Monday, August 9, 2010

Michael L. Frazer's "The Enlightenment of Sympathy"

Michael L. Frazer is an Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. His research focuses on Enlightenment political philosophy and its relevance for contemporary political theory.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today, and reported the following:
Page 99 finds us in the middle of a debate between the two most prominent philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment: David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume and Smith were close friends and intellectual allies. They agreed that sharing the feelings of others is central to the formation of moral sentiments. But they disagreed about how. Hume argued that human sympathy allows the feelings of others to infect our consciousness. When we see someone in pain, we come to feel pain ourselves. This leads us to condemn those who have caused our vicarious suffering as morally vicious. Yet Smith had a different view:
By contrast with Hume, Smith argues that there is something about sympathy with another human being that is inherently pleasant to both parties involved, regardless of whether the feelings being shared are positive or negative. This observation, as Hume observed in a letter to Smith, is the “hinge” of Smith’s thought and one that Hume felt to be highly questionable. “If all sympathy were agreeable,” Hume writes, “a hospital would be a more entertaining place than a ball.”

Smith’s reply to this objection can build on yet another argument at his disposal against Hume’s theory of emotional infection. Hume’s theory, Smith can rightly argue, would predict an experience of sympathy whenever one is vividly aware of another’s emotion. Yet no matter how vivid a spectator’s awareness or understanding of an actor’s feelings may be, she will not sympathize with those feelings if she sees them as inappropriate to the actor’s situation. Gilbert Harman gives the example of “someone who is very upset over a minor scratch on his knee from a fall ... You can understand perfectly well how upset the person is without at all sympathizing with the person’s extreme agitation.”

Unlike the mechanism of emotional infection, the mechanism of projective empathy involves discretion on the part of the spectator as to whether sympathy is called for. As [Stephen] Darwall has observed, empathetically placing ourselves in another’s situation and imagining how we would respond emotionally “puts us into a position to second the other’s feeling or dissent from it,” depending on whether the other’s feelings seem “warranted by features of the situation to which they apparently respond ... If one is inclined to believe that another’s feelings are not warranted by her situation,” Darwall reasons, “this will make it more difficult to share them through projective empathy. Indeed, one’s relative inability to empathize will itself be an expression of thinking the other’s feelings to be unwarranted.” This, in turn, suggests an obvious reason why sympathy would always be, in some respect, pleasant for all parties involved. A hospital may not be a more pleasant place than a ball, but whether on the dance floor or in the emergency room we always crave the approval of those around us and we generally also prefer to approve of our fellows rather than to disapprove of them. The degree of one’s sympathy with another, both in Smith’s system and in ordinary language, implies a proportionate degree of approval.
This debate between Hume and Smith on page 99 is remarkably representative of The Enlightenment of Sympathy as a whole. It involves a particular issue—the nature of sympathy, and its relationship to our emotional commitment to justice and virtue—of central importance to the book. (The debate at hand is about the “hinge” of Smith’s philosophy, after all.) But page 99 also ties in with larger arguments about the richness and diversity of the sentimentalist strand of Enlightenment thought, as well as its continuing relevance for us. The disagreement between Hume and Smith was not merely a tiff between two long-dead Scotsmen, but is still alive in academic discourse, political debate, and even in our personal lives. Is sympathizing with someone in pain itself painful? If so, why do the suffering crave the sympathy of others, and why do others agree to provide it? And does sympathizing with someone imply approving of them in some way? Philosophers and social scientists still wrestle with these questions, but so does anyone who has to decide between visiting a sick friend and heading out for a night on the town.
Learn more about The Enlightenment of Sympathy at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue