Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Harmony Without Empathy

In a distant discussion on a bulletin board at the Infidel Guy website the issue arose as to whether morality could exist without some basic, inborn instinct towards sympathy for other people.

I argued that it was not the necessary.

To illustrate why, I presented a story.

Before getting into the story, I want to point out how physicists, for example, will sometimes simplify a case by getting rid of confounding and confusing details. Anybody who has taken a basic physics course should remember problems solved under the assumption of massless strings and frictionless pulleys, for example. I am going to do the same thing here and imagine a simple situation with just two creatures and some very basic desires. The purpose is to show how a motivation for cooperation can exist without any sympathy for others.

The story goes as follows:

Imagine a planet with one creature, Being1. Being1 has one desire – a desire to scatter stones. Note that this is not a desire that the stones be scattered. It is a desire to be engaged in the activity of scattering stones.

However, here are not many stones to scatter. Consequently, after happily scattering stones for a while, the creature has no more stones to scatter. He must then engage in work. Work is an activity that a person engages in as a means only. He has no desire for the work. However, the work makes it possible to do something else that he does desire. In this case, gathering stones makes it possible for the agent to spend time scattering stones again.

Then Being1 learns that he will soon be joined by another being – Being2. Being1 is given two pills. A green pill, he is told, will cause Being2 to have a desire to scatter stones, just as he does. A red pill will cause Being2 to have a desire to gather stones together. This desire to gather stones, like the desire to scatter stones, is a desire for the activity itself – not a desire for anything resulting from the activity.

If Being1 gives the green pill to Being2, then he will have a competitor for scattering stones. He will also have an assistant to help him do the work of gathering stones together so that he can scatter them again. However, the stones will get scattered twice as fast as well. Ultimately, Being1 gains nothing by giving Being2 the green pill.

If Being1 gives the red pill to Being2, then Being2 will busy himself gathering stones together. Being1 scatters one pile of stones, then he moves on to the next pile. Meanwhile, Being2 goes to where the first pile of stones has been scattered and starts gathering them together. By the time Being1 is through with his second pile of stones, he can go back to the first pile, and Being2 can move on to gather the second set of stones back into a pile. Being1 will now never need to spend another moment doing the work of gathering stones. That work is being done for him by somebody who enjoys that type of thing.

Being1, unless he is an idiot, insofar as he seeks to fulfill his desire to scatter stones, would be best served by giving Being2 the red pill. When he does, we have a community of cooperation between its two members.

The important point to draw from this is that in this situation cooperation emerges without the slightest instinct for empathy for the other person. Being1 has nothing but the desire to scatter stones. This desire alone gives Being1 a motivating reason to give Being2 a compatible and cooperative desire to gather stones.

In the real world, we do not have red and green pills. Instead, we have praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. These are the tools we use to assign desires to others are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, as well as other tools of social conditioning.

One of the desires we have reason to cause others to have, of course, is empathy. We each have good reason to give others an aversion to our suffering and a joy at our success, so that they have a motivating reason not to contribute to our suffering and to contribute to our success.

Meanwhile, while we are busy trying to give others desires that will fulfill our own desires, we must recognize that they are doing the same to us. They are causing us to have desires that fulfill their desires. Consequently, when we manipulate them into helping us fulfill our desires, we are manipulating them into helping us to fulfill their desires. The whole situation is a virtuous circle.

Yet, none of it requires an initial impulse of sympathy. It only acquires a community of beings with desires, a recognition that some desires tend to be useful and others detrimental to fulfilling those desires, and means for altering the desires of others. From this, we have the motivation and the means to promote cooperation in a community through the judicious use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.


thelonious said...

It seems to me that you've missed the point here - or answered the wrong question.

You conflate cooperation with morality, but they are not the same thing at all. I would tend to think that morality is (should be) defined in terms of sympathy with (or acknowledgement of) others. Cooperating when we both agree is neither moral nor immoral.

Morality enters the picture when our desires are in conflict. Morality is acknowledging that my own desires do not necessarily take precedence over yours. I would hesitate to use the term "sympathy" here because it connotes an emotional state and I don't think ethics is (should be) emotion-based. Essentially I would say that ethics is the acknowledgement that my own viewpoint (and hence my set of desires) is not privileged and deserves no more consideration than any other. That puts it fairly rationally (almost like physics) though in practice it is often worked out emotionally through sympathizing with others.

Of course this is an over-simplification - I'm not trying to offer a full-blown ethical theory here, just trying to make a point.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There is a far amount of discussion among moral theorists that describe morality in terms of rules of cooperation. For example, social contract theory attempts to understand morality in terms of the rules of cooperation that individuals would agree to.

Be that as it may, my point is that genetic empathy is not required for morality, and the same argument that shows the benefit of teaching cooperation also shows the benefit of teaching empathy, even if there is no empathy to start with.

Physically, the best theory of action (and the one that I assume true in my writing) states that our own desires DO take precidence over others as a matter of necessity. There is no way to avoid it.

When I act, my actions are motivated by states in my brain and only by the states in my brain. If it were even possible for somebody else's brain states to influence my actions then, to that degree, those actions would no longer be mine. They belong to the person whose brain states are in control.

Which means, if your desires are truly in conflict, then the game has already been lost. Violence will ensue. The only way to prevent these results is to promote desires that are not in conflict or that are overriden by desires that mitigate against the harms of conflict.