Tuesday, April 7, 2009

why I always find the selfishness/altruism controversy rather bogus

I’m working on a review of Jeffrey Abramson’s Minerva’s Owl for the Statesman this week. It is a pretty entertaining book. The section on Hobbes made me sit up a bit. Hobbes, as is well known, constructed a politics from his view of the fundamental motives that animate the human heart. Those motives were self-aggrandizing. Abramson gives a standard gloss on Hobbes’ psychology: … “all seemingly altruistic and other-regarding acts start when the imagination sets in motion before the mind’s eye a re-visioning of someone else’s suffering as if it were our own suffering. Only because the imagination can perform this work of translation can our limbs be set in motion in altruistic or charitable ways.”

What made me sit up is how implausible this account seems. It involves an act of seeing someone else’s suffering, taking that vision in, somehow revisioning it as suffering that we have (how exactly does this work?) and then having sympathy for the other insofar as we can complete the analogy, meaning that we are really sympathizing with ourselves.

But this whole process doesn’t really seem to have an Other in it at all. In fact, in modern terms, there may be no other in all of Hobbes. But if there were an Other, then surely the revisioning (if such a fantastic thing happened) would consist, as the translating process is going on, of treating oneself as an Other. Unless I am myself in pain, to imagine myself in pain is to imagine myself as an Other. No matter if I call up memories of myself in pain in the past, or if I project pain in the future – the translation business must do what translation does – take the terms of one language and put them in another language. If I, say, sympathize with the discomfort of a pregnant woman, am I seriously to suppose that what is happening here is I am imagining myself pregnant? And if this was part, or even all, of the sympathy, what does this amount to but imagining myself other than I am? To call this self-interested is to extend the term “self” to the point where it means self-as-other, or: the other-as-self. In fact, the principle elements in this translation process seem to be laid down by the other – I sympathize with a pregnant woman, myself being male, by reconstructing my self-as-other image to make it analogous to her experience. She as the other doesn’t exist as a variable into which I can project anything – such as self-as-suffering-from-malaria. She defines the term, so to speak, that requires translation into the self language.

The surface plausibility of Hobbes account comes from the way in which it does capture a significant phase of sympathy. I hear the account of some calamity by X, and I respond to it by telling of a similar calamity that happened to me. By doing so, I think I am sympathizing with X. Yet the template for my story is still shaped by X’s story. And it is not just the broad outline of X’s story that evokes the broad outline of my story, but the very mood, the emotional tenor. There is a process of learning here – when such exchanges of stories occur, it might happen that the sympathizer tells a story about him or herself wildly at variance with the story told by the sufferer. And this would be a sign that the translation that is going on has only reached a Hobbesian stage. That is, it is only raw projection, the self-as-other-as-self.

I was made to sit up and think about these (rather elementary) things from Abramson’s example of Hobbes’s account of laughter: Sudden Glory is the passion which maketh those Grimaces called Laughter; and is caused by either some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them, or by the apprehension of some deformed things in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.”

Now if Hobbes were right about the re-translating of the suffering of the other, than surely that retranslating would go on with the apprehension of some deformed things. But two instances of perception bring about two different translatings in the perceiver – of pity or of laughter. What makes the difference here? While it may be that there are tendencies in the perceiver to cause some of this difference, I don’t think anyone would make the case that there are pitiers and there are laughers, and that never the twain shall meet – although there is something to this. Temperament can come into play, here. But still, suffering or deformity does not lead the self to automatically project itself as deformed or suffering. There’s room for different responses, and this room is unaccounted for in the notion of the sequence from perception to interpretation. One can project one’s self on the other, or one can project oneself beside the other – the latter being a ‘comparison”. Since Hobbes is accounting for traits in terms of motions, here are two motions that are unaccountably different. Yet, if we give the slightest credit to the other in creating a response, then we have ruined the self-interested account we begin with.

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