Friday, May 18, 2007

Sympathy and Self-Love (by guest blogger Justin Tiwald)

The philosopher I work on, Dai Zhen, maintains that sympathy by its very nature requires a strong interest in one's own good. Here is my short synopsis of his argument, pieced together from comments and character glosses. See what you think.

To sympathize with someone, I must care about her for her sake. But this "for her sake" is a tricky concept. It doesn't really count if my concern for someone is grounded in any of her particular properties. Let's say that I care about someone named Mary who is also a great sociologist and an amazing Frisbee golfer. Although this combination of traits may be unique, in principle some other Frisbee golfing sociologist could fit the bill just as well. We wouldn't want a form of care in which one object of concern could be substituted for another. Therefore, we want a form of care that is largely independent of her particular virtues or appealing characteristics.

If concern for Mary's sake must be independent of these properties, then in some sense it has to be unconditional. Or at least it has to have a great deal of counterfactual resiliency. I should care about Mary even if she were a very different kind of person.

Achieving concern of this more unconditional variety is much more difficult than it appears, especially when the object of concern is someone with whom we are barely acquainted. To be able to sympathize with just anyone we have to be capable of appreciating her relevant feelings and desires even if we find them appalling or strange, and we have to consider her suffering regrettable even if we think it deserved or necessary. The best way to do this is to imagine ourselves in the stranger's place, wanting her good as we want our own. There is nothing that comes more naturally than caring about our own well-being as such, and if we imagine ourselves as the stranger, we'll be much more likely to recapture the depth and unconditionality of our own self-concern.

Now to an interesting historical point. In form, this argument runs along some of the same lines as a familiar Confucian argument for preferential love. Very roughly, the Confucian argument is that we show the requisite concern for strangers by building on the natural concern we already have for our parents and siblings. We then model that more natural concern in our interactions with outsiders. However, familial love by its very nature requires that we play favorites--if I cared about strangers as much as I do my brother then my care for my brother wouldn't be familial love. Thus, for the sake of having the right kind of concern for strangers, I must care even more about my family. This might seem unfair to the strangers, but it's just the price we must pay so that I can have the right kind of concern at all.

Dai Zhen takes it one step further. The real foundation for other-directed concern is not familial love but self-love. Self-love is unconditional in a way that natural familial love is not. Children will cease to love their parents if the parents are complete monsters, but we care about ourselves no matter what (even if we think ourselves unworthy). Whenever we are sympathetically concerned for others we are emulating and building on the concern we have for ourselves. Thus (in some very qualified sense) the self comes first. This might seem unfair to everyone else, but this is just the price we must pay in order to have the right kind of concern at all.

[Update: ES, May 22, 8:53 a.m.: Somehow the comments on this post were disabled. I have re-enabled them.]

1 comment:

katy is alive said...

i dont like this way of thinking. haha. or maybe i dont like how its portrayed.

maybe if something about our biological brain were included, id feel better.