Guilt, Empathy, and Preference

Why do we act like we respect people? Why don’t we go around thieving and murdering to get what we want?

A complete sociopath, or an economist, might point to external incentives and note that the negative repercussions of crime far outweigh the benefits. We don’t murder merely because jail is unpleasant, shame hurts, and the death penalty kind of ends all hope. Internal costs and benefits matter too. The internal cost of committing a crime is known as the feeling of ‘guilt’.

But why do we feel guilty? Adam Smith theorized that each of us acts as if we are constantly observed by an impartial spectator who sees and judges all that we do. This impartial spectator judges us and obliges us to guilt by using the four sources of moral approbation.

Ignoring all culpability, we have a psychological aversion to seeing another living thing harmed. Few are the people who seek out and watch the online beheading videos; even fewer are those who watch and don’t experience repulsion.

And the degree to which we are repulsed is the degree to which we sympathize. When we see anyone hurt themselves, such as when an athlete breaks a leg at a sports event, we instantly cringe and recoil as if to avoid the same fate. We grab our own leg and imagine the pain and emotion that the athlete might be experiencing. Of course, there’s no way to know what the other person is feeling. For all of our physical reaction, it’s all in our heads. There was no threat to our leg nor harm done to us.

If our imagination is driven by our degree of empathy, then what drives that empathy? Surely some sympathy is the result of personification. When we are more familiar with other people and animals, we empathize more. Or, if an animal is similar to one with which we are familiar, like a wolf is similar to a dog, then we may empathize more. When a dog gets hit by a car and lies twitching on the ground just before death, he is not thinking about the brevity of life, the toys he never ate, the mailman that got away, or the children and parents that he’ll leave behind. The dog is suffering in pain, overwhelmed by fear, and seeks help from its owner. All the rest of it is in our heads. The same goes for happy emotions. We cry at exceedingly good and visceral news when we watch movies. Ultimately, accurate or not, we imagine the preferences of other people and creatures.



But at the same time, we reason. If we see a carcass that is hit by a car, it’s pretty gross, but we don’t react so much. We know that the carcass is a carcass – it’s dead and doesn’t feel a thing. We’re repelled by the imagined texture, decay, and filth more than by any imagined harm to the lifeless heap.

When we see the faceless yellow and black crash test dummy flailing in slow motion, it doesn’t pull heartstrings. We know that there’s no pain in there. We have our imagination, but we also have logic as a guide to whether we ought to empathize (or we have it as a self-encouragement to empathize).

We use logic in order to coax empathy or in order to replace sympathy when it doesn’t emerge from within us naturally. Adam Smith famously wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general.

And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

Although our social and emotional distance from people who live across the world is great, we know that their suffering is real. It is this logic which prevails when we give identical moral deference to the rights of our fellow man, whether he’s in Guatemala or Korea. And despite our inability to accurately imagine their circumstance, we presume that the global preference to avoid harm remains a constant.

At the very least, people refrain from harmful actions because they naturally sympathize with the deleterious effects. Even when the subject of our attention is distant or abstract, we use logic to infer that a preference to avoid harm is understandable. In this fashion, propriety is guided in part by recognizing preferences in another. Attempts to avoid improper behavior are facilitated by the effect of empathy on guilt.

If I said that we should avoid harming all things which have a preference, then that would be too broad of a declaration. Most of us don’t hesitate to kill bugs, mice, or fish – all of which prefer to live. Propriety aside, knowing that early stage fetuses or coma patients don’t have preferences makes murdering them acceptable for some. Although the extent of preference in different people and animals certainly varies, it is obvious that the existence of preference is included in the set of relevant things to consider when we identify whether we have caused harm.

Recognizing and understanding the preferences of another, accurately or not, leads us to empathize. Empathy helps us to predict the actions of others and to best understand the effects of our own actions on others. Empathy is a prerequisite for sympathy. BOTH can be inaccurate and fail to reflect the true feelings of others.  Regardless of our accuracy, when we interpret the effects on others of our actions as negative, a feeling of guilt swells inside of us. Logic helps us along the way. Logic tells us when we should feel guilty even when we don’t automatically empathize by reflex. Guilt, by definition, is a negative feeling that we intend to avoid (although, there are definitely culpable people who don’t feel very guilty).  A bit of empathy, sympathy, and logic concerning the preferences of others can help us avoid a great many harmful actions – but not all of them.

PS. – I know that people do more than empathize. This is not an exhaustive explanation of the reasons to avoid harming others. Sympathy, accurate or not, with another’s preferences is merely a subset of the things which cause guilt and is only one reason to abstain from harming another. I know plenty of utilitarians or deontologists who are not particularly empathetic at all.


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