Third post of fairly heavy philosophy. Will try to balance it soon with some political polemic and possibly a post on the philosophy of cuteness.
In my last post, I tried to explain why I think that empathetic ways of thinking of other conscious persons, and their conscious lives, is not just a different feeling or motive added on to non-empathetic ways of thinking, but is cognitively different, i.e. a completely different sort of belief.
I’m really not sure how far I managed to do that, since thinking about how we think, and especially thinking about how we think about thinking, is hard. But in summary: in non-empathetic thinking, the object of our thought in the other person, while in empathetic thought, our object is actually the object of their thought.
E.g. if person X is frightened of thing Y, then my coming to believe this involves a thought directed onto Y, not onto X. Just as ‘I’ am present in the thought, but not as an object, so X is not present as an object, but as a viewpoint, a perspective on the world.
Anyway, rather than spilling any more words I’m going to assume that if people still have no idea what I’m talking about they’ll tell me.
What I want to talk about now is why, given that empathy and all the forms of non-empathy are different cognitions, one is true and one is false. None of these arguments is entirely knock-down, because the whole debate is so loose you’ll always have room to dodge any point. But to me they make a lot of sense.
(I’m going to call the non-empathy umbrella ‘objectification’ because it involves a mental object, and because the word has conveniently negative connotations, and because I think it’s obviously a prerequisite for the sort of things usually called ‘objectification’.)
(I like the idea of a non-empathy umbrella too – empathy for other people is like rain, i.e. messy and inconvenient but also pervasive and vital for life).
Ok, right, so. Two reasons why empathy is true and objectification is false.
Firstly: to treat a person’s thoughts as properties of an object involves significantly changing their content, away from the content they have as thought by the other person. When they think some thought, they themselves are the subject, i.e. the ‘general limit of the world’, and not some object in it – just like the eye is not visible in the visual field, but has a different sort of presence there. So by objectifying them, you adjust how the thought in question is constructed.
But the point of truth is to adhere as closely as possible to the thing being thought about – any change in how it’s represented from how it really is, makes something less true. Hence empathy, which avoids this change, is truer than objectification.
Secondly, note that objectification isn’t quite complete as I’ve described it above. I would argue that in order to represent the other person as having a mental state at all, it needs to actually construct that mental state, make a sort of simulacrum. I can’t think of a better way to make this argument than to poste verbatim from the aforesaid conference paper. If you’re willing to take my word for it, you can skip the 400 blue words.
The argument begins with the premise that behaviourism is false – a 2nd-order thought is not a thought about behavioural inputs and outputs. Moreover, I will assume that it is because we each have a mental life, that we are able to think about the mental lives of others. To use the very simple example of colour vision: I know that, and how, you seeing ‘blueness’ goes beyond a mere behavioural disposition (setting aside how sure I can be that you are seeing ‘blueness’), and I know this because I myself have seen blueness and know what it looks like.
Now to these broadly anti-behaviourist premises I will add one that I think is pretty much analytic: for a mental state to be about something, it must contain within itself sufficient ‘resources’ to identify its object, and distinguish it from other possible objects. Otherwise, in virtue of what would it have that object and not another?
Putting these together tells us that a 2nd-order mental state must contain sufficient ‘resources’ to identify the mental states of another person, as opposed to their behavioural dispositions. But what is it that enables this identification? We gave the answer just a moment ago – it is our own mental experiences that we draw on (or extrapolate from).
So in some form that content, our own experience, is a part of any 2nd-order thought. But in what form? It seems there are two options. Either a) it is present as a 1st-order token of the relevant type, or b) it is present as a further 2nd-order thought about my past experiences, e.g. “they are feeling now how I was feeling last Friday morning”.
Option b) may well be correct much of the time, but it cannot always be true, and cannot be the primary analysis of 2nd-order thought. Why? Because it is itself 2nd-order – so we must ask how it can refer to my past experiences, and not my past behaviours. If we stick with it, it will just lead us to an infinite regress.
So in the primary case, we must conclude that option a) is correct: a 2nd-order thought about a thought of type T, must contain as one component a 1st-order thought of type T. My primary understanding of ‘X is angry’ contains a token of anger; my primary understanding of ‘X believes that P’ contains a token of ‘P’.
So just to be cognitively adequate at all, thoughts about other people have to take the first step towards empathy. But in objectified thoughts, these ‘re-creations’ of the other person’s mental state are ‘suppressed’, in the sense that they are held before the mind but not allowed to have any of their natural affective or motivational effect – a re-creation of sadness doesn’t make you sad, a re-creation of desire doesn’t get you to try and satisfy it (as it would do in the case of empathy).
Now, this is the same sort of process that we perform on things like fictions and fantasies – we formulate the idea that we’re trapped somewhere with a murderous predatory alien that wants to destroy our skull with the second mouth that’s on the rod that comes out of its mouth, but we avoid barricading the doors and loading a gun. We keep the thoughts ‘in a box’ because they’re not real.
So, the second argument is this: that objectification involves treating the other person’s thoughts (which we have recreated) the same way we treat imaginary thoughts, the same way we treat the doings and thoughts of characters in books. To not empathise, in short, is to implicitly suppose that the consciousness of others is not really real, but is more like a fun story to imagine.
But that’s not true, is it?
I think if I were presented with these arguments just out of nowhere they wouldn’t convince me: I’d be inclined to suggest that, well, neither is true, neither is false, they’re just different emotional attitudes to take.
Which is why I consider it so important that empathy and objectification are different cognitions: that is, they are different things-that-can-be-true, and this means they are in conflict. Cognition is where we make choices between alternative ways of thinking, and call the ones we should prefer ‘true’ and the other ones ‘false’.
If empathy and objectification are cognitively different then one is true and the other false, because they can’t both be accepted as equal. The considerations I’ve tried to present here – that objectification involves 1) representations that are less similar to what is represented, and 2) treating other people’s minds like fictional objects, interesting and useful to think about but not actually real – are meant to tip the balance and give us good reason to think that it’s empathy which is true, and not objectification.
The consequence of which is, that anyone who fails to act for the benefit of others where possible, and willingly inflicts unnecessary suffering and destruction on them, is not just wicked, but irrational, and the victim of a factual delusion.