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On Sympathy: A Dream Dialogue

Robert R. Clewis dreams about sympathy.

I fell asleep. In my dream, there was an announcer. A pudgy, bald man with a microphone blurted out: “Will the real opponents of Sympathy please stand up?”

He called them up one by one: Ignorance; Self-Interest; Apathy; Lack of Imagination; Justice.

There is one white sheep in this flock, then, I thought: Justice. “Justice is in conflict with Sympathy?”

“Yes,” the announcer answered me. I jumped. I had not realized I had voiced my thoughts. I’d assumed I was just part of the crowd. “We are focusing on the hard cases, which involve suffering,” he continued. “Of course, Sympathy can be more easily felt in happier times.”

The announcer turned to the participants, and the philosophical exchange began.

First Ignorance attacked: “I don’t know why I should have sympathy,” it said. Sympathy’s response was clear and easy: “Inform yourself. Get the word out. Point out wrongs and injustices. Let others know about it.” The threat from Ignorance was important practically speaking, but not philosophically so.

The announcer next introduced Self-Interest. It was not Selfishness, which has a connotation of being unethical or impermissible. Self-Interest is the pursuit of one’s own interests, and there’s nothing wrong with it per se. Self-Interest asked: “Why should I care? What’s in it for me? Your problem is not my problem. I am not going to inform myself about your issue – your illness, unemployment, loss: your situation. It doesn’t affect me.” The announcer also introduced Apathy: “Up next is a very close relative to Self-Interest. In fact, they are twins. We would all rather look after our own affairs; and we’re apathetic because we have better things to do.” Apathy was silent. It didn’t so much argue with Sympathy, as not feel anything at all. The announcer continued, “Still, the twins are not identical. Apathy shows a lack of feeling. Apathy is blind even to the sick child; it turns the other way when facing homelessness and poverty, the pain of others, the injustices suffered. At least Self-Interest feels something – for itself.”

But Sympathy had a response for the twins. Sympathy said it could try to motivate by showing how we are all ultimately involved: “You have something at stake,” Sympathy said. “Failure to have sympathy for others’ plights can come back to haunt you. Failure to feel sympathy for the poor can lead to higher crime rates in your backyard. Or, letting states go rogue can make them into training grounds for violent groups,” Sympathy argued. Maintaining that care for others was ultimately good for the person acting was an effective and appealing response. The crowd cheered. It looked convinced.

Now it was Lack of Imagination’s turn. While Lack of Imagination might feel something, it could not put itself in the place of a fellow being, and only cried when it was looking directly at an image of suffering. But Sympathy was ready now, well warmed up. It said it would pound Lack of Imagination over and over and over again: with websites, sound bites, videos, shots, tweets, and shouts, just to get something going, to move, to motivate. “If you can’t imagine, then I’ll place the image right before you,” Sympathy said, as if threatening. (Sympathy usually played nice.) Sympathy said it would keep showing the video of the malnourished child with flies swarming around her head, or the photo of the three-year-old boy dead on the shoreline: “Whatever it takes to prime the pump.” None of Sympathy’s tactics were very rational.

Now it was Justice’s turn. He got the most time. Justice argued that Reason, not Feeling, should underlie one’s acts; especially those said to have moral value. “It sounds like a good and noble principle to help someone move a TV – until you realize that that person you’re helping is wearing a black jumpsuit, navy blue ski cap, and dark leather gloves – that you’re helping him to steal,” Justice declared. “Sympathy, you are blind, and so you can make us do unjust things.” Justice called Reason as a witness. Reason wanted to be in control, for the sake of Justice. Reason claimed that not everyone feels Sympathy, and pointed in the direction of Lack of Imagination, saying, “Sympathy must be cultivated; it is not universal.” Reason then added: “Sympathy comes and goes too. It is not necessary. You are capricious.” Reason was starting to build a pretty solid case: “Sympathy, my good-hearted friend, you are missing the point. You don’t see that we should focus on the notion of justice and rights. You are not unbiased enough. You are too fickle and partial. We can’t love all of humanity. You need a more principle-based approach.” Reason concluded: “You are a good initial guide, but you cannot lead in the end. You cannot help us formulate principles of justice, either in a society or an institution.”

Sympathy was shocked, and asked, with a soft, almost hurt tone, “Why not?”

“Because, Sympathy, we cannot formulate principles on the basis of feeling. How would we proceed? Would we just see who feels sympathy? In response to what? How much, and in what portion? Not everyone feels sympathy in a given case, and some feel it more than others.” Reason continued: “You are subject to Feeling. You can thus be used unjustly. You can lead to group bias for people who are similar to oneself, excluding those in need. People who do not easily evoke you might be left behind.”

Sympathy responded again, “But I can aid morality by helping develop moral sensibility.”

Reason answered, “I agree, and to that extent you should be nurtured.”

My mind was restless: Could there not be a harmony between Sympathy and Reason? Was a conflict necessary? Couldn’t Sympathy play an important practical role in motivating, without providing any principled solutions? And shouldn’t Sympathy still be refined?

At exactly that moment, I woke up.

© Dr Robert R. Clewis 2017

Robert R. Clewis is professor of philosophy at Gwynedd Mercy University, Pennsylvania, and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich.

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