Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tapping Philosophy: Pity

Hi Tapping,
Thanks to everyone who came out last week to discuss the relation between the student and the teacher. I thought it was a great topic, kudos to Charles for bringing it up. We'll be meeting this week at our usual time and place, thursdays eight o clock, at Yeats pub, and we will be running rides from Connelly at 7:30.

This weeks topic:


"When Nature gave man tears,
She proclaimed that he was tender hearted"
"Mandeville clearly sensed that for all their morality, men would never have been anything but monsters if Nature had not given them pity in support of reason: but he did not see that from this single attribute flow all the social virtues he wants to deny men. Indeed, what are generosity, Clemency, Humanity, if not pity applied to the weak, the guilty, or the species in general?"
"Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious."

Rousseau talks about two values being at the center of man's existence, and these are self interest (the desire to avoid suffering?) and disgust at the suffering of others. The emotional extension of this visceral reaction would then be pity. What does it feel like to pity someone? Does pity beget solidarity or superiority? When is pity helpful and when is it damaging? Rousseau takes a very critical stance against rationalist narratives of society, claiming that philosophers are able to rationalize themselves out of behaving with respect to their natural inclinations of pity, which would otherwise drive them to help those who are in dire situations. He chiefly cites the emotional connection between the mother and child as that of pity should the child be suffering. Natural instincts he argued, hold society together in a way that is more meaningful and functional than any argument.

So what do we think of this? Does pity play a central role, or any role at all, in organizing society? Does pity necessarily lead to help coming from the pitying party? Does pity conflict with rationality, or is it possible to take pity as a premise for rational behavior? An uglier way of putting this might be, could pity be based in self interest? Is pity really what drives mothers to act on behalf of their child, and is that relationship a sound model for how a society should be organized (it's certainly not the traditional western one ::ahem::)? There may be a bigger question at hand than simply pity itself, i.e. where does emotion end and rationality begin in political discourse, or how can the two be dialectically related in order to promote the betterment of society?

Within the context of a discussion there's not much of a bigger boo boo than substituting emotion for argument. However, for Rousseau, there's a bigger context than a discussion that's at stake, where power is operative, and rationality may not survive alone.


Francis Prior said...

Hey, so I felt the need to give a quick argument about this, even though I don't go to Tapping anymore. It seems as though you're presenting a false dilemma when you make the reader choose between emotion and rationality, at least in this particular case. Pity, such as a mother pitying her child, must have arisen as an evolutionary adaptation, where the mother who showed pity towards her child was better able to protect and support him than the mother who did not. As such, there is no conflict between emotion and rationality; in fact, most emotions can be explained rationally in some way or another.

-Charles Z.

Francis Prior said...

Hi Charles,
I'm glad to see you've still got your argumentative spirit.
Not to play my whole hand right away, but I actually agree with you in that the dichotomy between rationality between rationality and emotions is not as clear cut as we would have it, and they are usually related. People have lots of reasons for acting outside of their own self-preservation. However, I would be wary of making an argument about rationality that doesn't necessarily apply to the cognition of the actor itself. While it may be true that the actions of a mother could be explained within a rational scientific framework like Darwin's natural selection, that doesn't necessarily mean that she is a rational actor in the cognitive sense, especially if alleviating the child's suffering puts her at risk. In other words, the mother doesn't necessarily have Darwin in mind when she is saving her child; we can rationalize her actions externally, but for her there may not even be a choice, only a drive, i.e. pity.

Happy trails!

Francis Prior said...

Oh, I see what you're getting at. You're differentiating between external rationality and the rationality of the conscious thought of the actor. I wasn't implying that the woman would "have Darwin in mind" when saving her child. I was just pointing out that she would be acting on instinct, which is an emotion, but an emotion that can be explained rationally through the theory of natural selection. But no, she would not necessarily be acting rationally. Anyway, I wouldn't want to make you play any more of your cards before Thursday. Hope it's a good one.

- Charles Z.