Monday, July 18, 2011

On Kindness

Anne Jacobson at Feminist Philosophers has an intriguing post up about Hume on kindness to others.

She doesn't quote Hume, but here's some relevant words from A Treatise of Human Nature:
We partake of [victims of injustice’s] uneasiness by sympathy; and as every thing, which gives uneasiness in human actions, upon the general survey, is called Vice, and whatever produces satisfaction, in the same manner, is denominated Virtue.... [S]ympathy with public interest is the source of the moral approbation, which attends that virtue" (II.ii)
It hurts us to see others in pain, so we decide that intentionally bringing harm to others is a bad thing. This ability to feel bad for others is how we determine right and wrong for society. One could conclude, then, that empathy is necessary for moral determination. However, I think you could come to the same place using pure reason most of the time, a clear but unlikely exception being the case of killing one innocent person to save many. Reasonably, this one murder could be argued to be a very good thing, but with empathy in the mix, we'd stop ourselves from pulling the trigger. In fact then, empathy, feeling the pain of others, can sometimes prevent a correct moral action. But most of the time it's bang on, so I'll continue as if empathy is a good thing.

Okay, just a brief further digression. I watched Temple Grandin last night - a tear-jerker about a woman who made a success of herself despite (actually because of) her autism. She created safe and efficient ways to slaughter cows, and I wondered as I watched it if her condition allowed her to divorce her sentiment from her reason enough to get the benefits of the reason without being clouded by sentiment. Hume would say that we never make decisions without being guided by sentiment - that it's just not possible even when we really really think we're being purely reasonable, but I think it's possible for some people. Often unfortunately so.

Anyway, Jacobson questions how "benevolence zones" appear. Why is it that in some circumstances people will flock to help others, when in many others this isn't the case. She sites a cancer centre as her example of a place where extraordinary acts of compassion happen. Then the question becomes: Why can't we make that happen everywhere?

I commented there,
I think the zone of benevolence might not create the kindness, but merely allow it. Many people would be kinder if it wasn’t a sign of weakness or weirdness. If there’s an area where kindness is permissible, where you can still look cool, and it’s unlikely you’ll be accused of an ulterior motive, then perhaps people would jump to help one another. Helping someone often translates to, “You owe me” which is an uncomfortable place to be. To build a benevolence zone, then, would require a foundational belief that we can give without expectation of receiving.
I'm very lucky to work in a profession where I get to be kind all day long without looking like a loser for being so nice, so I get all the benefits of that dopamine rush without the punishment of losing ground in the social hierarchy. In the teacher-student relationship, it's entirely uni-directional, so helping a student doesn't leave them with a sense of necessary compensation which can lead to hating the helper for foisting on them the burden of pay-back.

I was thinking of Fonzie when I commented on the post. I loved Happy Days until Fonzie became nice and started wearing glasses and went back to school, and then... well, we all know about the shark jumping incident. Attaching loser items to a person previously established as cool can go two ways.

In the case of Fonzie, it totally brought him down. Fonzie became a nerd, and it was painful to watch. But it doesn't always happen like that.

In the final episode of Freaks and Geeks, one of the cools guys (James Franco no less) accepts an invitation to play Dungeons and Dragons with some geeks - and he likes it. He wants to play again. The geeks wonder: does this make him a geek too, or does it make us cool? They decide to put their faith in the latter option. And, at our school this year, a curious mix of kids played Dungeons and Dragons weekly, without fail, and it became cool by association.
(But nothing tops Community's D&D episode.)

I think which direction this goes depends on the strength of the coolness previously established and currently maintained in the people involved. When Fonzie's mantra became "school is cool" he didn't just get a pair of glasses, he donned a new persona. His behaviours, voice, gestures, and posture changed. He didn't have a gaggle of girls hanging around him anymore, and he didn't act cool. He got too excited about school, and enthusiasm is the antithesis of cool. James Franco's character doesn't change. He just adds another activity to his day of hanging out with friends, getting it on with his girlfriend, and cheating on tests.

I've recognized this association trick before, and tried to make it work to my advantage with environmental initiatives. I'm the enviro-nut at my school, but I recognize I don't have a high enough cool factor to make everyone want to reduce consumption. Instead of the environment getting cooler (ha), I just became perceived as even weirder. I tried to shift the job to a cooler teacher, but she was transferred. I'll try again in the fall.

But would it be enough to associate kindness with being cool? It's got a long history of dragging people to a lower status. There was a study done (which, unfortunately, I can't find) that explored when people stop being kind. Children love to help. That adds credence to the idea that it's an instinctive behaviour. If you drop something, a 2-year-old would love to pick it up for you. But by just 4 or 5, kids recognize that doing for others is for losers. If I drop my pencil and you jump up to pick it up for me, then I own you.

This is especially clear in one-way relationships where reciprocity isn't expected. Teachers and parents know that once they help a bit too much, there's a subtle shift in the balance of things and the kids start to look at us like slaves. It just takes them needing something and being denied to swing that back the other way. But it's a funny dance we do.

But even when it's tit for tat, the person who does less, dominates. This is all Nash's game theory stuff. To do well in games, business or life, be as agreeable as the person you're dealing with. If they agree to do something, then you agree next time, but if they disagree, then you disagree next time (even if you want to agree). It's a means to maintain a balance of power. If you disagree too much, they'll write you off as contrary or oppositional. But, worse, if you agree too much, you're a laughing stock.

But, gosh, wouldn't it be nice if we could just do nice things all the time without this power imbalance freaking us out! If it could happen in a cancer ward, why can't it happen in our schools, dammit?!

Because we're not dying - not noticeably anyway. Someone in a very vulnerable state is unlikely to rip us off or humiliate us for helping. If they're on death's door, then they'll never have the upper hand. They'll never own, so we can be free to help without any harm to our status.

It's like, in Freaks and Geeks, when Alan, the bully, said nice thing to Bill, the geek, only when he thought Bill might die (because of him). Once Bill started recovering, Alan reverted to his old taunts. Being nice is just too dangerous to our social ranking, and only a few can consistently rise above that.
But we can keep trying.

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