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We only pity others when it suits ourselves

April 5, 2011

My introductory political science class consists of a continuous examination of a selected pantheon of sorts of some of the greatest philosophical works written by the modern political thinkers of our time (modern used loosely, of course, and thinkers of which have all been Western, I should add). Throughout the course, I have found myself in agreement with a great deal of what I have read, and am certainly enlightened by everything that we have touched upon.

However, that is not to say that I have agreed with everything insofar that has been expounded by these thinkers; some aspects of their thoughts I have even objected to in entirety. One of these key objections has been of a central aspect of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality – that of the human capacity for pity and empathy – for it is something that I find myself thoroughly in dissidence with.

I cannot agree more with Rousseau’s agreement with Hobbes that self-preservation and self-interest is a defining characteristic of man. As an extension of my agreement, I cannot disagree more with Rousseau’s own extension of Hobbes’s belief of there being another principle that defines the human condition: that of pity. Rousseau argues in his Discourse that human nature – however savage – is elevated from that of monster by the differentiating characteristic of possessing empathy and pity, that we have a certain “… innate repugnance to see his fellow [human] suffer.”

I believe that Rousseau was too idealistic for his own good, and here is why: because we are truly nothing more than savages bred by society to obey the rules set in place by our respective governments, for we are either learned enough or have been coerced into the very real understanding that cooperation brings greater benefits for each individual than solitude does. It is folly as well as both overly and overtly optimistic to try to tack on anything more to that admission of self-interest.

It can’t be denied that pity does exist, but where Rousseau was incorrect was in his belief that pity is a facet entirely separate of self-interest; on the contrary, I believe that pity is an extension of self-interest, that our feelings of pity are nothing more than just another way for us to promote our individual mental health and wellbeing.

I read a blog post on the subject matter last month that meticulously bifurcated the two parts of human nature into a separately examined dichotomy. In it, a fellow classmate commented on our reactions to the homeless of Ann Arbor as a relatable illustration of Rousseau’ concept of human pity.

However, I ask you to think of it this way: when we see Salvation Army volunteers working during the blistering cold of the holiday season with their bells and bright-red buckets, when we see homeless after homeless lined up on the streets of the city asking us if we can spare some change, when we hear of disasters abroad and witness the immediate and inevitable proliferation of organizations on campus soliciting donations from students to send overseas, when we see all these things and we open our wallets and our checkbooks and give a few dollars out of our hearts to the needy and the poor, is this an example of the pity and commiseration that Rousseau theorized was a salient quality of humankind, or are these actions simply additional illustrations of our self-interest and concern for ourselves?

Surely each and every one of you has seen reports on the news of wealthy philanthropists making exorbitant donations and thinking to yourself, “Jeez, another publicity stunt. In the end, the amount of publicity this billionaire gains and the resulting goodwill from his efforts far outweight whatever financial contribution he made.” But despite the human condition’s natural aversion to introspection and hypocrisy, I believe that the amour-propre and other psychological benefits we beget from our resulting actions to our feelings of pity are no different than those we criticize and spurn, save an abhorrence to actually admit it to ourselves.

What I am attempting to say here is further reinforced by Santa Clara University’s Claire Andre and Dr. Manual Velasquez’s short pieceUnmasking the Motives of the Good Samaritan.

You’re walking down a quiet road one evening and suddenly come upon a horrible scene. Ahead of you is a truck turned on its side and lying on the pavement is the driver, a young man. His face is bloody and he is barely moving. What do you do? You help. But why do you help? What, exactly, is your motive?

You are likely to reply that you helped because you wanted to reduce the man’s distress. But many psychologists would offer a different explanation: When we see someone in distress, we ourselves experience feelings of distress, such as shock, alarm, worry, or fear. This unpleasant emotional arousal leads us to want to increase our own well being by reducing these feelings. One way to this goal is to reduce the other’s distress. Helping, then, is only a means to reducing our own distress. What appears to be altruistically motivated behavior is really only self interest in disguise.

The view that human beings act from self-interest and from self interest alone is not new. It has long been the dominant view in psychology and in much of Western thought. Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century philosopher, believed that human beings always acted from self-interest. On one occasion Hobbes was seen giving money to a beggar. When asked why, he explained that he was trying to relieve his own discomfort at seeing the beggar in need.

Furthermore, it could even be said that our reactions to piteous events are not just an effort to reduce our own distress, but also one that holds an opportunity to give ourselves immense self-satisfaction as well (such as our reaction to the example of the homeless above).

I hardly lay claim to having a greater understanding of human nature than Rousseau did, and I fully understand that my opinions written here may come into direct opposition with many of your beliefs. After all, this is just the lens through which I see the world based off of the empiricism of my life, and is certainly a contentious view on the matter. If you disagree, I fully urge you to respond with your thoughts: how do you rationalize the following?

When we help others, it is because we gain something from it, whether that reward is of a tangible or intangible nature (such as monetary compensation or personal satisfaction). If we truly gained absolutely nothing from our reactions to the plight of others, than we wouldn’t help at all. And if this is true, than how can Rousseau believe in a second principle of pity on top of one of only Hobbesian self-interest?

Jonathan He
University of Michigan

  1. Christina Beckman permalink
    April 6, 2011 2:19 PM

    Although this is a very compelling blog post, I find myself needing to disagree with it. As a big advocate for community outreach and philanthropy, I do not think humans help others in order to help themselves in the process, as you or Dr. Valaquez have suggested. To me, that’s not the point.

    It’s true we all feel uncomfortable when we see someone in need. And it’s true that most humans would feel compelled to do something. But I’d like to agree with Rousseau: it’s because we’re compassionate beings! We don’t necessarily like seeing that person in pain, and since we’re there and healthy, it’s our natural duty to do something to help. Although your chivalrous act could make you feel needed and important, perhaps even good about yourself, that’s not why we do it: we do it because we have a moral obligation to help those in need. And I think Rousseau would agree with that.

    I’m not saying that we don’t gain much, maybe a pat on the back or the simple feeling that you helped someone, but I don’t think we need to gain much from these experiences either- it should be the people we’re helping who gain the most from them.

    Interesting blog post! I really enjoyed thinking differently about these situations using these theories!

  2. April 23, 2011 12:52 AM

    Very good post! Thanks.

    I loved Calvin & Hobbes. I used to read it everyday, some years ago.

    It would be interesting and necessary to define “self-interest” and distinguish levels and qualities for the concept. From the different examples you describe in your post, it could range from basic needs, like satisfying hunger to higher and spiritual ones, as helping someone in distress that could bring relief to ourselves as well.

    All of human being actions under the concept of “self-interest”, could then fit into the funny expression of “catch 22” while others are more like a “win-win” situation.

    I believe moral and ethics have to do with these: our society (and ourselves) praises more the “win-win” situations in which as you are helping others, you get a reward (not monetary but spiritual). Usually, these actions tend to have consequences in relationships even with strangers, and good feelings grow from them. Something is built, reinforced, treasured.

    While in the “catch 22” ones, self-interest implies satisfaction of needs so instinctive that in a way, it leads nowhere.

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