Thursday, September 10, 2009

Selfishness as the source of empathy

Imagine yourself serving a client in some shop. The client is blind and asks you to take out the amount of money from his wallet for the items he purchased. You'll realize that you could take whatever you want but you'll probably feel aversion to the idea. You recognize the vulnerability that that person is feeling and you'll want to help him, be nice to him and be a positive influence in his life. You'll probably feel the same desire to help if you see someone crying or being subject to great physical pain.

This sensibility seems to be fairly common, at least in the example before, but seems to extend into multiple degrees of variability. From physical pain to emotional pain, from friends to complete strangers, from humans to other animals, and the higher we go, the less agreement there is.

The challenges.

Explaining empathy towards other animals have been a challenge since there doesn't seem to be any evolutionary purpose is such a feeling, quite the contrary, our nature should encourage the killing of baby seals if we must, in order to survive. So if this isn't part of our nature, is it mere convention? Are we taught that torturing cats for fun is wrong? That mustn't be right, if you find the torture of animals for fun aversive, it's probably not because you can be caught doing it and therefore, it's something much deeper than simply the result of a breach of some conventioned command.

Even on lower levels, the explanation seems very incomplete. We can attribute a Darwinian general purpose to account for empathy towards relatives and friends but not towards unrelated persons that cannot reciprocate.

We can argue that all of these levels of what I described are actually different things in their nature and therefore, don't require the same explanation. I disagree. I argue that we can explain all of these things as different aspects of the same thing and even though, on the lowest levels, said consequences might be advantageous for our survival, I'd say that generally, these are accidental and the result of a completely separate phenomenon.

So what is it?

I believe this is a spin-off of a skill that humans can take to these extremes. It's easy to imagine why properly understanding the needs, wants and feelings of another human is essential for our own survival so we honed the skill that allows us to do just that over the course of our evolution.

Now wouldn't it be almost unbelievable how fast and effortlessly one can know about our own state of mind given how complex creatures we are? We do this all the time that we observe someone and we don't even know we're doing it! Well, it would be unbelievable, unless we took a shortcut from all those calculations.

What we're really doing is that we're putting ourselves in another's shoes, almost literally. A quick way to know what someone is feeling is doing this exercise: "what would I feel if I was in that situation?". This might not be very accurate because it will translate into what YOU would feel. When we know a person well enough we might go further than this and think about what we'd feel if we WERE that person under that situation, but given that we don't have access to anyone else's minds to experience how different they really are, we can't possibly know how accurate we really are. One thing is certain though, this is the most accurate we can possibly get.

The link between selfishness and empathy.

We've explained how we know but we haven't explained why we care. The reason we care is a direct consequence of the method we use to know what that person is feeling. We're putting ourselves in another's shoes and essentially feeling what we'd feel under such circumstances, so if we know by feeling, we automatically care for what we're feeling ourselves. What you're actually feeling, by imagining someone's fingernails being forced out of one's fingers, is a simulation on yourself of what that would probably feel like and it's the discomfort of that self-inflicted pain that prompts us into action.

I believe this can explain even the highest levels of empathy that I've described, namely towards other animals. By mastering this skill, we can also apply it to know what other animals are feeling. Of course, this can be terribly fallacious since we don't know what it is like to be a dog, yet, we'll make the exercise of being a dog under such situation which can result in something that is very far from what a dog actually feels like. Any parent might also apply their own emotional knowledge of what it is like to have a baby when observing a baby seal being killed.

Explaining variability.

Lack of sensibility may then be explained a priori, by some neurological fault in this skill, or it can be explained a posteriori, with the absence of some necessary personal experiences to properly examine people's feelings. We can observe this with children, we all know how cruel they can be and I'd say that's related with a still undeveloped skill and lack of the necessary experience to understand the whole human emotional spectrum.

Wrapping it up

This is why I'm using the word selfishness to explain empathy. Not with the negative connotation it has and not even in the same way it's usually used, since this selfishness is based on the cause of an action and not on the consequence, which is how it's usually used. To wrap it up, we feel empathy and act on it to avoid the feelings on ourselves that mirror what we anticipate to be the feelings of another. It's because it hurts when we see someone suffering, it's because we feel like crying when we see someone crying, it's because we feel vulnerable when we see someone vulnerable, it's because we want to stop the pain we're feeling ourselves that prompts us so powerfully to help.

No comments:

Post a Comment