Monday, May 14, 2007

How Selfless Can We Be (and Still Care about Others)? (by guest blogger Justin Tiwald)

Let's say that I am a person who cares very little about his own well-being. I am content with my humble job and my austere apartment. But let's say I also aspire to be the sort of person who sympathizes with a friend when she loses her good job and her family home. Is it possible to be both of these things at once?

I take sympathy to require, among other things, an ability to simulate the significant thoughts and feelings that the friend would have in her particular circumstances. This generally requires the possession of relevantly similar desires (even if not desires for exactly the same types of objects or states of affairs). And this poses a problem for the person who wants very little for himself, especially if good jobs and homes are among those things that he doesn't want.

This sort of worry emerges from time to time in the literature on Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Like many strong proponents of selfless character, Zhu Xi wants to have his cake and eat it too: he'd like his ideal moral agents to have very little interest in their own well-being and yet be capable of great compassion. Zhu's defenders usually respond by saying that he isn't so strong a proponent of asceticism as one might think. They point to many overlooked passages in which he explicitly countenances desires for basic human goods like food and family. Put these together, they conclude, and we could well have desires for a reasonably good life.

I've never been satisfied with this move. Defenders of Zhu Xi are right to point out that his ideal moral agent desires things like food and family, but they don't pay sufficient attention to why she desires them. It's one thing if she desires them because they make her life better, but it's another thing entirely if she desires them independently of their contribution to her life. In the first case she desires things that benefit her under that description. In the second case she desires things that happen to benefit her. Zhu Xi permits us to desire things that happen to be good for us, but, he warns, we better not want them because they are good for us.

This strikes me as omitting the largest share of the human good. When my friend loses her home and career, surely a substantial part of her anguish depends upon the thought that her life has taken a turn for the worse. In general, most people want their lives to go well. Knowing that one's life is on an upward trajectory is itself a source of great satisfaction, and knowing that it is not is itself a source of despair. If I am so selfless as to be entirely without desires that my life go well, I'm not going to be a particularly good at feeling the pain of those who do.

Many proponents of moral selflessness turn out to be ascetics of the more subtle kind that I find in Zhu Xi. While they might appear to condemn all desires for outcomes that are self-serving, on closer examination they turn out to condemn primarily those desires that are conscientiously self-serving. This characterization of the good moral agent strikes me as much more realistic, but it still falls well short of what is required for robust sympathetic concern.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting post, Justin! I've been reading Marcus Aurelius recently and having a similar reaction. If you don't think losing one's career is a bad thing, mightn't that interfere with your ability to have compassion for those who do?

On the other hand, I wonder if the picture of sympathy here is a little egoistic -- as though concern for others had to be rooted in concern for oneself, via imagining oneself in another's position. I am suspicious of such a picture. It's strange to suppose, for example, that the mother is concerned for the newborn only because she imagines herself in the newborn's shoes, as it were.

Justin Tiwald said...

Thanks, Eric! This is a good point and I'm glad you pushed me on this.

I didn't make it clear in the post, but I think some instances of sympathy require less egoism than others. In some cases the mother's sympathy for her infant isn't dependent on egoism at all. If the infant is upset, it's most likely because she is hungry, cold, uncomfortable, etc. These are bads whose badness we can appreciate without imagining what it would be like to want one's own life to go well. So it's enough that we (and the mother) know what it's like to hunger for food, warmth, or comfort.

On the other hand, if the mother is concerned about the well being of the infant across the infant's whole life (e.g., when she's worried about the long-term damage the brain surgery might do), then I think she really will need to be able to imagine what the infant would want in light of more egoistic and adult-like sensibilities. This tends to sound odd because we sometimes think the point of sympathy is just to mirror the states of mind of the person we sympathize with. But I prefer forms of sympathy that tend more toward the "ideal judge" variety. For example, if I'm sympathizing with someone whose partner is, unbeknownst to him, a complete philanderer, I wouldn't just want to model the states of mind he has. I would want to model the states of mind he would have if he were in the know.

Brad C said...

Hi Justin,

Great post!

I want to push you on the importance of sympathizing with a friend in this case - in the sense of feeling pain when someone else fails to get an external good that they want and which they think they need to get to maintain their well-being.

How about adopting this view as a response to the challenge you pose in the first paragraph:

(1) Take the view that well-being is a matter of what kind of person one is and that that is independent of external fortune, except in an instrumental sense (this is roughly the stoic line).

(2) When your friend loses a job, you should try to get him/her to understand this and to see that she has not really been harmed, so there is less reason to be upset than she initially thought.

(3) Endorse the importance of external goods as a means to becoming the best kind of person (character shaping is a practice after all).

(4) If the external good lost is instrumentally a detriment to one's well-being (which is internal, so to speak) then one has reason to be upset. This is true in the Sage's case as well as in the friend of the Sage's case - so sympathy is endorsed in this sort of case - the sage will just try to get the friend to see the real reason to be upset.

(5) The Sage might also feel bad for the friend if the friend has a disposition to feel unwarranted distress, as the result of the friend's conviction that her well-being is constituted by external goods.

This sympathy is justified from the Sage's point of view because the friend is actually worse off as a result of being ignorant of what her well-being actually consists in. In other words having a true view of what one's well-being consists in (and having that view embodied in one's emotional reactions and actions - Eric might pack those into the conditions of full-belief) is a necessary condition for being the best kind of person.

(6) It seems to me that this sage is a True friend - one that (a) tries to help their friend see what is really important, (b) shares in their grief when justified and (c) feels bad for the suffering and real harm their friends are enduring as a result of their ignorance.


Justin Tiwald said...

Hi Brad,

I knew I could count on you for a thought-provoking response! You really have a nice way of identifying the various kinds of harms that are worthy of sympathy, despite their being dependent on external fortune. I confess I'm attracted to the view that the friend really shouldn't worry so much about losing her job. And this puts in doubt the proposal I should be sympathizing with her misery in the first place, except in the derivative ways that you highlight.

Interestingly enough, I'm not sure that the Stoics would call for real sympathy in this situation. Faux sympathy seems to be their preferred response. Epictetus says that when you come across a sobbing person who has just lost a member of his family you should cry on the outside but remain unmoved on the inside. In contrast, Zhu Xi, whom I criticize in this post, thinks you really should cry on the inside. So your line of argument works better as a defense of Zhu Xi than of the Stoics!

At the end of the day, though, I'm worried more about the case of not wanting your own good under that description than the case of not wanting a good career. What's distinctive about the human good, as opposed to various animal goods, is that the largest part of it comes from concern about one's own well-being as such. So for example the good of having a decent place to live consists somewhat in the comfort it provides, but mostly in the assurance that this comfort fits into a bigger picture of how one thinks one's life ought to go (for one's own sake).

Of course, by saying that our well-being consists in satisfying my desires for a good life, I'm still holding human well-being hostage to external fortune. But at least external fortune doesn't have quite the same grip here as in the case of wanting a good career. I can lose my chance at a good career and still find other ways of having a good life. My well-being isn't contingent on having a good career alone.

Michael Shellenberger said...

Cool site! This is my first time here.

In answer to the question, "How selfless can we be and still care about others?" I think I would answer, "Not very."

I like this thread because I think it signals the ways in which philosophy has attempted to move beyond the old ascetic and religious moralisms that valorize weakness, sickness, and timidity. All of this may explain your appreciation of Nietzsche, who obviously hated that reversal of older Roman morality.

There's a lovely quote from the new political science chair at Johns Hopkins, Jane Bennett, that I've taken to quoting:

"If popular psychological wisdom has it that you have to love yourself before you can love another, my story suggests that you have to love life before you can care about anything. The wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others."

I have a book coming out which argues that there is very strong evidence that people must get lower, basic, material needs like sustenance and security met before they can care about things like, say, global warming. Caring about global warming requires caring about others (human and nonhumans) and even the not yet born. The reason that concern about global warming is higher among upper-middle class environmentalists than Chinese peasants is because the former have more than met their basic needs.

I don't know current philosophical debates, but I have observed that there has been interaction between neuroscientists and philosophers. Is there similiar interaction between philosophers and social psychologists and sociologists?

Thanks for letting me join in the discussion!

Justin Tiwald said...


Thanks for your great comments. The quotation you take from Jane Bennett is excellent.

I suspect I would agree with much of your book. It sounds like you are advocating something along the lines of "hierarchy of needs" view. Those who can't meet their basic physiological and psychological needs are simply incapable of caring a great deal about others.

The argument I made focused more on the issue of having self-interested desires than on satisfying those desires. My point was that, at minimum, you should care quite a bit about your own well-being in order to appreciate a range of tragic circumstances when they strike others. One might buy into this and still hold that a person shouldn't act to satisfy those self-interested desires, whereas the hierarchy of needs view (and yours?) also holds that they should be satisfied.

That said, I'm also inclined to agree with your view. In fact, I'd say I am more confident about yours than mine, especially when it comes to issues like global warming. You make a good point about the difficulty of acheiving the kind of care it takes to worry about the issue of global warming. The objects of concern (distant populations, animals, future generations) are quite a bit more abstract than a friend who is visibly distraught.

Hmm. There is indeed a great deal more collaboration between philosophers and neuroscientists than between philosophers and social psychologists or sociologists. Too bad, isn't it?

conrad said...

Good discussion. Selflessness is an ambiguious word; behind it lies the concept of self-interest. As functioning humans we must have self-interest. However, that is not the same as "selfishness." One's self-interest can be essentially internal or external.
Consider the extremes of a self-absorbed Hamlet vs. an outwardly absorbed Don Quixote. (Both are perhaps mad but need they be?)
At the extreme of selflessness we have a model in Jesus, the man.If we're not hung up on extremes we have others in real life (Mother Theresa, for exammple) and in literature (Billy Budd, for example.) Einstein is an example of someone who seemed more interested in life itself and in other humans than in his own creature comforts.
We need models for how to live life and those with an essentially external self-interest provide that.