Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - civilisation, progress & the importance of empathy

Once or twice on this blog I have written on the concept of progress. I was reminded of this by Legal Eagle's post The Hunger Games.

Back in July 2007 in New Barbarians? I said in part:

In all this, when I look at the history of European civilisation, I can see just that, the progressive development of a civilisation. I say European civilisation because I do not know enough of other streams to exactly follow the same process there, although I am sure that it exists.

The civilising process was never uniform nor exact. There were major retreats from time to time, but the progress was there.

Alfred North Whitehead's Adventure of Ideas traced this process through in a European context showing how different threads came together to create European civilisation. Whitehead published this book in 1933 and did not see the uniquely European barbarism that was to come with Hitler and the Nazis.

But even here, when we look at the outcomes, the Second World War introduced the concept of war crimes. Further, the German people were not punished, as Rome punished Carthage, through extermination down to ploughing the fields with salt. Instead, Germany was rebuilt, while Europe itself moved to put put previous civil wars behind it by creating the EU.

Whitehead had an enormous influence on my thinking because he seemed to me show a process of change, of the way in which combination of ideas could, with time, create what I thought of as civilisation. Later, I did ethics as part of my Philosophy I course.

I actually found the ethics component depressing because it challenged my idea that there was a "right", showing that different ethical systems all depended on different forms of rationalisation. However, it gave me greater tolerance for different views, while also reinforcing my belief in the importance of civilisation and the concept of progress as a process. Some of the alternatives were just so sterile. Empty of hope or even choice, they offered nothing but despair.

In May 2009 in Saturday Morning Musings - the concept of progress, I worried about the loss of our belief in progress. "Some might argue that progress is an illusion, that its pursuit has done damage", I suggested. I went on:

I do not share this view. To my mind, progress is a liberating concept because it implies that change for the better is possible. If you don't believe that progress is possible, then what's the point in trying?

To my mind, the emergence of post-modernism with its very denial of the concept of progress was in some ways a sign of the ennui that began to envelop life in many western countries.

I seem to have chewed away at this many times.

Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West (August 2007) looked at the impact of terrorism. There my concern was, in part, the impact on liberty and life of Government's desire to control and protect:

While all Governments have authoritarian tendencies, the last three decades have seen to my mind a remarkable rise in state authoritarianism in Australia. Governments do less for their people, but attempt to control more. This control permeates every activity and every level of society.

As I saw it, the rise of state authoritarianism was a denial of some of the central tenets in my own view of civilisation.

I am not a libertarian. However I do believe, as Thomas Jefferson may or may not have said, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. 

In November 2008 in Why I remain an optimist - and why I still believe in progress I restated my belief in progress. There I wrote in part: "if you look at the evolution of human society and thought, you will see that the need to control our human weaknesses, the desire to find a better way, is a constant thread."

This is only a smattering of the things that I have written, but it gives a taste of my personal views.

I am no longer a Christian in the way I once was. I do not miss the anguish created by conflicts between stated views of moral right as prescribed or defined, the very real fear of rotting in hell, and my natural inclinations. I do miss the certainty that that my beliefs also created.

The King James bible is one of the most wonderful books in the English language. The grandeur of its language permeates much of English writing and indeed conversation at so many levels over so many years.

In the midst of the decline in my own religious views came a focus on certain things expressed with simplicity and clarity and indeed a certain grandeur in that book. These were things that I heard in church, chapel or Sunday school.

It is hard to believe now that during term time I went to school chapel five days a week, was part of a school bible study group, went to the Methodist Church on Sunday and was a member first of the Junior Order of Knights and then the Methodist Youth Fellowship. This broad pattern continued into university.

As the broad superstructure of my beliefs dropped way, I came to focus on a small number of key things.

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" was the first. Such a simple idea, but so powerful, for it can be applied in all aspects of human life. 

"Go the extra mile" is more complicated because the concept that has now become enshrined was originally a little different as expressed in the bible: "and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain."

This is an example of the long historical reach of some of our concepts. At the time these words were recorded, the law allowed a Roman soldier to make a person carry his back pack for a Roman mile, or a thousand paces. In making his reported statement, Jesus was saying that if you are required to carry that pack for one mile, do it also for the second. Now the "extra mile" is deeply enshrined in our thinking.

The combination of do unto others with the extra mile is not a bad base for a moral philosophy. But then there is 1 Corinthians 13, my old school lesson. This begins:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Charity or love is a pretty important concept. The idea that without this our lives become little more than a sounding brass or tinkling symbol provides a useful corrective. The section finishes:

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I have quoted these words from Paul before. I heard them once a term for for six years. they became very familiar.

Overall, they are important ideas. But listening in the school chapel, it was the words "For now we see through a glass, darkly" that grabbed.

Then it was just the sounds of the words. Now it has become so much more.

As what we now call a teenager with very strong sex drives and teenage confusion, I heard the words in terms of the comparison with my childhood. Now when the dark clouds sometimes gather, when things seem confused and difficult, when clarity or certainty seems distant, they become something that I can focus on.

This is not meant to be a sermon, simply a Saturday Morning Muse. So to finish, let me return to Legal Eagle's post.

In that post, she quotes Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I haven't read the book, but Pinker outlines the ‘inner demons’ which cause us to be violent and the ‘better angels’ which cause us to refrain from being violent. The four better angels listed are:

  • Empathy – particularly the sense of sympathetic concern leads us to feel the pain of others and align our interests with theirs;
  • Self-control – this allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to moderate them;
  • Moral sense – a set of norms and taboos which may decrease violence (although sometimes they increase it too);
  • Reason – this allows us to extricate ourselves from parochial vantage points and to deduce ways in which we could be better off.

Of these four, I think that Legal Eagle believes (as I do) that empathy is central. If you cannot feel others pain and joy then you are, at the end, a limited human being.


Legal Eagle said...

Pinker's interesting point is that mere empathy is not enough - there has to be a sense of sympathetic concern as well, whereby another person's pain creates sympathy. So merely being able to know what is in another's head is not enough (even sociopaths can manage that) - you have to actually be concerned about it as well.

But yes, as you know from my very own wing post many moons ago, empathy is central to my moral compass, but I suspect that I mean by empathy is closer to Pinker's sympathetic concern.

Similarly, the Golden Rule is very important to me. My daughter was concerned about a bully in her class, and didn't understand how someone could do that. I said that it was because this child had not yet absorbed the Golden Rule - he was not treating other people in the way he himself wanted to be treated. I told her that maybe instead of getting upset and angry at this child, she could make him think about what he's doing by asking him if he'd like it if someone did that to him. (I suspect he's not a *bad* child, just an attention seeking one).

Of course, the difficulty with the Golden Rule comes when you don't treat yourself very well: the corollary is that you don't treat others very well either. I had a friend of this sort (a very tortured individual) who used to treat others very harshly, but it was nothing compared to the harshness with which she treated herself. I guess the thing there was to get her to respect herself more so that she could respect others more. I'm glad to say that she eventually came to that point.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a very useful comment, LE.

In some ways the worst sociopaths are those with a high degree of empathy but lacking any other form of moral compass. Empathy allows them to manipulate - the most successful con people do this - without concern as to the results.

The idea of sympathetic concern is therefore important.

Your story of your daughter is interesting. It drives to the heart of one issue.

In terms of your last point, I think of marvin the robot. I try never to forget the need to build self-esteem in the people I am dealing with. I am not being preachy, just practical. It really helps.

Evan said...

Pinker's figures are dodgy.

I believe in progress at the individual level. At the bigger level is trickier. I do believe the West has made great strides in public health. I don't think there has been any progress in education for more than a century. What do you put in the balance against Hiroshima? We know our current way of living is killing the planet and so little is being done - is this progress?

Amartya Sen pointed out that there has never been a famine in a democracy with a free media. Famine is political rather than technological or simply economic or ecological.

How many modern buildings are as good as the great medieval cathedrals? What modern city would commit to a building project of a century or more?

I do think the golden rule is vital. I think it needs to be well grounded in the perception that we are made up our relationships - not that I 'have' relationships but that we only exist in relationships. For instance those fictions of the economists 'producers' and 'consumers' aren't people - they are things that people do. These people who relate to others

End of rant

Winton Bates said...

Jim, thanks for your reference to Whitehead's book. I will take a look.

Jim Belshaw said...

Rant away, Evan. I am not sure that I have ever thought of progress in physical terms nor in regard to very specific functions, rather in the rules of civilised societies.

I hope that you enjoy the book Winton. It is over 40 years since I read it!

Legal Eagle said...

Evan, to me, it is remarkable how much we *do* care about about killing the planet as compared to past ages. You can only really care about those things, however, if you're not starving and struggling to survive. Then you have room to think about the big picture. I agree with Amartya Sen - economic progress allows for that kind of broader, less self-interested concern for not only other people but also other animals and plants.

Niar said...

hi Jim, I like this post. There are some points that compatible with my principle.

Thank you to write it :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, Niar. Sorry for the delay in responding.

Winton Bates said...

Jim, I have now read Whitehead's book and have written about it here.

Jim Belshaw said...

I enjoyed your post, Winton, and will pick it up.