Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sympathy and Self-interest

Sympathy and Self-interest

(a talk given at Virginia Tech, March 28, 2012)

I – Introduction

I want to discuss what might be called the psychological foundations of ethics, or perhaps of ethical systems.  It’s not really a question of what goes on inside us when we act ethically, but rather of what it is about us that underlies having ethical rules at all.

When you or I act morally, do the right thing, any number of things may be going on in our minds.  Perhaps, when I help you collect the papers you dropped, nothing much is going on in my mind; I’m just acting from habit in accordance with a vague system of moral imperatives that I’ve internalized.  It’s tempting to call such acts ‘instinctive’ but these dispositions are in large part learned.

Sometimes a lot more is going on.  Perhaps Homer Hokie finds himself tempted to try to appropriate his friend’s beer, or his date, at a party, and he has to resist the temptation either by giving himself an internal talking-to about right and wrong, or about the obligations of friendship, or by more complicated reflection to reconcile his conflicting motivations.

And of course sometimes when one does the right thing one isn’t acting ethically at all.  If I refrain from misbehavior only because someone is watching or because I fear some sort of punishment, then even though I’m doing the right thing, I’m not doing it for the right reason.

Action in accordance with the ethical rules because they are the ethical rules is right action.  So is action flowing, more or less automatically, from good character.  What I am interested in right now are the psychological motivators of the rules, that is, about the foundations of morality in the sense of those aspects of our nature that make it possible for us to have systems that restrain our behavior in light of the interests of others.

Moral theory, of the nature of the good, of the organization of society, of life well conducted and life well led, can become quite complicated and controversial, but it has to start with our capacities for caring.  Just as physical science has to start with our capacities for perception even though it obviously goes far, far beyond them, so in ethics we can only start with who we are.

We have no sense organ for perceiving goodness, and even if we did, it would not follow that we would care about it one way or the other.

Pure reason cannot by itself motivate us to do anything, and this is true both when motivation is taken to be giving a reason to act and when it means actually moving us to act.

As Hume puts it in his delightfully subversive way:
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to
any other office than to serve and obey them.”
And, a little later:
“’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching
of my little finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to
prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as
little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg’d lesser good to my
greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”[1]

Hume’s point is that reason alone can never motivate us.  We must care, one way or another, about something to begin with.

Hume and his friend Adam Smith and most of the whole tradition recognize two basic motivators, self-interest and sympathy.

Some things are pleasant and some are unpleasant and we are drawn to the pleasant and repelled by the unpleasant.  This is really a tautology, since the pleasant is just the attractive and the unpleasant the aversive.  Maximizing the pleasant and minimizing the unpleasant is in (or just is) our self-interest.  That’s one motivator.

The second motivator is the interests of others with whom we sympathize. 

I would in fact go further than saying that positive and negative feelings are the available motivators of action.  They are the sources, and the only ultimate sources, of moral values.  The only things that are intrinsically good or bad are the mental states of conscious beings.  As my friend Steve Sapontzis likes to put it, values require feelings.  More on this later. At present I want to address the motivators for doing the right thing, however the right thing is determined.

II Self-interest and Sympathy

Every conscious being is subject to pain and ipso facto has an interest in avoiding or minimizing it, and thus has at least rudimentary self-interest.  This is nearly a logical truth. It is false if there can be a conscious being without the possibility of aversion or attraction.  I suppose that is logically possible although it is difficult to see what the point would be of having such consciousness. 

In any event we know that (at least) all vertebrates can experience pain, and therefore all humans, past a very early stage of development, can do so.  So we all have self-interest.

The evidence is very strong that all primates have some degree of sympathy, at least for their kin, and this is probably true of all mammals and many other animals.

Thus both sympathy and self-interest are natural for us.

It does not follow that they are therefore desirable, or that we are better off with both.  Contrary to the suppositions of many advertisements for foods, medicines, and cosmetics, being natural is not automatically being good.  Love, sunshine, and flowers are natural, but so are hate, smallpox, and old age.  My presbyopia is a natural condition of my advanced years, but it’s not a good thing, and there is nothing wrong with the quite unnatural bifocals that help correct for it.

Self-interest and sympathy are both natural and effectively inescapable, but both can be modified by conscious or unconscious factors.

Of course in most of us, and in all of us originally, sympathy is more or less limited, to our family or tribe or nation or race or species.  Similarly self-interest is originally crude and short-sighted. But both individuals and societies have seen the circle of concern broaden more and more.  So even though we start with the sympathy and self-interest we are born with, education and experience and reflection, and even the systematic development of moral theory can extend are modify them.  We can, and usually do, learn to share.  We can, and usually do, learn to delay gratification in order to improve future satisfaction.

Here is the place to consider a couple of objections.  Some claim that all our acts, even those that appear to be altruistic, are actually selfish.  This is preposterous on its face.  People run into fires to save strangers, soldiers throw themselves on grenades, cabbies turn in fortunes left in their cabs.  Life is full of  much less dramatic altruistic acts. We buy life insurance, pay taxes more or less cheerfully to support schools that neither we nor ours will attend, contribute to causes that cannot benefit us directly.  Can all these acts be selfish?

The sympathy-denier has to say that I buy life insurance, which will pay only once I’m dead, for some selfish reason.  Could it be that I will be shunned and shamed if I don’t?  No, because almost no one knows whether I have life insurance or not, and almost no one cares.  My wife knows, but I could have deceived her with phony insurance, and maybe I wouldn’t have to.  Love is blind after all.  Isn’t it interesting that, as far as I know, there is no phony life insurance.  There must be no market for it.

Perhaps the denier will suggest that  I buy life insurance because I will be pleased to look down from Heaven (or, more likely, up from Hell) and see my wife and daughter flourishing?  But I don’t expect to survive death in any form or any place.  Much more to the point, I would gain pleasure from my family’s flourishing, only because I care about them, not just about myself.
When I do something that I think I should do, or act from generosity or love, I may get a feeling of satisfaction or at least avoid remorse.  To think that I act in order to get the satisfaction or avoid the remorse is just a muddle.  I get the satisfaction or the remorse because of my judgment of the act.  If I do in fact feel good about contributing to the food bank, that is because I think that the food bank should be supported.  I certainly don’t contribute in order to increase my own pleasure.  If that were my goal several cases of good dark beer would be much more cost-effective.

When I act deliberately, my choice is what I think best to do.  That’s a truism.  But what I think best to do is generally not just what I think  is in my selfish interest.

Almost all of us, almost all of the time, are guided at least in part by sympathy.  It is unfortunately true that some humans seem totally devoid of any consideration whatever for the good of others.  There are not many of them.  We call them sociopaths and do what we can to restrain their actions.

There are others, most clearly Ayn Rand and her devotees, who admit that there is such a thing as sympathy, but claim that we should resist it and try to suppress it entirely.  Don’t be a sucker.  Look out for number one.  You should never let concern for anyone else get in the way of your only duty, pursuing your own self-interest.  The weak may call that selfishness, but for the truly heroic it’s a virtue, not a vice.

There is no ironclad logical refutation of this view, but it is exceptionally poor advice.  Of course if one never really cares about another human or animal then one’s heart will never be broken.  But a life without risk of heartbreak is a life without love, a life hardly worth living at all.

Adam Smith claimed that sympathy is universal. “The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it”.[2]  Society is formed by human connections of both sympathy and self-interest, and perfected by the “invisible hand,” primarily a product of  self-interest.

And Hume, too:
“No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own.”[3]

III Contract Theories

Even though sympathy was long recognized as powerful, essentially universal, and capable of great extension through education, very few have concluded that it alone is a sufficient basis for morality or the organization of society.  We need more, so we need to draw on that other basic motivator, self-interest.

Theories basing all or some of the moral rules on self-interest are, broadly speaking, contract theories.  The rules are those we all agree upon. We do unto others just as they agree to do unto us.  Historically there have been a few real contracts, or approximations to them.  The Mayflower Compact is often cited as an example.

Still, I never agreed to any universal contract to obey the law, tell the truth, refrain from theft, etc.  Did you?   So almost always the contract is a theoretical construct.  It’s a matter of what we would agree to, or to which we  be taken to have implicitly agreed.

There is vague form of implicit contract theory that has some, but not much, plausibility.  I’m sure most of you have encountered it.  On this view by living in society and receiving its benefits you have you have incurred an obligation to comply with the rules.  You have benefitted from police protection, public education, clean water, transportation, the enforceability of contracts and so on, and in return society has the right to expect that you will behave yourself. 

This is not a ridiculous theory but it’s not a persuasive one, either.  As a child one does of course benefit from society, but children can’t make contracts.  We can imagine a society in which at a certain age, maybe 16 or 18, one takes an oath to obey the rules in return for the benefits one has received and will continue to receive.  Those who declined would be expelled from the society.  That might be an interesting society, but it isn’t ours.

Another position that looks something like a contract is this.  We (whoever ‘we’ are, perhaps a sovereign to whom we all submit) lay out the rules and we set up  severe punishments for violators of those rules.  But this isn’t a contract theory because it isn’t really a moral theory at all, just a variety of the appeal to fear.

The plausible forms of contract theories argue that the proper rules of justice are those we would all agree to if were weren’t biased or ignorant or short-sighted.  It’s clear that as we are we could not come to an agreement about, say, justice in taxation.  Mitt Romney and I are just not going to agree about marginal tax rates for the very wealthy.

The proper rules, on this theory, are not those to which we, as we are, would  agree.  Rather they are the rules to which we would agree if we were free of our limitations of knowledge and rationality.  They those to which we, if purified of the relevant imperfections, would agree.

John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, imagines us coming to agreement behind a “veil of ignorance.”  Behind the veil we have a lot of general information, but lack some important specifics.  We know very much about human nature, but we do not know who we are or our age or gender.  We know a lot of social science, we understand how societies and economies work, but we do not know our place in society or our economic status.  We all have the same, very extensive, information and we are all at least reasonably rational.  There are many more complications, some of which I will mention later. 

Behind such a veil, Rawls argues, we would agree to a democratic society with hefty protection of individual rights.  In this society economic inequality, even fairly substantial inequality, would be permitted as long it made the whole society better off and no one worse off.  We would have a free market economy with a substantial and fairly high safety net, moderately progressive taxation, and equal opportunity for all ethnic groups, genders, religions, and orientations

A Theory of Justice is a very impressive work, but naturally not everyone was convinced.  To the objection that the conclusion’s correspondence to the ideals of 20th Century American liberals showed that it could hardly be taken as an eternal ideal, Rawls replied that his goal was not a theory of justice for all time, but one for us here and now.

The literature on A Theory of Justice  is enormous, and I have read only a tiny fraction of it.  As you would expect, much of the controversy is about whether or not our agreement behind the veil would be as Rawls describes.  Those of us with a high tolerance for risk might prefer a society in which some are much worse off  and some extremely better off, given our chances of being in the preferred group.  Both libertarians and socialists think that Rawls has cooked the books.

I am arguing not that Rawls has gotten it wrong, but that the whole idealized contract project is misguided.  Ideal contracts just aren’t what we need.

IV Problems with contracts

Any theory or justice or any other good that rests on mutual agreement between self-interested agents necessarily leaves out those who are not party to the agreement, the non-contractors.

For Hume justice and property rights rest on contract, and he draws the conclusion that any being too weak to harm us would not be a party to that contract, since we have nothing to fear from them and they have no bargaining power. 

“Were there a species of creatures, intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound, by the laws of humanity, to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right of property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords.[4]

Here Hume recognizes the limits of contract-based justice and invokes “the laws of humanity” resting, I take it, on sympathy, beyond those limits.  Rawls also explicitly recognizes that justice is not the whole of morality, but he wants to bring at least children and the senile within the scope of justice.  He does this by stipulating that the contractors behind the veil see themselves as heads of families.  They will, presumably, agree to rules that protect both the rights (of property, etc.) and the persons of these pre- or post-contracting family members.

This gives young children, for example, only derivative standing in the justice community.  They matter, but only because full-fledged contractors care for them.  Of course for Rawls children in the real world have standing in accordance with the rules of justice.  It is the rules that are derived from the agreement of the contractors behind the veil, and those (that is, us purified) care about children and thus set up appropriate rules.

There are two important questions about Rawls’s theory.  that I am not going to pursue.  First, how can he prove that the imaginary contractors would make the decisions he attributes to them? For example, might not less risk-adverse contractors agree to a less equal society? And second, even if we did know what these veiled and purified beings would conclude, can it be shown that we should care?

I’m not after Rawls here, I’m after the reliance on contracts, real or imagined, to determine all or most of the moral rules.

Any contract-based theory of justice (or anything else) must divide the moral universe into two exclusive classes, those who are  party to the contract and those who are not.  There is the moral community of those who agree, and then there is everything else.  Full-fledged contractors are persons, with inherent value.  Everything else, young children, fetuses, chimpanzees, dogs, fish, dandelions, gravel is inherently valueless.  If, but only if, some person cares about a rock, or a dog, or a child, that rock, dog, or child, has derivative value. 

There are problems here both in what is inside and what is outside the charmed circle.

Consider the assumption that all the contractors have equal status, i.e. that all persons should have the same rights and responsibilities.  We see this in the recent ‘personhood’ legislation in the Virginia General Assembly.  The goal is to assign to fetuses, even as very early zygotes, the same legal status as adult humans. 

But there are degrees and varieties of personhood.  A number of years ago, when my daughter was 10, she asked how old one had to be to drive.  I told her the minimum age was 16. “I think you ought to be able to drive at 10,” she said.  Knowing her judgment of some of her classmates, I asked “Do you think all the boys in your class should be able to drive?”  “Well, girls should be able to drive at 10.”

That conversation was probably a tactical draw, which is doing pretty well for a parent, but it demonstrates that a 10-year-old is perfectly well aware that not all people of the same age are equally responsible, or intelligent, or mature.  Some people are more responsible at 10 or 12 than others are at 20 or 30 or ever.  Often one can reason fairly well with very young children, and sometimes reasonable beings cease to be reasonable.

There are excellent reasons for using arbitrary boundaries such as the nearly magic age of 18.  Such cut-offs are imperfect, of course, but the alternative would be some system of  judging individual cases.  Any such system would be open to drastic abuse.  We all know how literacy tests were used.  So if you’re 18, you’re in, unless you’re very, very seriously impaired.

Legally minor children have rights, but not the same ones as adults, and not the same ones at all ages.  Less egalitarian societies may have a much larger variety of  ‘persons’  Until fairly recently in our society, women had  important legal rights, but not the same as men. This did not mean that women were not considered persons.  They were, to be blunt, lesser persons.   Of course this is true today in Saudi Arabia and other places. 

Within the boundaries established, let us assume, by contract, the parties in fact almost never have the same bargaining power, wit, or predictive skill. 

In the fully abstract bargaining theories historically popular in economics and political theory, all the parties are assumed to have the same, complete, knowledge, the same mastery of probability, the same foresight, and each to have a fixed initial set of preferences.  These stipulations are, of course, recognized by all to be false of the real world.  Still I think it is very easily overlooked how very false they are. 

In fact some of us are quite ignorant most of the time, and very rarely do both parties have the same understanding of the facts relevant to their situation.  We’re lazy, or in a hurry, or just out of our depth.  We don’t read the fine print, or don’t understand it, or rely on professional advice about what we don’t understand.  That professional advice may or may not be competent and may or may not be honest.  Eager to install the new software update, I click to accept the agreement without reading it to be sure it doesn’t provide for seizure of my home or sexual services on demand.  I’m sure you’re much more careful and always read those licenses. 

Contracts are often invalidated in courts, but probably not as often as they should be.  Some sorts of contracts are just illegal.  You cannot, in the United States, sell yourself into slavery.  Bad contacts, starting with insane and often fraudulent mortgages and moving on to the deceptive sales of  securities based on those mortgages, triggered the financial misfortunes from which we are only now starting to recover.  In this case a mix of greed, stupidity, and deception, impossible in the pure theory of contracts, had results that were all too actual.

No true believer in the value of contract theory would deny any of the defects of actual contracts I have just rehearsed.  Still, she or he would insist, abstract contract theory is a valuable theoretical tool.  Of course abstract contractors aren’t just like us, but they are importantly similar.

This I deny.  The abstract contractors just pop into existence on a desert island or uninhabited planet as rational adults with a set of likes and dislikes.  They have no parents, and their personalities are simply given.  We’re certainly not like that at all.

We are social animals, social not just in our lives but in our selves.  How we see the world, and just what world we see, is very largely determined by how we grow up, who we know, how we are treated and how we are perceived.  Our most basic wants and needs are doubtless built in.  We need and want food and drink and shelter from heat and cold, and companionship and, in due time, sex.  But even here the forms these basic wants take are shaped by our surroundings and by the actions and opinions and desires of others. 

Beyond the basics our desires are profoundly shaped, and sometimes wholly created, by the people and systems with which we live.  In many cases, in fact, our desires are quite indeterminate, and we don’t know what we want.  We follow the incentives and disincentives, the pats on the head and the disappointing grades, and we end up somewhere, somewhere comfortable if we’re lucky.

Not often, but every now and then, there is a very satisfactory committee meeting.  The participants begin with conflicting views, some determinate and others quite vague, and at the end a genuinely unanimous conclusion is reached that corresponds to none of the starting positions.  Of course the conclusion may turn out to be disastrous, that’s the way of  the world.  Unanimity is never a guarantee of wisdom.  But the meeting was a success in an important way that demonstrates the connection between sympathy and individual preferences.  Everyone’s preferences have changed and the new shared preference is importantly that of the group as a whole.

It’s not just that we are always more or less ignorant, more or less irrational, often distracted – these of our defects everyone admits.  But the implicit requirement of fixed preferences independent of social interaction is a fatal flaw in contract-based theory. 

We just aren’t like that. 

A few of us, some of the time, are rational contractors, but most of us, most of the time, and the vast majority of conscious beings all of the time, are not.  I’ve been arguing that we are too unlike the idealized contractors for conclusions about them to be of much use.  And for infants, fetuses, nonhuman animals, the severely impaired and the demented, the contract game can’t even get started.

Smith and Hume insist that there is more to morality than contract-based justice, and Rawls concurs, though not as prominently.  But whatever that ‘more’ is we hear rather little of it.  Much of common, educated talk about morality, seems to take the self-interested rational bargainer as the standard.  The insistence on the primacy of self-interest is so widespread that I would term it the dogma of selfishness. 

V The Dogma of Selfishness

There is an ideal I can only call macho, to see oneself and be seen as cool, tough, rational, but not soft, a Clint Eastwood character, perhaps.  This is not new in our society.  There is a tale that Abraham Lincoln once muddied a new suit rescuing a pig trapped in the mud.  He later claimed that he did it not out of concern for the pig, but because if he hadn’t it would have bothered him all day.  There’s a muddle here, but it’s not the one in which the pig is stuck.  Why would it have bothered him?  Why, to Lincoln or the teller of this tale, would it be embarrassing to admit sympathy with the pig?

Quite often our  judgments and explanations are distorted by the need to appear tough.  We pretend to be concerned about the boy who set fire to a cat because animal abuse is a very good predictor of future abuse of humans.  In reality what’s wrong with setting a cat on fire is what happens to the cat.  That’s straightforward enough, but we have to disguise it rather than be a softie.

It is unstylish to try to teach a child to restrain their appetites, but perfectly all right to encourage them to defer gratification.  Defer, but don’t share or give away.

It is as if there were something shameful in admitting to any motive other than self-interest.  Sympathy with animals or the poor is weakness.  Love is embarrassing.  Caring for one’s community at any cost to oneself is either stupid or fraudulent.

Why would anyone want to take such positions, or even pretend to do so?  What’s missing?

VI Sympathy and its limits

Both Hume and Smith, as I mentioned earlier, hold that every human naturally has some degree of sympathy for others.  Perhaps they are a little too optimistic.  Or perhaps 18th Century Edinburgh lacked sociopaths.  In any event, I want now to focus on a particular sort of sympathy, the sympathetic identification with a group, including all members of the group. 

One of the minor costs of the creation of the euro is that one no longer sees those great French coins with the ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’  inscription.  Liberty, equality, brotherhood:  In our political discourse we are perfectly comfortable with talk of liberty and equality, but what’s this brotherhood business?  I’ll use the less familiar word ‘solidarity’ which is free of the tiny whiff of sexism in ‘brotherhood.’ 

Solidarity in the strongest ‘all for one and one for all’ form is rare, but family loyalty, team spirit, patriotism and humanism aren’t.  The point is that one more or less identifies with a group and wishes well all its members.  Solidarity is what makes community.  All of us are members, in highly variable degrees, of many communities.  I belong to family in at least three senses: the so-called ‘nuclear’ family of my partner, our child, and myself; my birth family, now a small group, and the extended family of in-laws, nieces and nephews, cousins, etc.  I’m an American, a Virginian, a resident of Montgomery County and of the Town of Blacksburg,  I’m a member of the Virginia Tech community and of its Department of Philosophy subset.  I belong to the U.S. Navy and to the Democratic Party.  I’m an alumnus of four schools, one of which no longer exists.

It’s worth noticing that most of these community memberships are not really voluntary and that the obligations of many of them are very slight.  But each one of them is some sort of tie to other people.  We may well come to identify ourselves with groups whose existence we had not previously considered.  I’m a primate, and a member of the 99%.

Usually the smaller the group the stronger the bonds and the more weighty the obligations.  That is, if the group has some sort of genuine unity.  I am a member of the group of several thousand people with whom I share the last 5 digits of my Social Security number. But there is no reason that I feel any bond to the rest of the members, since this grouping is so artificial. 

But that a group is artificial does not mean that it cannot be a significant community.  It is an artifact of the Virginia Constitution that counties are responsible for public education, and there is nothing natural about the boundaries of counties.  But as it is Montgomery County is the unit I happen to be in, and the level concerned with some important community matters, most especially the schools.  That makes it my community and brings with it rights to vote and speak, and obligations to, especially, pay taxes.  I care about those schools, even though I never went to them and no one of mine will go to them in the future.  I care because they are central to my community.  I certainly care enough to pay my share for teachers and students.  They weren’t my teachers and they won’t be my students, but they are our teachers and our students.  That is what it is to belong to a community. 

Community solidarity is a powerful force in our history and in our lives, despite the common reluctance to talk about it.  It is most powerful, as a rule, when it is limited by contrast.  That is, the most strongly motivating versions of “us” are the ones in opposition to “them.”   Us versus them, Hokies versus Wahoos, liberals versus conservatives, our nation versus the enemy, humans versus alien invaders or machines from the future.  It’s no accident that this theme is so common in history and in fiction.

Love thy neighbor.  But who is my neighbor?  Much of moral progress consists in extending the limits of the neighborhood, the limits of sympathy.  Jesus, on some readings, wants the neighborhood to include all humanity.  Others would go even farther.  Still it is a real question how far it is psychologically possible for the majority of people to extend the philia, the caritas, the brotherly love called for in the Gospels, how far solidarity can reach.  

VII Perils of Sympathy

In fact the greatest threat to solidarity is not selfishness but solidarity.  The moral catastrophe of Germany in the 1930s wasn’t caused by the atomization of society by people withdrawing into a self-centered insistence on their individual rights.  Rather it was the subversion and finally destruction of the precarious solidarity of the German Republic by a narrower solidarity of resentment, aggression, and rejection.  Us Aryan Germans versus a them compounded of Jews, Slavs, Bolshevists, and so on.

Ours is much stronger, much healthier community than that of Weimar Germany.  Part of its strength, and an important part of our political ideal is diversity of opinion and respect for differing views.  But it does seem to me that our social solidarity is under strain.  The politically active are largely polarized, each side reading its own magazines and watching its own television.  Part, just part, of the home-school movement seems motivated by a rejection of the community values exemplified in the public schools.  Much of the vocal derision of government is effectively a rejection of community.  A very few crazies have declared themselves sovereign citizens, independent of our laws.  Presumably they would be happier in Somalia.  At the other end of the scariness scale, the U. S. Post Office, a vital agent of community in the early days of our country and still the identifying center of many villages, faces dismantling.

Some level of this fragmenting tension is to be expected in any healthy liberal society; only effective dictatorship can drive it underground.  And perhaps I’m over-interpreting things.  It seems to me that some of those who strongly oppose raising local taxes are rejecting our community responsibility to our schools.  But perhaps I’m wrong and they are just as committed as I to the school system.  Perhaps the difference is that they really do believe that our property taxes and teacher salaries are too high, despite being near the bottom in the state.  Perhaps.

Sympathy either for individuals or in its community form of solidarity is an essential complement to rules derived from contemplation of self-interested bargainers.  Yet sympathy in itself is hardly enough.  What justice talk protects is our autonomy as agents, the respect to which we are entitled as, ultimately, masters of our own lives.  Sympathy and love, inappropriately given complete precedence, lead at least to paternalism, and at worst to totalitarianism.  The dictatorship of the proletariat was for the good of the whole, or at least so it was said.  No doubt by some it was sincerely believed.  The same is true of American Prohibition, except that probably a higher percentage of the supporters were sincere.  It is certainly possible to have any one or two of liberty, equality, and fraternity without the others. 
Grownups and near-grownups have the right, within arguable limits, to make choices of which others may disapprove; choices which may well be against the best interests of the chooser. That’s just what it is to respect autonomy.  In their classic work Yellow Submarine the Beatles proclaim that “ all you need is love, love, love is all you need.”.  I hesitate to go against such great moral teachers, and love may indeed be all you need if you only deal with bunnies or infants.  But if you live among adult or near-adult persons, love alone is not enough. 

VIII Trying to get it right

In the end, both as a society and as individuals, we need both respect and compassion, with compassion having the wider scope, since it applies to all.  The scope of justice is narrower.  Balancing concern with  the good of all and  respect for the  autonomy of persons is very difficult.  It is even more complex once we recognize that autonomy and the commensurate moral responsibility are matters of degree.  It is the basic challenge of being a parent, a job that none of us ever gets completely right.  Being a citizen is easier, but tempering justice with mercy is almost never a snap.

It won’t have escaped the notice of some of you that much of what I’ve been saying, about the importance of care, of recognizing that what we can ask and what can be asked of us varies through our lives, seeing child-rearing as at least as important a moral model as macho bargaining, echoes the points many feminists are making.  I don’t deny it.  Most of the thinkers to whom I have referred are dead white males, and I’m a pretty old white male myself.

Hume and Smith both knew that satisfactory lives rested on both sympathy and self-interest.  More recently much theory seems to have lost sight of that.  We are all indebted to feminism for bringing this back to the fore.

IX Does any of this matter?

On most days most of us get along just fine without a bit of moral theory.  Most of us (but, alas, not all) habitually tell the truth.  It’s not that we never lie or at least fib a little, but that telling the truth is what we automatically do, other things being equal. (Or ceteris paribus, as we like to say, demonstrating that we know two words of Latin.)   And most of us (but again, unfortunately not all) do not steal unattended valuables.  It’s really a matter of being more or less properly brought up.  Just as social pressures and both formal and informal education can expand or contract our sympathies, so these forces shape us and gradually we internalize a set of moral rules fairly well fitting the standards of our group.  As Aristotle puts it, we become just by acting justly.  Most of our ordinary moral behavior is not a matter of resisting temptation but rather of not being tempted in the first place.

There is nothing wrong or defective about acting the right way without thinking about it, either by habit or by spontaneous sympathy or love.  Such actions may not be moral actions in a strict Kantian sense, but so much the worse for  strict reading of Kant.  They are good actions and reflect good character.  A mother who had to reflect in order to decide to care for her child wouldn’t be a virtuous being, but rather a monster. 

But we do  need to put on our moral thinking caps when other things aren’t equal  If I find a wallet in the street I just take it to the police station without a second thought.  But then I’m not starving, nor do I have a loved one near death from lack of medical care.  I’m not in a concentration camp or terrified of torture or of humiliation. I am fortunate enough to live in a fairly well-regulated society where I don’t have to worry about the honesty of the police.  But for other people or other situations moral reflection, sometimes very difficult, may be required.  And for us, too, in our fairly comfortable worlds, loyalty and friendship can conflict with honesty, or, for that matter, loyalty with loyalty, or promise-keeping and truth-telling.  Then moral reflection is inescapable.

The other sort of situation requiring moral reflection is when the moral standards of our group are being challenged.  Thousands and thousands of intelligent and basically decent people, for thousands of years, accepted human slavery as a reasonable, perhaps even necessary, part of their society.  Changing that took a long time, and a lot of argument, both public and internal, and, here in Virginia, war followed by decades of transformation.

Many of the matters that need serious thinking about here and now concern the boundaries of the moral community or communities. Who counts, and how much?  Are fetuses and grown women really moral equals?  Can it really be permissible to kill a pig just for the pleasure of eating its flesh, but forbidden to kill a vastly less conscious zygote to maintain a woman’s control of her life?

Some of our challenges, on the other hand, involve the contrast I’ve made throughout this talk between benevolence and respect.  Paternalism is basically the right policy toward the very young and at least some animals.  But not toward informed and consenting adults.

If we are to do more than shout at one another about these things we need factually informed moral reasoning without blinders. 

[1] Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), pp. 415, 416 of Selby-Bigge edition
[2] Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiment  Part I, Section 1, Chapter  I
[3] Hume, Treatise, p. 316
[4] Hume, Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1752), Section 3, 19

Tuesday, March 13, 2012



Harlan B. Miller

[A Polish translation,  by Marina Stepanenko, is available at ]

I want, this morning, to talk about wants, about how what we want makes us who we are, and how some ways of understanding our own wants and the wants of others shape our lives both personally and politically. There are five parts, respectively personal, political, personal, political, personal.

I - Personal - What we are and what wants are not

So what do you want? What do you really want? Tell me what you want, what you really, really want. I've listened carefully several times, and read the lyrics, but I'm still not at all sure just what the Spice Girls really, really want. But I'm sure that their desires, authentic and inauthentic, transient and more or less fixed, make them who they are.
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled, on cable, on an excellent British film from the 40s entitled Perfect Strangers. Greer Garson plays a mousy and sniffly and thoroughly submissive housewife and Robert Donat is her utterly drab husband. But it's 1940 and off he goes into the Royal Navy, and shortly thereafter so does she, into the Wrens. They are both transformed. I don't want to tell you much more, because I hope you'll have a chance to see it. The American release has the absurd and in fact insulting title of "Vacation from Marriage" - World War II as a vacation! Ignore that if you can.
Both characters become different people, and what really makes them different is not the squarer shoulders and the confident gaits but their completely different desires. What they want in 1944 isn't much like what they wanted in 1940. In fact their 1940 selves couldn't have imagined the way the world looks to their 1944 selves. One might say that a different sort of light shines on their 1944 worlds, painting quite different prospects in the colors of desire and of disdain.
What we want, to a very large degree, is what we are. But what is desire? What is it to want something? At the most basic level I'm afraid there isn't much to say. Desire is a very primitive notion, not really explicable in terms of anything else. We desire things and people and praise and pleasure, but to make sense of the whole range of things desired we have to take desiring that a state of affairs be actual to be conceptually fundamental. So all my desires are really of the form "I desire that p" where p is some proposition describing a state of affairs.
That is, I believe, true, but it isn't very exciting. What I want to talk about is the way our wants determine and are determined by our selves. But that is not to say that our wants are exclusively, or even predominantly, selfish. And that brings me to my first main point. A very bad theory of desire, of wanting, is intellectually dominant in our society. So my most important claim is not about what wants are, but about what they aren't.
According to what I will call the 'Homo economicus' or 'He' theory of desires, desires are simply given, they are exclusively oriented to the self, and they are all, in effect, founded on anticipated pleasure or satisfaction. This theory is most strikingly dominant in economics, with a few exceptions, but it has immense sway in all the social sciences, journalism, and popular culture as a whole. It is now dead in some parts of philosophy, but still thriving in others. All three of the elements of the He theory that I listed are incorrect. Desires are not just given, they are not exclusively selfish, and they generally do not concern anticipated pleasure.
On the He theory we are just born with some desires, others more or less inevitably appear in the course of maturation, some are the results of social conditioning, and some are just random. We don't choose our wants, and on most versions of the theory we can't rationally change them, though we might have ourselves deprogrammed or reprogrammed. This is just wrong. We quite naturally want food and companionship and sex, but not only can we choose anorexia, solitude, and celibacy, we can come to want them. Of course our wants are shaped by our parents and our peers. How could it be otherwise? But every parent soon learns that even very small children have wants, and propensities to form wants, that are very resistant to external pressure. The He theory is generally clueless about childhood, being, as it is, a theory of beings who suddenly pop into existence with a fixed inventory of desires and trade goods. This is a good place to acknowledge my debt to Roger Paden's delightful paper "The Lost Childhood of Homo economicus" from which I take the term and the abbreviation and doubtless more as well.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle explains virtues and vices as habits of choice, dispositions to make certain sorts of choices. The honest woman naturally tells the truth. Most of the time it simply doesn't even occur to her to lie. In difficult situations when it does occur to her she finds it very distasteful. The cowardly man is not the one subject to fear, for any rational being is subject to fear, but the one who is most likely to choose to abandon his duties in the face of fear. How do we come to have the virtues and vices, these dispositions to choose? By habituation. We become brave by acting bravely. In a word, characteristics develop from corresponding activities. For that reason we must see to it that our activities are of a certain kind, since any variations in them will be reflected in our characteristics. Hence it is no small matter whether one habit or another is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference. (1103b21-25, Ostwald translation)
Since our character is determined by our choices, and our choices are at least substantially free, we are responsible for our character. I have always found Aristotle here both convincing and sobering. My choices over the years have made me what I am. At the deepest level I am responsible for my sloth and procrastination and gluttony. The late Bill Williams used to sing a bit of an old Beatrice Lillie song.
  • And the very worst part is,
  • you know in your heart you
  • have only yourself to blame
But the point is that we do in fact choose our wants. We are capable of cultivating new tastes, and at least sometimes of overcoming vices. We overcome addictions. In childhood we transform our wants successively time and again. As we get older it becomes more difficult and we often fail. But we sometimes succeed, which should, on the He theory, be impossible. I want to ride my bicycle rather than drive a car when I travel about Blacksburg. I'm rather proud of that desire. Our wants aren't just given.
Nor are they exclusively selfish. The claim that all desires are selfish, that all desires are for one's own good, is called 'psychological egoism' by philosophers who confront it in every introductory ethics class. Psychological egoism is an astonishingly popular view, despite its obvious falsehood. The psychological egoist has to hold that the soldier throwing himself on the grenade is motivated not by duty or by love of his comrades but by an intense feeling of pride and anticipated posthumous glory in the couple of seconds he has before most of his internal organs are shredded. There is something not just wrong but indecent about such a position, yet millions of decent people believe it or think that they do.
That many of our wants are for the good of others has been recognized for millenia. Both David Hume and his friend Adam Smith stressed the power of sympathetic as well as selfish desires in our makeup. But that's a part of Adam Smith that many (not all) economists ignore. I want Montgomery County schools to be well-funded and well-staffed. I will never attend school here, my only child has passed through the system, and the chances of any grandchild of mine attending these schools is remote. But the schools are a public good of my community, and I care about them.
Nor, and now we come to the third egregious defect of the He theory of wants, are our wants based on or constituted by anticipation of pleasure. This is true of almost no one, but I will use myself as an example, since the data are readily at hand. I'm sure that very similar stories can be told about you. There are many things I want to do that do not give me pleasure. I give blood, I spend lots of money on life insurance, I grade seriously.
Every couple of months I go to the blood center. I lose an hour or so, most of the time I am quite bored, and it hurts. I always flinch when I'm stuck, and that always embarrasses me. I get a cookie and a cup of coffee. Why do I do it? Why do I want to do it? Well, I often say that it is one of the few things I do well, except for the flinching. But actually I do it because I think I should. Blood is needed, some people have a hard time donating and I don't, so I should give. But don't I do it for the satisfaction of having done a good deed? No, that gets things backwards. It gives me satisfaction to do a good deed, perhaps, but because it is a good deed, not because it is a satisfaction-producer. Giving blood is not like eating candy. I do it because I think I should, and then, perhaps, I am satisfied with myself. But the goal is not satisfaction, it is duty.
I spend a lot of money on life insurance. I'm pretty old, and I've made the actuarially clever move of avoiding death, so some of my older, smaller, policies are now paying for themselves. Still, I spend over $300 a month on life insurance. Why? With that money I could buy things that please me, such as computer hardware or books or beer. Instead I spend it in a way that is guaranteed to give me no pleasure. It will pay off only when I am not around to enjoy it. So why do I do it? Because I care about my wife and daughter. In fact, but please don't tell them, I love them both. What that means is that I am very interested in their welfare in the broadest sense. I want them to be happy, to live lives well worth living. My daughter is now making her own way in the world, but I'd like for her to come into a little estate some day. My wife will probably outlive me, and I want her to be reasonably comfortable. Those are the things I want, and so I pay for them. But notice that my pleasure or satisfaction is not in the picture. I will be dead, and thus incapable of pleasure or satisfaction.
I certainly don't believe in life after death. But suppose there is such a thing. Would it then be the case that I purchase life insurance because I anticipate looking down from Heaven (or, more likely, up from Hell) and being pleased by the flourishing of my wife and daughter? This still gets it backward. I would be pleased by their flourishing because I care for them. I do not care for them because I would be pleased by their flourishing. (Why would that be? Why their flourishing and not someone else's flourishing? Why their flourishing and not their misery?)
Third example. (I'm really beating on this horse because it refuses to die.) I teach at Virginia Tech, and I'm a pretty hard grader. I flunk from 5% to 20% of the students, and As are hard to get. This does not give me pleasure, and it does not give the students, except a few, pleasure. It certainly does not help my teaching evaluation scores or get me better raises. I could join the nearly universal flow of grade inflation and give lots of As and Bs and give Ds to those who never showed at all. It wouldn't hurt me, though it might lower me in the eyes of some of my colleagues. It would certainly avoid a number of unpleasant scenes. So why don't I do it? Why would I be ashamed of myself? Because I care about maintaining some sort of standard, because I want grades to mean something. But again, I maintain the standards not because it would be painful not to. I maintain the standards because I believe in them. I know full well that selling out, after a couple of semesters to numb my conscience, would produce more pleasure.
The He theory of desire is massively flawed. We can and do choose our wants. Our desires are not selfish. Our desires are not based on anticipated pleasure. But the He theory is not just an intellectually defective theory, it is a corrupting one. As Aristotle said, our choices determine our character. When we accept the He theory we act upon it. We take it for granted that our desires are selfish. And when we believe this long enough we make it true. Our choices form our character. When we are convinced that our choices must be selfish, our choices become selfish. And the consequences are serious indeed.

II - Political - Selfish Bargainers

If we are indeed all motivated simply by selfish desires for our own anticipated pleasures then we live in a world in which the public interest is a fraud or a mere average, love and commitment are simply delusions, and the price of everything is determined by the market.
In a sloppily written but otherwise admirable book, The Unconscious Civilization (American edition 1997, The Free Press, New York), John Ralston Saul argues that the whole notion of the public good, and, in effect, of citizenship, has been corrupted and displaced by the culture of selfishness and of individuals as members of interest groups, not as citizens.
We can see this quite dramatically on a small scale. Think of the last half-dozen committee or small group meetings you have attended. One goes to such a meeting, typically, with some idea of what is at issue and some preferences about the decisions to be made. Once there, one can listen and discuss, or one can bargain. If one actually enters the meeting as a cooperative undertaking, one's preferences, one's wants, are very likely to change, to evolve toward a group consensus. If, on the other hand, one enters the meeting simply as a bargainer trying to maximize the benefits to oneself or to the subgroup one represents, things are very different. In the latter case the positions and desires of other participants are simply tactical information. In the former they are claims with which one might well have some sympathy.
All of us have been in meetings in which most or even all participants are genuinely cooperating. Committee and juries work pretty well pretty frequently. But all of us have also been in meetings in which some participants have steadfastly refused to do anything but bargain for their own profit.
If one accepts the He theory of desire selfish bargaining is not only ubiquitous, it is the only rational form of behavior. In fact 'rational' is so defined in some contexts in economics.
The political effects are disastrous. Once we are reduced to interest groups the public good becomes irrelevant. Any attempt to appeal to it is instantly interpreted as a cynical ploy to gain some advantage. Lobbyists and money hard and soft become completely dominant in politics.
The last Virginia gubernatorial race was an exceptionally striking demonstration of the eclipse of the public interest. What was the pivotal issue? Was it the protection of our environment? Was it our children's education? Was it the jobs they will have and the lives they will live? No, of course not. It was the car tax. Vote for me and I'll give you a couple of hundred dollars.
The most shameful thing about the 1997 Virginia election is not that such a craven appeal was made but that it succeeded. I have no way of knowing how many of the Virginia voters who put a few bucks in their wallets above any appeal to the public good were affected by the He theory, but surely some were. The dominance of that theory poisons public discourse by branding any appeal to unselfishness as spurious and insincere.

III - Personal - Disorders of Desire

Let me go back again from the political to the personal. Some of our desires can be quite unfortunate, even destructive. The cocaine addict has an overwhelming dominant want that can, and often does, destroy him and those around him. I want to focus on different sorts of, as I shall call them, disorders of desire. I have in mind inauthentic desires, tyrannically limiting desires, and wantlessness.
About the first I will be very brief. Our peers or our fears or a suffocating system may convince us that what we want is to live happily ever after as a submissive housewife, or to join Rho Rho Rho fraternity, or to have a bright green lawn or a new car every year. And in fact these things may not be at all satisfying and may divert us from those goals, those wants, that would really give us direction and at least episodes of satisfaction. It's hard to know what you'd really really want if all those people weren't telling you.
But even a genuine desire can be or become tyrannical. When one is prisoner of a single dominating desire, even a basically reasonable one, one's life can be horribly constrained. When absolutely everything is subservient to saving souls for Jesus, or overthrowing capitalism, or patriarchy, or to attacking Hillary Clinton, or to getting into medical school, or to getting tenure, one is trapped. One is also very poor company.
But for most of us relatively comfortable people, the biggest threat is not becoming this sort of single-drive robot, not having overpowering desires, but rather drifting rudderless.
We had on our refrigerator, until it finally disintegrated, an Andy Capp cartoon in which Andy is sitting at the bar, staring into his pint and sighing. The barkeep explains in the next frame. "There's a lot of it going around. Not really knowing what 'e wants, but being sure 'e doesn't have it."
The perils of wantlessness have been fairly well explored in a wide range of literature. There was a striking episode in Upstairs, Downstairs in which James is at a weekend party of the idle rich. Except for James, none of them work, none have any responsibilities, and none have any real desires that give a structure to their lives. They are dreadfully bored and devote all their energies to the search for amusement. They are rich, many are physically attractive, but they are pathetic.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams describes archeological digs on various planets in which the uppermost stratum of the remains of a dead civilization consists entirely of shoes. He explains it as follows. As things are running down and people are ill-motivated and depressed, people tend to look down. What they see, then, is their feet. And then they think "That's it, what I need is a new pair of shoes." Happy people with things to do and places to go buy shoes when the old ones wear out. Surely you've noticed how many shoe stores there seem to be in every mall.
Wantlessness, either chronic or episodic, is epidemic in our society. When we don't really want anything enough to do anything about it we fritter, we waste, we eat even though we're not hungry, we watch bad television, we drink, we smoke, we visit malls. Our survival needs are met. We should be enjoying ourselves. But we're like Andy in the pub, ordering another pint because he's got nothing to do and no place to go. I know the feeling well.

IV - Political - The Desires of the Disordered

Here we are, pretty well off in our lavishly wealthy but significantly unjust society. We can do pretty much what we choose. And there is much to choose. We could struggle for economic justice, or for a rational health system. We could learn new skills or new sports, enrich our bodies or, especially, our minds. There are literatures upon literatures, histories upon histories, bodies of learning and art, archaeology, astronomy, botany, and on and on. World upon world of things to learn.
But that's not what we do. We either pursue power and possessions or we sit watching the Home Shopping Network, hoping to find something to want. Homo economicus is subject to one sort of manipulation, the wantless to many sorts. The wantless are especially vulnerable to advertising. Lacking any wants that are really theirs, they can be persuaded to desire beanie babies, or to purchase goods that are actually just advertisements. Why would anyone want to spend good money to buy shirts with other people's names on them? Who is Tommy Hifiger?
Not all of these bizarre pseudo-desires are the products of commercial manipulation. The very strange Princess Diana phenomena indicate to me that millions and millions of people were badly in need of something to care about. We're looking for needs in all the wrong places.
The poverty of our desires is perfectly reflected in the current state of national politics. Homo economicus belongs to that party that is an unstable alliance of the greedy and the resentful. And its only real rival is the party that no longer seems to stand for anything at all.

V - Personal - Desire and the Good Life

What should we want to really really want? We want to live a good life both on the large scale and on the small, to live well, to be happy. Happiness, said Aristotle, is essentially a matter of activity. To live well is to act well, to actualize our potentialities. A good life is one of action and engagement. Even on the smaller scale the things we really enjoy are activities that fully engage us and draw upon our abilities. That's the point of that most Aristotelian of bumper stickers "Are we having fun yet?". If that question can be asked then a negative answer is necessary. If the activity is really engaging so little of your attention that you can ask whether or not you're enjoying it, you aren't.
What sorts of desires are likely to lead us to this sort of excellence-in-activity, not just in episodes but in our lives? As Aristotle says, "One swallow does not make a Spring, nor does one sunny day; one day or a short time does not make a man truly happy and fortunate." (1098a17-19)
Really happy people are those actively engaged in the pursuit of something they really want. Very extensive wantlessness is completely incompatible with happiness.
But Homo economicus may well be happy for a while, accumulating wealth and power, clawing his way up the ladder of success. This game, like many others, may be highly enjoyable. But without genuine commitment to other people or to communities of any sort the rewards turn to ashes in the end.
A much more promising candidate for happiness is she in the grip of a single desire, tyrannical but genuine. It may be that the happiest, the most blessed lives, are led by happy warriors wholly and single-mindedly devoted to a cause or to a love.
Maybe so, and maybe it's just because I am myself incapable of such totally dominating commitment that it seems to me a sadly closed and less than fully human life.
The challenge is to combine love and freedom, to join, somehow, deep motivation and real openness to change, genuine membership in community and true autonomy. A worthwhile life, it seems to me, must be sufficiently open and reflective that elements and episodes of wantlessness are inevitable. They may, or they may not, enrich the satisfactions of commitment. I am sure that the most desirable life is not one in which one always knows, much less always gets, what one desires.

Copyright 1998, Harlan B. Miller. All commercial use is prohibited. A talk to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the New River Valley, 13 September, 1998.