Saturday, September 12, 2015

If You Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed?

Reflections on competitiveness, othering and empathy.

Our sympathies radiate outward from the self in ever-widening, and attenuating, circles to family, friends, neighbors, city, nation, species, genus, order, phylum, etc. The pain of some carries great meaning and demands empathy, while others we eat for food or trample underfoot without a second thought. A recent podcast about the livestock industry described the deplorable treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food, which seemingly is intrinsic to the industrialized methods requisite to the modern way of, and scale of, life.

To put it slightly differently, the "I" is never an objectified being, but intrinsically a subject defined by feelings and thoughts, rather than by physical nature. Descartes defined being by this subjectivity, not by objective & physical reality. We have souls, but do others? Do animals? The farther one gets from the self, the less possible it is to feel for the other, the less intersubjective one tends to be. As a child it is jarring to realize that our bones can be broken, elbows scraped, and that our bodies are seen as objects by the medical profession, among others. Is the subjectivity of the "I" an illusion, or is the objectivity of the body?

But even within our own species, we clearly have ways to limit empathy, demonizing others by whatever social construct as opponent groups, nations, races, and as less than human. One shudders to think of the cruelties that were once routine, like children torturing cats, heretics burned at the stake, prisoners drawn and quartered, etc. The catalog is astonishing and disturbing. ISIS seems to be continuing in traditional fashion, though we certainly did our bit during the reign of George W. Bush.

Sure, we are programmed genetically (morally) to feel for our brethren and hate our foes. The science of human empathy has advanced markedly of late, and finds many ways by which we are genetically programmed to feel for those close to us. Yet others, including animals, have feelings just as we do. Their subjective existence is no different from ours in kind or value. Our programming against universal empathy is thus illogical, and arises purely from the competitive necessity by which we must at some point summon the ruthlessness to dispossess others of what they have so that we can prosper in their place. Sometimes by taking their land, sometimes by eating them.

This is the mystifying aspect of our love of competition, such as sports. Granted, sports might be better than war, but the valorization of such anti-social aspects of ourselves, where winning is everything, and legions of losers must suffer defeat so that one champion can be crowned ... it seems morally suspect, at least. If one looks askance at Donald Tump's demonization of Mexican immigrants, one can hardly in the next moment cheer on one's team to crush its opponents, one's country to win its wars, and one's family to succeed in its dreams of professional and reproductive dominance over other people. Competitiveness is all of a piece, and is a moral disaster.

What does competitiveness get us beyond our narrow interests? By way of natural selection, it gets us more successful populations where the weak are culled out and the most ruthless, strong, and clever survive to create yet more successful progeny. And is that the world we want to build, as humanity reaches gargantuan proportions of population and success on Earth? Our success vis-à-vis the rest of the biosphere is painfully evident. We have no competitors but each other. What does success against each other then mean, other than pain and waste?

In the economic system we have devised for ourselves to share out scarce resources, competition is supposed to generate innovation and efficiency. But typically, real innovation comes more from individual inspiration and from government funded research, with the business system merely implementing and applying what others have found, bringing it to a market scale. That is not unimportant work, and the basic market mechanisms that distribute goods are indeed very effective. But it is a principle that can be taken way too far, invading our human values and common cultural projects.

That is the subtext of our cultural moment grappling with inequality, conservatism, and a GOP that has escaped earthly bounds into an ideology of extreme competitiveness that dare not speak its full name. The 1% are, by capitalist definition, the most successful of the species. By conservative, competitive principles, they (exemplified by Donald Trump and Mitt Romney) have the duty and right to shape the social system to perpetuate their own kind at the expense of the lesser competitors among us (technically, losers). Yet there is a democracy to think about, so lip service is paid to propsperity for all, possibly through tax cuts for the rich, possibly through cutting social spending on the poor. But such hypocrisies may not even be needed as the culture becomes inured to a new feudalism, with its ever-hardening social hierarchy.

What is the answer, other than the cultivation of unifying cultural themes, and the critique of divisive, competitive, and unfeeling ones? As the black lives matter movement has brought to consciousness, there are very deep levels of social construction and competition in our society that need ongoing critique and inner work. I think that as part of the work of expanding our field of empathy among fellow humans and other beings, it is useful to see ourselves as an other as well.

Darwin took the first great leap in this direction, taking humans down from a metaphysical singularity and back into the family of life. To realize that we are apes, that we are no more feeling than other organisms that fight tenaciously to live in their own way, and that, considering our own workings as organisms, we have so very little insight that we have no personal idea how our organs work, how our very mind works, that we are strangers in a strange land. Programmed, yes, to feel that our feelings take precedence over all else and all others, but maybe capable of feeling a commonality of mystery and empathy as well.

  • Jeb! and the disaster that is mainstream Republicanism.
  • The ultimate form of capitalist debt and peonage ... human capital contracts. Why not sell your first-born at birth to the corporations and be done with it?
  • Saudis educating children...
  • Political polarization is another bad consequence of economic inequality, since money and democracy want different things.
  • Australia's internet speed is even worse than ours ... another failure of conservatism.
  • A better bus system might be better than chimerical trains.
  • Bill Black on DOJ, closing the barn door seven years after the horses left.
  • An agenda to address economic inequality. Missing are a financial transaction tax and wealth taxes, such as Piketty's annual wealth tax, or a much higher estate tax.
  • Housing shortages increase inequality and feed the rentier class.
  • Saving appearances in the Wall Street Journal: "Bush Wants Fewer Tax Breaks for Wealthy Than Most in GOP."


  1. Hi Burk,

    I think you are asking some very good questions here. You are touching upon the cognitive dissonance that many philosophical naturalists/physicalists feel when they want to elevate certain aspects to being human (empathy) over others (competitive winners/losers). But how to do this given the physical is all there is? Any “elevation” seems impossible.

    If you can square this: “Our programming against universal empathy is thus illogical...”

    With this: “Programmed, yes, to feel that our feelings take precedence over all else and all others, but maybe capable of feeling a commonality of mystery and empathy as well.”

    Then God bless you. You seemed cursed to exhort us to take a course that is, according to you, illogical. On the other hand, if we believe the physical is not all there is, then such a course becomes eminently logical. Only a narrative that creates a space for mystery and thus empathy will do what you are hoping for here. Philosophical naturalism/physicalism will never create that space, thus the cognitive dissonance evident in your post.

  2. Hi, Darrell!

    Thanks for your comment. I think I indicate, though, that mystery remains present in the human experience, however much we understand, scientifically. Just the forward march of time from past to future is itself a never-ending source of adventure. All this is quite fine with naturalism (which does not posit that everything is understood, only that no good evidence supports anything of a supernatural or spirit-nature being real). What is not so consistent with humanism, or at least the kind of farther-out moral ideal mentioned here, is our evolutionary programming. I am not saying that that programming does not exist, or could not exist. Quite the opposite... it does very definitely exist, and does not agree with an idealistic desire for a less contentious existence. It is those two that are not logically consistent... with each other. Perhaps the ideal has to go, but more realistically, it is a matter of fighting against (our) nature with positive cultivation and other tools of socialization.

    All this says nothing about naturalism, or things beyond the evident reality, etc. We can make up what ideals we want, but reality doesn't always accommodate them. The point of raising the issue of mystery is not to fill it with imagined things, but to emphasize the humility of our position, and our dependence/interdependence on a great deal we know little about. In short, that we are all in the same boat. Maybe that, in the end, leads as easily to conflict as it does to understanding/empathy, depending on how crowded that boat is(!) ... truly a conundrum.