Empathy and Objectification: how to think about other minds

In my last post I tried to lay out the ground for my approach to meta-ethics, that is to investigating what is involved in moral claims being true or false. Today I’m going to try to put flesh on those bones by developing an account of how it is that we think about other people and their experiences, on which empathy is rationally required, and people who behave like psychopaths are rationally defective – victims, so to speak, of a delusion, just as much as any other psychotic.

So I should with some setting-up. Firstly, I want to say what I think the intuitive assumption is, the picture that I want to argue against (or at least provide an alternative to). The view can be summed up I think in two theses:

1) Thoughts about other people’s experiences have separate cognitive, affective, and motivational components, and;

2) People with different affective and motivational components can still share the same cognitive components.

That is, if malicious person A and compassionate person B both observe person C in distress, they can share the exact same cognition – namely, awareness of the fact ‘that person C is in distress’. They differ simply in that A adds to this a layer of enjoyment and a motivation to keep watching that distress, while B adds a different affective component (they are distressed themselves) and a different motivation (to relieve C’s distress).

What this picture implies is that at the level of cognition, there is no difference between A and B – and so neither can be called right or wrong. They differ only in the further steps they take after becoming aware of this fact. What I want to argue is that for these affective and motivational components to differ as they do, A and B must also have different cognitions, i.e. they believe different facts.

How does this work? My essential claim is this: that A is thinking of a certain object, which they understand and predict by running through a series of thoughts, treated as fantasy-thoughts, while B is thinking of a viewpoint embedded in a body, from which the world appears a certain way.

But obviously this requires more ground-laying. We will need a quick discussion of thought in general, and what it involves, before we can talk about particular classes of thoughts. So I’m going to try to run through some points about thought in general. Obviously on such a topic it’s impossible to avoid being in certain respects controversial, but I’m trying to largely go along with philosophical consensus and common-sense.

So the first point is about the idea of an ‘object’, and the corresponding term ‘subject’. The basic idea is that most thoughts take the form of being ‘directed onto’ something, being ‘about’ something, the object, while also being thought ‘by’ something else, the subject, and that in the thought, we are conscious of both the gap between these two, and of the connection between them that the thought itself establishes.

So for instance I focus my attention on the empty cup of tea in front of me. My mind is directed onto the cup – it is my object. ‘I’ am the subject of this thought, and in looking at the cup I have the sense of being distinct from it – it is not me. Yet at the same time I am aware that by being able to see it, I am in some way connected to it (different philosophical accounts of perception try in various ways to integrate the element of separation and the element of connection in such states).

Now, a key point here, which has been insisted on by a great number of philosophers, is that ‘I’ the subject am ‘present’ in all these mental states (that is, in having them, I am conscious of myself) but not as an object. I’m not constantly thinking about myself, but I am constantly aware of myself – this sort of awareness is sometimes called ‘pre-reflective’, i.e. I don’t need to actively reflect on myself to have it. In particular, when I am aware of many different objects at once (which is pretty much all the time – consciousness is usually complex) I’m pre-reflectively aware of myself as what connects all these different objects that I am simultaneously aware of.

One very nice metaphor, which I think comes mainly from Wittgenstein, is that of the subject as being like the eye. I can see my visual field – but I can’t see my eye. Nevertheless, I am aware of my eye whenever I am seeing things – but not as a visible thing, as the limit and basis of the visual field. Similarly I am aware of myself whenever I am conscious, but not as an object, as the limit and basis of all my awareness of objects.

And one noteworthy point here is that this means that a certain connection exists between statements about myself and statements about the world and it’s objects. For instance, for me to say “I am disgusted” is connected in this way to saying “things are disgusting”; “I believe that P is true” is connected with “P is true” (imagine if someone said “it will rain soon but I believe it won’t rain for a long time” – they have contradicted themselves, but not in the normal logical way). “I am pleased” is connected with “things are good”. This link is not quite that of strict synonymy, but it is noteworthy nevertheless.

Almost there.

I’m aware of any given object in many different ways – I can see this cup now, see it tomorrow, smell it, see it from the other side, see it from far away, see it with hateful eyes, see it with scientific precision, see it as enormous relative to a cockroach or see it as tiny relative to this building. But the cup doesn’t change – what changes is ‘me’, and the way that I am aware of it. This, we can express by talking of viewpoints. We see the cup from different viewpoints, and we end up with a range of thoughts about it, each qualified by the viewpoint it comes from. But because we’re rational thinkers, we try to synthesise these different views, to explain how the same object seems different when viewed in these different ways. We see, for example, that the laws of geometry, and certain assumptions about space and movement, can make sense of why it has different apparent shapes and sizes when seen from different angles and distances. That’s easy. More difficult is to do the same with, say, emotional viewpoints – why does an event seem unfair when looked at in one way, fair in another, shocking from one perspective, or obvious, threatening, indifferent from others? We don’t know exactly, but we try to find out – and in order to find out, we must take each viewpoint we get as a valid datum. That is, we must be like scientists trying to find a theory that explains all the data, and not simply ignore those data which we don’t want to have to integrate.

One part of this process is that when we find that a good overall viewpoint differs from a specific one, and can explain why that specific one differs, we suppress that specific thought, we try to not let it affect us. If something looks unfair from our overall understanding, but good from one particular viewpoint, we try to suppress that perception of it as good, and not act on it. But this is only ever a discriminating kind of suppression – we can only perform it on particular thoughts if we have good reason to think they are mistaken.

What we cannot do standardly is to just suppress a load of thoughts because we want to. We can’t, if we want to be rational, just take everything we know about some topic, and then ignore it. That’s the paradigm of irrationality. But when can we do this, when can we suppress thoughts indiscriminately? When they are part of a fantasy: when we are watching a film, or imagining a remote hypothetical event, or picturing what it would be like to visit Mauritania. In these cases it is the mark of rationality to avoid acting on the motivations that these thoughts generate – e.g. when watching a scary film we do not rush to get our gun, or run screaming from the theatre, or call 999. And note, this reflects the fact that these fantasy thoughts are not integrated with other thoughts at all – because they are not perspectives on the world of objects, but rather on non-existent objects, like Frodo Baggins or my guide to Mauritania.


So my claim is that person B, the compassionate one, sees C in distress and cognises this fact as something like: the world appears horrendous and distressing from “C’s perspective” – and the idea of “C” is derived from the idea of “C’s perspective”, not vice versa. That is, B looks at this body screaming and weeping, and processes this as revealing an aspect of the world, and the viewpoint from which it appears with that aspect.

Person A, on the other hand, processes this quite differently: they process person C as an object, as a thing among other things in the world, and not as a viewpoint on the world – note that neither B nor C thinks of C in this way. One consequence of this difference is that the ‘connection’ between thoughts about C and thoughts about the world is preserved for B, but not for A. For C, the thought “I am pleased” is closely connected with the thought “things are good” – and for B, the thought “C is pleased” is also closely connected with the thought “things are good”. Equally, of course, “C is distressed” is closely connected with “things are bad” – and so B is made to themselves feel bad, and motivated to end C’s distress. Whereas for A, “C is distressed” has no connection at all with “things are bad”. Instead, it’s just a fact about this one particular person, C, this particular object. This means that A need not have any particular feelings about it, or motivations. In this case, of course, A is motivated, and is motivated maliciously – they feel good that “C is distressed”, for whatever specific psychological reasons. But it is their ‘objectification’ of C that gives space for their particular feelings and desires to operate.

But none of the rest of this is just a matter of ’emotions’ or how we happen to feel – the connection between “I am pleased” and “things are good”, or between “I am in danger” and “things are dangerous”, or between “I believe that P is true” and “P is true”, is not just a matter of feelings – it is a basic part of how our cognition works. Or at least, to say that it is so, is a position just as plausible, and probably far more historically supported, than to deny that it is so.

Finally though, we might ask – if person A regards person C as an object, and not as a viewpoint, how do they even make sense of person C’s being conscious and having thoughts? This, I think, we must look at by analogy with what I said about fantasy thoughts. Person A must somehow formulate the idea of distress if they are to recognise what distress is (and see person C as more than just a doll designed to make noises). But they then don’t let that idea of distress upset them – they suppress it, but not because they think it’s unreasonable (after all, they know that C has good reason to be distressed). And this is what we do with fantasy-thoughts – that is, with thoughts that we regard as perspectives on unreal objects, and not on the world itself.

This post is far too long, but hopefully those who have struggled through so far have some idea of what I’m trying to get across.

Note, I haven’t yet tried to show that one or the other of these ways of thinking is correct or incorrect – merely that they are different, and that this difference is cognitive, making use of the most basic forms of cognition we have (subject, object, world, perspective, reality, etc.) Next post, hopefully, will give some reasons for considering empathy rational and objectification irrational.

One Response to “Empathy and Objectification: how to think about other minds”

  1. Is Empathy True? « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] Empathy and Objectification: how to think about other minds […]

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