Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Nature of Sympathy

Recently, at the end of a work day, I parked the company car at a public parking lot. When I exited the car I happened to notice, just in front of the left rear wheel, a curled-up baby mouse. I knelt down and saw that its eyes were closed and it was periodically shivering. I wondered whether I’d struck the mouse with the car, but there was no sign of blood. Perhaps the mouse was cowering before the giant vehicle, as I had only nearly crushed it. More likely the mouse had been abandoned by its mother, since there were no other mice I could see nearby. I wondered whether there was anything I could do to help. But I quickly realized I might do more harm than good, since as soon as I left with the baby, its mother might return to fetch it. Cynically, I reminded myself that the world is cruel, that untold millions of animals everywhere suffer unspeakably, that the mouse might carry some disease, that even if I did somehow rescue it, I’d thereby be depriving some other hungry creature of an easy meal. In any case, I didn’t have the time during the day and night to care for a baby mouse. Later, I checked the internet and there are indeed steps that could be taken to rescue an abandoned mouse, one of which is to drop it off at an animal shelter, which I didn’t think of at the time. In any case, I left the shivering baby to its devices, my rationalizations overcoming a pang of anguish I suffered on the mouse’s behalf. 

The next day, I returned to the car, expecting to see a tiny corpse in front of the wheel, but there was none. Had its mother returned? Had a raccoon gobbled it up during the night? I’d never know.

This raises several issues, but I want to focus on the nature of that spasm of pity that provided the backdrop for my musings on what to do as I stared at the helpless rodent. What exactly is sympathy? The least helpful answer is the rationalist’s, which is that sympathy is in recognition of the golden rule that we feel for others in need because we fear to contradict ourselves. Ethics in that case would be a matter of logic. We ought to help others, because we’re no better than they and we would want to be aided in return or if the situation were reversed. All of this may be so, except that it has nothing to do with logic. Instead, it’s based on the implicit social contract: if I scratch your back, you scratch mine; otherwise, society breaks down and we all lose out. But the free-rider, who takes that chance, violating social expectations such as by accepting a favour but failing to return the good deed, hasn’t acted irrationally by gambling, since the odds are indeed in his or her favour. Society likely won’t crumble as long as the majority dutifully respects the social contract while only a minority has the audacity to be selfish. Indeed, in so far as logic is at issue, unethical behaviour has the merit of being supported by that probabilistic inference. The free-rider (the con artist, sociopath, or criminal) who excels at pretending to care about others or who is protected from the victim’s reprisals, by wealth or social connections, can have the best of both worlds, including society’s protection from the elements and the benefits of enriching herself at everyone else’s expense. Life is short and so a pragmatic decision might well be in favour of selfishness, in which case the Golden Rule is for dupes who are merely lacking in self-confidence.

In any case, even the free-rider may sympathize with a stranger in need, which suggests an evolutionary origin of the emotional reaction at issue. Sympathy for the helpless likely began as an instinct that compelled adults to care for human infants, since the latter happen to be almost entirely defenseless (unlike the young in many other species). An infant’s only defense is to scream or cry when danger approaches and that noise is intolerable to adults, compelling them to aid the baby. This mechanism for protecting the species, by shielding the infants who carry the next generation of genes is then extended, as any sort of helplessness comes to remind us of an infant’s pitiful state. This would certainly include a shivering baby mouse, but it would include also an adult whose predicament renders her dependent on others.

Once again, all of this seems so, but a causal explanation of pity and sympathy is incomplete, since the long series of causes and effects shows only how it came to be that we universally suffer when confronted by a stranger’s plight. This answer doesn’t touch on the meaning of this fellow-feeling in the context of an up-and-running culture which didn’t exist when the instinct was first formed, hundreds of thousands of years ago. When we ask, “What is pity?” we needn’t mean only “What is pity for the genes?” and are free to ask what pity is for us who occupy our jaded, late-modern vantage point. We can see that the scientistic gambit of theoretically reducing an autonomous human adult to a robot controlled by genes is ironically undone by the science that’s thereby worshipped, since our autonomy is itself a genetic strategy for ensuring our global domination in the Anthropocene. This is apparent, for example, from the development of the cerebral cortex, which services language and abstract thinking; those traits, in turn, liberate culture from the narrow confines of the biological life cycle. Moreover, we can appreciate the lameness of the religious rationales for pity, since the likelihood of supernatural rewards for ethical conduct is now widely understood to be negligible. What is it, then, for a scientifically and philosophically-informed individual to feel disgusted with himself and with the world at large, when, for example, he almost accidentally crushes a baby mouse and then abandons it for a second time, to its fate?    

We can approach this question indirectly by considering a context in which sympathy is unwelcome: a courtroom juror’s deliberation. The juror’s role is only to consider the evidence and to follow the law. Sympathy for the defendant would count as emotional bias. You might think that this expectation for jurors conflicts with the need for them to be the defendant’s peers, and that a computer would be more ideally rational. However, what human jurors are supposed to contribute isn’t emotion, but commonsense reasoning which computers lack. Certainly, if a juror identifies with the defendant’s race, religion, age, or with some other irrelevant detail of her background, and lets that sympathy affect her judgment of the facts, the juror isn’t discharging her duty.

Suppose, though, a saint were called upon as a juror, and the saint’s sympathy for the suffering of all creatures prevents her from neutrally weighing the facts. Even when confronted with the evidence of the defendant’s alleged violent crime, the saintly juror can’t help but reflect on the hardships that led to the crime, such as the adversity the defendant failed to overcome in her upbringing, which formed her character that lashed out in the case of this particular violent act. The saint interprets the act not in isolation, but in a collective, even mystical context in which every event is tragic in a fallen, inhuman cosmos. The saint might have failed even to condemn Hitler, were Hitler to have been dragged before the judges at Nuremberg. If the saint wouldn’t be positioned to forgive Hitler, she would still regard his monstrous acts as sorrowful outcomes of a much larger catastrophe such as the continuity between the two world wars.

This suggests that respectable sympathy may be rooted in a holistic, rather Gnostic perspective on life, according to which all living things are united in the misfortunes of finitude. When one creature suffers, all ought to suffer along, assuming the others comprehend the larger processes at work in that suffering. If, on the contrary, we don’t sympathize, because we’re caught up in our egoism or even in our sociopathy, as in the case of individuals lacking any moral center or capacity for selflessness, we betray our myopia. We don’t see the event in its metaphysical or mythical context, but are blinded by our narrow-minded preoccupations. As I said, the Christian basis for sympathy is antiquated, but there may be a naturalistic sort of mysticism or pantheism that supports a viable, spontaneous (and sometimes debilitating) reaction of sympathetic suffering.

As with the saint’s irrepressible sorrow on behalf of everyone struggling beneath the veil of tears or in Plato’s cave of ignorance, the naturalist might sympathize with all sufferers, regardless of the circumstances. The sympathy might flow from the pessimistic outlook, which needn’t regard us as slaves, as in the case of scientistic reductionism, but which could juxtapose a hope for a progressive future with tragic knowledge of that future’s improbability, given our animal limitations. Whereas the implications of scientistic worship of science and of physicality are just nihilism and the baselessness of caring about anything, pantheism may entail sympathy much as comedic paradoxes provoke laughter. When we appreciate the humour in a situation, we laugh involuntarily, and when we perceive a situation’s tragedy, we might naturally feel sad for those caught up in it. The deeper the sense of humour, the more cause for laughter until the humourist might become mad from an overdose on the world’s absurdity. Likewise, the more profound the naturalist’s enlightenment, that is, the more uncompromising the sympathizer’s subversive awareness of our shortcomings in the existential scheme, the greater her inclination to suffer in response to what she would have to see as a world overflowing with senseless wrongdoing.

Let’s return to the cowering baby mouse. The immediate causes of its suffering are almost insignificant compared to the total, holistic cause, which is the mouse’s role in the universe as a whole. While we can’t fathom the entirety of that role, we can surmise that the mouse’s position is at least absurd in that there is no redemption for that hapless animal. Ultimately, the mouse shivers, abandoned by its mother and left to be eaten on dusty asphalt, because the mouse’s whole life is accidental and at odds with uncaring broader forces which inevitably win out against all organic anomalies. All animals are hungry, because the genes mindlessly and thus tirelessly replicate themselves in competition with other lineages (species), which necessitates animals’ war over resources. Thus, an unenlightened omnivorous animal couldn’t afford to gawk at the mouse and feel appalled by its helplessness, but could only exploit the situation and accept the free meal. The baby mouse shivers and dies because life only evolves, meaning it creeps onto a stage on which it doesn’t belong. An individual who is awakened to this existential context will suffer alongside tormented strangers, because the cosmic tragedy is a sorrowful affair and she sees that tragedy whenever our pretensions give way to the monstrousness of the underlying natural processes.

In my case, I suffered a pang of enlightened sympathy when I saw the shivering mouse, but my reaction wasn’t saintly because it wasn’t one-sided. My sorrow for the mouse was informed by disgust for the world that’s metaphysically responsible, but I had room also for mundane, pragmatic and selfish rationalizations. What, then, is sympathy? When we’re saddened by a stranger’s misery, we’re thinking not as animals but as transcendent, withdrawn observers of the misery. We attain something like Kohlberg’s universal perspective, at which point we can step outside our egoistic concerns, however briefly, and interpret the event in light of a myth that speaks to the paradox of natural tragedy and progress: we suffer with the baby mouse because the mouse had a chance for a better life, but the inhuman odds decided against that happier outcome. Moreover, when nature displays its godlessness and there is, then, no remorse or apology from the heavens, when the forlorn creature is left to a gruesome fate, the musings of an overly-philosophical passerby notwithstanding, we’re burdened by our understanding of the wider malady. We may cry for the mouse not because reason dictates any such reciprocity, but because sympathetic grief amounts to an existential battle cry, to a futile but noble gut reaction against the world that unveils itself in that particular affront.    


  1. Cultural appropriation must be stopped.

  2. Beautiful post, Cain. Helped me realize some things today. I'm really digging this personal style. Somewhat similar to how I enjoyed Prophets of Work.

    Keep up with the doses of poetry. It's working for you.

    1. I like poetry as well.

      Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as soon as you can, and don't have any kids yourself.

      Phillip Larkin

    2. Thanks, Matthew. I haven't talked much about me on this blog, but I'm planning an autobiographical article that will focus on the role of a secular sort of faith.

      What poetry, though, were you referring to? The beginning of Prophets of Woe? That wasn't poetry so much as an arch, prophetic or aphoristic sort of writing style.

      I've also been working on philosophical raps. I have one and a half done on atheism and theism. Here are some samples:

      From The Prizefighter:

      Gigantic lizards shook the earth
      Before the cometary breech birth
      Hustling primates made their own fates
      But what is history worth?
      Modern man knows too much
      Busted up without a crutch
      Decadent orators and interweb warriors
      Kill almighty God
      Falling for the new fraud

      He’s a new atheist prize fighter
      A six feet tall ankle biter
      Beacon of Light, Master debater
      Laugh him off, you’ll thank me later

      From The Odds of Gods:

      What are the odds you’ve met my gods?
      The Lord conceived a black hole
      His name’s up the church flagpole
      Suspend your doubt in my religion’s story
      Next era they’ll read it in the lavatory

      Speaking of poetry, did you see the poem at the beginning of The Ogre-Clown of Trumpland?

    3. Anon, I'm planning another article on antinatalism, because I have a number of readers who urge me to reconsider my view on that topic. The conflict, though, between antinatalism and existentialism is profound.

    4. I'm the one who brought you and Inmendham together. Most of the AN's on youtube were not familiar with your blog. I've read enough of your work to know, that you will never be AN. That's fine with me.

    5. What still interests me is the root of the disagreement. We're all pretty pessimistic or dark in our outlook, but there's a fundamental difference between antinatalists and Nietzschean existentialists. I'd like to try to explain it.

      You've read both my blog and antinatalist writings. What do you think the fundamental disagreement is about?

    6. I doubt any new ground can be covered really. I agree with you generally about suicide, as I think since we're already here, and you're going to die anyway, might as well attempt to make the best of it. That's where my agreement with you and Nietzsche ends. You take the fact that I haven't committed suicide as proof that life is worth having/living. I think that's an awfully low bar to set for lifes worth. When I try to explain my philosophy to most people, the response is usually something like, "life is a gift." I roundly reject that life is a gift, gifts are free, and life has a tremendous price. You talk a lot about the monstrosity of nature, but nature is only one of the "systems" were born into. I think of it as the meta system, people are also born into familes, religions, systems of government. Most of these governments have hideous war machines, that they are often all to eager to use. We are truly not free, we are born literally owing, and in debt. I get that people can choose not to participate in the system, and I know people who manage to do it, but it is a very difficult. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, children are utilities. Some countries/cultures are more open about this. The fundamental disagreement is simple, are children really better off being born than not? I suppose it's possible there could be some way of life, that might make me change my mind about this, but certainly not the one we're living now.

    7. I wouldn't say life in general is a gift. For most people, life is more like a curse. But look at something like the wonderboy, Jared Kushner: born into fabulous wealth, with good looks, he marries the beautiful daughter of a billionaire and is swept into Harvard and then the White House. His life seems pretty gift-like to me.

      The thing is, even for the billions of accursed ones, living in obscurity and poverty, their dreadful lives acquire meaning precisely in the struggle against indifferent forces. That's the point of Camus' interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus.

      I don't think the key question is the one you asked: Are we better off being born or not? The situation changes because of our potential to struggle against overwhelming odds. We become doomed soldiers in a tragic war against nature and, as you say, against oppressive social systems (as in the movie Brazil, for example). We can thereby acquire honour, since we can show courage, ingenuity, and other virtues in those struggles. We can fight the good fight and keep the cosmicist faith.

      Much like Brazil, Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" honours the bravery of heroes who are doomed by inhuman bureaucracies.

      Except for extreme cases of suffering, no one knows for a fact whether most individuals would have been better off not to have been born. That's because there's usually no way to calculate how much pain or pleasure a person feels over the course of his or her entire life. Moreover, tallying up those quantities would be only a clumsy attempt at deciding upon the meaning of that life. As I said, the prevalence of immense suffering presents us with the opportunity to become heroes. That's why painless heaven would be a stale dystopia.

    8. As far as I'm concerned we are still stuck in the exact same place. I don't disagree with much of what you have said here, for existent people. There are a myriad of ways to make the best of a bad situation. My issue is with bringing new people into a bad situation. As far as Jared Kushner goes, I learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover. He may indeed be a very happy man, but he might not be as happy as he appears.

    9. "For most people, life is more like a curse." I'm not sure if you realize it or not, but this is new for you. You said that your nephew was absolutely better off being born, than not. So, is your nephew still better off being born, or is his life more like a curse?

    10. I agree that even someone like Jared Kushner, who seems to have everything, might not be happy on the inside. There are special pressures for wealthy people, because they have higher expectations. But as a valley girl might say: like, dude, cry me a river.

      A rejection of antinatalism follows from what I said about heroism as a tragic struggle against overwhelming odds of suffering. You need those future generations to continue the struggle; otherwise, nature's monstrosity and torture of hapless animals continues unchallenged by intelligent designs.

      When I said life is more like a curse for most people, I was thinking globally about the billions who have very little money or options. I now have two nephews and a niece. Their parents are loaded, so those kids have great potential for heroism.

  3. the mouseling can be analogized to the "acorns" discussed by gurdjieff in the quote found at

    by which i mean, it does not achieve the fullness of development that it might have, yet it does serve a purpose in the larger context of the circle of life

    as tennyson said, nature is red in tooth and claw

    possibly you would enjoy the jethro tull song "bungle in the jungle", if you have not encountered it yet

    1. True, more offspring tend to be produced than will grow into adults. That genetic strategy has been naturally selected, though, because life is at war with nature's indifference to its survival. A species that doesn't cover its bases with that strategy wouldn't last long, because its few offspring per pair of parents would be gobbled up unpleasant circumstances, and the species as a whole wouldn't endure. The environment's indifference--which can seem like hostility--kills off a certain percentage of the offspring, so the genes must compensate and overproduce.

      So I don't think the theodicy is made reassuring by speaking of the "purpose" of these offspring that serve as "fertilizer" instead of being allowed to grow up. Perhaps, though, the silver lining is that a baby's suffering isn't as deep as an adult's, when the adult can understand the full context of what's happening.