angry with him (although I had been on other occasions); I did it more in an experimental spirit.  Naturally, he took retribution.
  • In a game I suggested to a friend with a mental disability, I won all his hockey cards.  I complained of injustice when my mother made me give them back.
  • My mother gave me presents on almost any occasion.  I turned each such occasion into a ‘tradition.’  I remember, in the car, reminding her of a dozen or so such occasions for which she ‘owed’ me a present.  She was (understandably) angry.

Thus I can remember several incidents where my behaviour and attitudes fit the profile of a ‘spoiled kid,’ one notably disinclined to see things from another person’s point of view.

Why have I remembered these incidents?  They aren’t my only memories from childhood; others are more positive.  Those three were all character-forming in some way; I noticed the effects of my attitudes and actions, and didn’t like what I saw.  I dwelt on them; revisited them; and may have changed a little.

I think that if I now knew a kid like I was, on those occasions, I wouldn’t like him much.

Do I think of that kid as myself?  Yes.  I know I do because I still hesitate to admit that these events occurred.  I worry that someone will think badly of me; perhaps conclude that I have a bad character even now, after more than fifty years and countless experiences, careers and a family.  But leaving that possibility aside – assuming that no one who reads this will tar me, now, with the brush of my seven, eight, or nine-year-old self – what do I think, and feel, about these unfortunate events?

What I think, echoing Paul, is that they were childish things to do, and I have outgrown such behaviour.  In maturation, my attitudes and motives have changed.  I no longer covet the possessions of others, much; I have plenty of possessions of my own.  More than enough; I know the oppressiveness of possessions.  I also try not to hurt other people, unless they abuse their own power and deserve to be brought down a notch.

What I feel about those incidents is more complicated.  They are still vivid in my imagination, like warning signs:  “Danger – keep away!”   Does that mean the emotions underlying my juvenile behaviour still lurk, ready to sway me at an unwary moment?  Or are these memories just a old fence protecting the chicken coop from a fox that died  years ago?  I honestly don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters.   Whether or not the original risk remains, my aversion to these remembered incidents still influences and shapes my present behaviour.  I do not wish to act in ways that remind me of how I acted then.

And past achievements I am proud of set a standard for me to live up to, as well as providing encouragement that I can succeed in similar tasks I set for myself.

Future-directed self-concern sets goals and motivates us to pursue them; past-directed self-concern largely determines which paths we follow.  But past-directed self-concern can also set goals.  If one is proud of a past achievement, then maintaining that standard becomes a goal in itself – until one reaches the point of allowing oneself to retire from the fray.  One can, perhaps, retain pride in having once maintained a standard; but that’s criticized, rightly, as “resting on one’s laurels.”  Out of respect for the old, we give them credit for past achievements of which they are no longer capable; and we honour the war veteran who is now hors de combat.

Still, our motivation is always future-directed, because we cannot change the past.  We can only represent or misrepresent the past: reveal, conceal or distort.  We largely create the future.

The goals we aim for are, necessarily, in the future.  For most of us, a preponderance of those goals are driven by self-concern.  Our experience is, necessarily, of the past.  Most of the events we remember involve ourselves as central figures; and usually in some way that is charged with the emotions of self-concern.

Besides incidents of pride and shame, what else do we tend to remember of our past lives?   Occasions of great pain; and even more so, of fear.  Significant satisfactions and joys.  Actions requiring courage.  Anger; conflicts with others.   Important breakthroughs, including, notably, falling in love.  Milestones like deaths, births, and weddings.  Where we were and how we felt when we first learned of world-changing events: my list includes the Kennedy assassination, Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon’s surface, and 9/11.  And thousands of incidents of no clear significance retained for no apparent purpose – a slow dance with a friend’s cousin in her grandparents’ basement recroom; a friend falling off his bike and hitting his head on the curb (in the days before bike helmets); the smell of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes; making and hanging Christmas garlands of red and green construction paper; a risky, rainy canoe trip when my daughter was two; lining the field for my son’s Saturday-morning soccer games; giving software training to railway personnel who only spoke Hungarian, after consuming a tumbler of whiskey in the Chief Engineer’s office.  All, I suppose, charged with some emotional content.  All to some extent actual or potential motivators.  The countless, humdrum experiences which would not motivate me now – like what I had for lunch a week ago today, the weather on this date last year – are not retained.

Why Don’t We Feel ‘Self-Concern’ for Others?

Because self-concern is motivational, it shapes the future we make for ourselves.  One reason we withhold the attitudes and emotions of self-concern from others, even others we love, is that we do not consider that we have the right to determine their future.

For me to feel emotions phenomenologically similar to self-concern for the future of my friend, would be for me to be motivated to look after his interests just as I look after my own.  If I perceived him to be at risk, I would fear his danger as I would fear my own, and would be moved to intervene to prevent it.

As things are, I am unlikely to intervene directly.  I voice my worries to my friend, and suggest ways in which he could mitigate the danger, but that is about all.  To go further would be to inflict an indignity, to deny him the autonomy of an adult.

Sometimes we may go that far, for an adult friend.  If my friend lost his job, drank himself silly, then proposed to drive home, I would take away his keys by force.  He might be angry with me.  Even though I would be denying his right to self-determination, I would consider my action justified because of his temporary incapacity.

If he were not incapacitated, I would not have the right to do this.  But of course, I have the right to lock my own car keys away where I can’t get them, preventing myself from driving.  In general – with a nod to Mill’s On Liberty – I have the right to make decisions that primarily affect my own life, and my friend has the right to determine his life.  For the most part, the system of autonomous self-government works well for adults.  If we endorse it, then feeling something like self-concern for other adults is inappropriate because it is too strongly motivating.  I may care about the fortunes and misfortunes of others; indeed, I ought to care.  But it is not appropriate for me to be agonized by your present pain, or for you to dread the potential misery you imagine my future holds if I continue down my present path.  I can be of more use to you if I am sympathetic than paralyzed.  If  I am heading towards a cliff, I will appreciate your word of warning; but I don’t want you, acting out of terror, to physically restrain me.  Unlike you, I may be used to walking on cliff edges.  If I judge I am in real danger, I will restrain myself.   If I misjudge, that is my mistake; then either I die, or I learn something.

Our attitudes to minors are more complicated.  When our children are young, we physically restrain them, as would any responsible parent.  We also have a responsibility to teach them.  As we teach our children to understand the consequences of their actions, we gradually relinquish control.

In the West, a high value is placed on autonomy.  A goal of child-rearing is to raise an adult who makes decisions for her own life – chooses her career, her mate, her values.

Parents in Western countries try to instill their more important values in their children.  This is part of education.  They invite their children to consider how their life would be if they do, or do not, adopt certain values.  “Do you want to be successful?  If so, you must work hard,” they admonish.  “Do you really want to marry someone who’s not your intellectual equal?”  “Would you want to live in a world in which people couldn’t trust each other?”    Ultimately, the child decides to adopt the implied values, or not.

Some other cultures place more value on control of children by parents, even of wives by husbands.  Children are not allowed to choose their own life partners, or their own values.  In extreme cases, children are murdered by their parents for disobedience.  A patriarch feels his daughter’s disobedience as personal dishonour; he is ashamed of it.  The motivational aspect of such parents’ attitudes towards their children resembles self-concern.  (Considered another way, the same attitudes seem much less like self-concern; a controlling patriarch does not anticipate having his daughter’s experiences.)

Emotional feeling towards someone, without a corresponding motivation to act, seems hollow, fake – imagined feeling rather than the real thing.  Motivation to change a person’s future, without sympathetic feeling, is power-hunger, an impulse towards enslavement.  Self-concern is characterized by both sympathy and motivation.

But so is love.  The difference between self-concern (or self-love) and love for others is the difference between the experience of pain and sympathetic feeling for another’s pain.  It is the difference between anticipation of pain and sympathetic feeling for another’s expected pain.  What is that difference?

Elements of Self-Concern: Motivation and Anticipation

Being motivating is a necessary condition of self-concern.  It is not sufficient.  A parent may be motivated as strongly to act in her child’s interests as in her own, or even more strongly.  She may be more distressed by her child’s pain than by her own.  She may have an equal or greater emotional investment in her child’s future than in her own.  A threat to the child may electrify her more than a threat to herself, and inspire more courageous actions to combat the danger.  On all measures, her motivation on behalf of her child may exceed her motivation on her own behalf.  Therefore it seems unlikely that motivation is the sole defining characteristic of self-concern.

Parents do not claim to feel their children’s pain directly, or to anticipate having their children’s experiences.  Besides motivation, anticipation appears to be another necessary component of future-directed self-concern.  Anticipation of experience was stressed by Ray Martin in his book Self-Concern.

What about self-concern directed towards the present?  A child falls and skins his knee.  The mother may be as distressed by her child’s pain as she would be by her own.  Very likely more so.  If mother and child fall together and each skins a limb, we would not be surprised to see the mother ignore her own pain and injury in order to comfort the child.  She is strongly motivated to lessen the child’s pain and help it to feel better.  Yet the mother does not feel the child’s throbbing knee; and she does (if she pays attention) feel the searing pain in her own elbow.

Since the normal cause of pain is an injury to the organism, it is felt by the person whose organism it is, and not by anyone else.  Different people are not neurally connected in a way that would allow that to happen.  Self-concern is often associated with somatic sensations, pleasant and unpleasant.

Things might have been different.  If we were creatures like the Na’vi in the film Avatar, who join their nervous systems at will, a mother could connect her neural queue to her child’s and experience his body from a first-person perspective.  The experience might be rather like having two bodies, while the connection lasts, although perhaps without having full motor control over the child’s body.  The experience might include the pain in the child’s knee.  This is not difficult to imagine.

The Na’vi’s ability to share experience from a first-person perspective does not entail any blurring of the distinction between persons.  The pain is still the child’s pain; but the mother feels it too.  Before connecting the braids to establish the neural connection, she may also anticipate feeling the child’s pain.  If the injury is severe – an amputated foot instead of a skinned knee – she may worry whether she’ll be able to bear the child’s pain.  She might choose not to connect, perhaps in order to better perform her parental duty in caring for her injured child; or perhaps just from fear of experiencing the intense pain; or both.

There is no particular mystery about present pain.  The difference to me between your pain and my own – a vivid difference, in the ordinary case – is explained by the fact that there is no Na’vi-like neural connection that exposes me to your pain.  The facts of human physiology make your pain, in one important sense, ‘private’.

Pain imagined in the future is a different story.  As in the case of present pain, the difference between pain I anticipate having, and pain I expect you to have, is vivid.   But it is not explained by anything like a direct neural connection between myself, now, and myself in the future, experiencing pain.

If I drink too much, I may anticipate having the pain of a hangover tomorrow.  If my friend gets drunk, I expect that he will suffer from a hangover; this may cause me sympathetic distress.  What’s the difference?

Both conditions – anticipation of pain, and sympathetic expectation of another’s pain – may be motivational.  Anticipation of the pain and disfunction I would experience if I got drunk may be (very likely would be, these days) enough to deter me from drinking too much.  My expectation that my friend will have a horrible hangover, combined with the sympathy that comes with friendship, may motivate me to try to persuade him he’s had enough, to change the subject of conversation from his difficulties at work to something less painful, or lead him out of the bar for a walk in the fresh air.  What’s the difference between my self-directed anticipation and motivation, and the expectation and motivation I direct towards my friend?

Anticipation of experience is often, although not always, more strongly motivational than sympathetic expectation.  Moreover, it has special phenomenological qualities, which are associated with special neurological mechanisms and corresponding somatic symptoms.  I will start to explore these in the next post.

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