Philosophy Weekend: A Shot in the Arm, or the Meaning of Empathy

“Psychological egoism” is the name given to a theory widely held by ordinary men, and at one time almost universally accepted by political economists, philosophers and psychologists, according to which all human actions when properly understood can be seen to be motivated by selfish desires. More precisely, psychological egoism is the doctrine that the only thing anyone is capable of desiring or pursuing ultimately (as an end in itself) is his own self-interest. No psychological egoist denies that men sometimes do desire things other than their own welfare — the happiness of other people, for example; but all psychological egoists insist that men are capable of desiring the happiness of others only when they take it to be a means to their own happiness. In short, purely altruistic and benevolent actions and desires do not exist; but people sometimes appear to be acting unselfishly and disinterestedly when they take the interests of others to be means to the promotion of their own self-interest.
–Joel Feinberg, “Reason and Responsibility”, 1958

I’m going to go out on a limb, so to speak, with today’s blog post.

The above quote is from the introductory philosophy textbook I used in college. The author of this piece goes on to list several arguments for and against the principle of psychological egoism (which is closely associated with Ayn Rand’s ethical doctrine), without ever declaring which side of the argument he falls on. But he also never describes what I consider to be the most powerful argument against the doctrine of psychological egoism (and of Ayn Rand’s doctrine of rational self-interest). which is that it fails to take into account the fluid, indeterminate nature of self.

So I’m going to lay out this argument here today. I hardly consider myself a groundbreaking philosophical genius — I try to rely on the work of other philosophers as much as possible — but I don’t know of any other thinker who has come up with precisely the idea I’m going to present right now, so I’ll have to take all the credit (and the criticism) myself. The argument that follows is entirely my own formulation, and I’ll even admit that I think it’s an important point. Here goes:

Imagine you are a parent taking your child to a doctor to get a flu shot. While you’re there, you plan to get a flu shot yourself. Now, we all know a flu shot is not very painful, just a quick prick. Still, some people dread getting a shot, or feel queasy at the idea of their skin being punctured. You, as the parent in this example, may feel slightly anxious about your shot, and you probably feel anxious about your child’s shot too.

According to our conventional wisdom, your experience of getting a shot and your experience of watching your child get a shot are two completely different things. One is a private, primary experience of direct sensation, while the other is a vicarious, secondary experience of observation.

The doctrine of psychological egoism and the Ayn Rand principle of rational self-interest depend on the fact that these two experiences are entirely different things. A person who follows these ways of thinking will admit that you feel pain when watching your child get a shot, but will insist that experience is wholly unlike the direct experience of getting a shot yourself. The self, according to these Randians, is an infinitely thick, impenetrable barrier. Everything in the world is either internal or external to you.

This is the weak spot for the doctrine of psychological egoism or Randian rational self-interest, because this model of human existence doesn’t hold true. It depends, for one thing, on an equation of our conscious self with our physical body. But don’t we actually observe the physical sensation of a shot in the arm in a way comparable to the way we observe the visual sensation of a child getting a shot in the arm? In one case, we observe through the sense of touch, in the other through the sense of sight. The two experiences are different, but they exist along the same spectrum.

“But it’s my own arm!” someone may object. Yes, but my arm is not myself. When Rene Descartes stripped our natural sense of self to its most elemental form in his Meditations on First Philosophy, he found the cogito ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am. But the cogito ergo sum does not have arms or legs.

I propose that your experience of getting a shot in the arm and your experience of watching your child get a shot in the arm are more similar than they are different, and that no valid ethical philosophy or psychology can be built upon the difference. Rather than considering the first a case of direct experience and the second a case of indirect experience, I submit that they are both cases of direct experience. When you see a person you care about in pain, there is no intermediate step during which your brain parses the observation of external pain into a transmittal of internal pain. Rather, your sense of self simply extends beyond the reach of your physical body.

I said at the beginning of the article that this formulation is my original work, that I’ve never heard another philosopher or psychologist present precisely this point of view. This makes me worry that I may be off my rocker, because it’s hard to believe that I’ve come up with a brilliant new thought that nobody before me has come up with … until I think about the fact that, outside of conventional psychology and philosophy, we actually say and think things like this all of the time.

When two people are in love, they tell each other “I care about you.” I care about you. This could be understood as an expression of selfish caring — you have a big effect on me — but I think it’s something else. It’s an expression of mutual vulnerability, of two people becoming open to each other. We are becoming one.

John Lennon once sang: I am he and you are he as you are me and we are all together.

In the Buddhist religion, there is talk of the Anatta, or No-self. This is often misunderstood by those who see Buddhist philosophy as nihilistic, obsessed with nothingness. In fact there is nothing remotely nihilistic about the Buddhist religion (or any other religion that preaches unity and community, like Judaism, Christianity or Islam). The idea of no-self is an idea of all-self. It’s not an expression of nihilism but rather of empathy.

Empathy … well, that’s a big word. It means “to feel together”. It’s the word, I think, that Ayn-Randian positivists or psychological egoists will never be able to deal with, except to try to explain it away. I think we all have always known that our selves are larger than our individual bodies. Any parent who sits in a doctor’s office with a child knows the feeling. We just struggle for the words with which to express this knowledge, and this feeling.

20 Responses

  1. For some, altruism and
    For some, altruism and empathy remain within the extensions and tangents of their own self experience and sensations… shot out in arrows and sling-shots in a barrage of self appeasement and drive reduction……

    There are those out there, however who just see deeper. They sense deeper, the needs of others not because the can selfishly empathize, but because they can spiritually assess….. And are willing to love— to give beyond themselves. Not because they understand the circumstance but because they observe the circumstance and see that the person “needs” in some way.

    (the nurse in the picture however, does NOT look like she feels anything or needs anything, being a member of the undead herself)

    Thanks for presenting this, Levi.

  2. Levi (I checked who wrote
    Levi (I checked who wrote this article this time:), Empathy is what makes us fully human. Without it, we can turn into egoists, hedonists and even sadists. In fact, sadism is a perversion of empathy. Sadists feel the pain of their victims, but it gives them great pleasure. The doctrine of psychological egoism, to my mind, just validates individuals with personality disorders as the real “normal” or the true “superiors”. There’s nothing rational about it. If they ran the world, we’d have Leonard Cohen’s The Future (one of my favorite songs).

  3. Parents and observant child
    Parents and observant child psychologists have seen this in reverse, that is, young ones without any physical happenings, feeling the pain of the mother, say. I have seen it. (If that is, maybe, just the sympathetic acting of another’s pain, and not real neuronal pain, I’d still offer that as a soft example of your argument.)

    The recent findings from the study of mirror neutrons–passim, google—would also make your case. Finding: we do literally feel the pain we think/know others are feeling.

    My own philosophical argument is related. There is no private language as Wittgenstein—earlier, more softly— Geo H, Mead and others proved. Our very existence in a human community is social–political in Aristotle’s sense. If we only exist in a community, then individualism within it is a matter of degree, of some kind of conceptual negotiation between absolute solitary ‘self’ and our social self.

  4. Re: “I propose that your
    Re: “I propose that your experience of getting a shot in the arm and your experience of watching your child get a shot in the arm are more similar than they are different, and that no valid ethical philosophy or psychology can be built upon the difference. Rather than considering the first a case of direct experience and the second a case of indirect experience, I submit that they are both cases of direct experience.”

    Your use of the words ‘your child’ is important here. ‘Your child’ is a part of you and when that child experiences any pain, sorrow or sadness on any level it will proportionately affect you (and the mother) as if it were your own pain.

    If you were to witness a horrible accident where one of the people had terrible wounds (as example), even tho we may feel empathetic, it would not feel as near and dear to us as our own biological offspring who carries our genes.

    Regarding your Buddhist comment, I fail to understand a connection with what you are initially proposing BUT! I would like to add to the subject of ‘no-self’… no-self is as close an approximation as our language provides to explain being at one with all – no obsession or nihilism is or can be involved as either one of those are ‘things’ and are in direct conflict with the state of ‘no-self’ where attachment is simply no longer.

  5. Levi, it seems to me you are
    Levi, it seems to me you are confusing emotions with actions. Based on your example, a proponent of Randian selfishness could say, “I felt a twinge of pain when I replaced all those employees with machines, but in the long run, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

  6. I actually broke up with my
    I actually broke up with my ex-girlfriend over psychological egoism. We had both just read Julian Barnes’ Talking it Over (a novel about an affair written from the perspectives of the husband, his best friend and the wife) and simply couldn’t agree about the underlying motivations of the main characters and whether human action could be selfless. I argued, much as you do Levi, that love and empathy proved that others’ happiness can be pursued without self-interest. My ex disagreed. And the rest is history! My first break-up due to a philosophical disagreement – I wonder how often that happens?! But on a more serious note, this sorry experience demonstrated to me that human beings have the potential for selfless action; but unfortunately some people’s cynicism blinds them to this. So psychological egoism does explain some human behaviour, but like Claudia says in her comment, it explains dysfunctional rather than common human traits. Of course, I don’t deny that my view may just be coloured by the bitter experience of a love lost…!

  7. Levi, while I may disagree
    Levi, while I may disagree with some of your points, I think your overall thesis is sound; that is, if I understand you correctly, that humans have the ability to work together for the common good of everyone on Earth. If such an idea sounds naive to a lot of people, I think it’s because cynicism has so saturated our collective consciousness that it seems normal to us.

  8. Actually, Bill, I don’t quite
    Actually, Bill, I don’t quite understand your original point (in your first comment). Could you explain more fully what you mean? I don’t see the connection between what you’re saying and what I wrote.

    About your second comment, that’s a little easier for many of us to agree on. But, regarding your first comment, the point of my article is not to say anything about how anybody should behave, but to critique the Randian understanding of how people work. That is, I’m not writing here about whether Randian ethics are moral or immoral, but rather I’m saying that it’s based on an unsophisticated understanding of what a self is. Hope you can explain what you’re saying in that light, thanks …

  9. Okay, Levi, first let me be
    Okay, Levi, first let me be sure I understand you correctly. You are presenting the scenario of someone watching their child get a shot as another example of one’s sense of self extending their physical body. (a previous example being the person driving a car with their family on board).

    In that case, I agree with you.

  10. I think that’s right, Bill.
    I think that’s right, Bill.

    There’s an important distinction here between two types of questions. One is the ethical or moral question: what should we do, how should we live? The other is the psychological question: how does the mind work, how do we live? In this discussion, I’m talking about the psychological question. I’m not trying to prescribe anything here (though I might elsewhere). I’m trying to lay out the basic mechanics of human motivation. I’m saying that,. whether we want to or not. we can’t help considering the needs of many other people connected with us in various ways. I’m saying that we can’t help sensing and feeling empathetically, whether we want to or not — it’s part of basic human nature.

  11. Levi, is it possible that
    Levi, is it possible that when we act out of empathy we are doing so selfishly on one level and unselfishly on another, though not for the reasons psychological egoists would have us believe?

    Let’s assume that you are correct in that the self is larger than the physical body and that the example of the mother watching her child receive a shot boils down to a direct experience. I think that is entirely plausible.

    To continue along the lines of mtmynd’s post, couldn’t we be hardwired to be empathetic in the way you mention because on an evolutionary level, natural selection chose empathy as a means of ensuring our genes survival? This could explain why the pain I feel in watching my child receive a shot is far greater than the observation of someone I don’t know. I think it’s also possible that empathy was selected on a group level–it could be that groups who feel a sense of connectedness through empathy were stronger than ones who didn’t.

    To borrow a phrase from Dawkins, perhaps our genes are acting selfishly while we, on a conscious level, are not. As far as I can tell, this argument still meshes well with yours.

  12. Hi hepcat — yes, I think
    Hi hepcat — yes, I think that’s a really good point, and I agree that it seems plausible.

    I wish I knew some biologists so I could get an expert opinion, but it definitely seems to me that empathy must play a big role in natural selection and survival of the fittest. This also seems likely because we so many examples of natural empathy in the animal kingdom (usually, interestingly, between members of the same species — not as often, tellingly, between members of different species).

  13. It seems that if the
    It seems that if the evolutionary point of empathy were to only ensure the survival of our own fittest, then we wouldn’t feel empathy for anyone else except for those to which we are genetically linked….

    Regarding a previous comment about the depth of empathy one would feel for an unknown group of wounded people vs. a wounded loved one….. Well, I just don’t think we can consider that a hearty comparison when MOST of us will never triage our own wounded loved ones among masses of others. If any of us WERE to find ourselves in that situation, there would be no time for empathy…. others survival systems would take over……….

    Personally, empathy is a party of my occupational environment. If it exists and is fostered, it sustains from one traumatically ill to the next and extends beyond the possibility for personal satisfaction or gain.

  14. “It seems that if the
    “It seems that if the evolutionary point of empathy were to only ensure the survival of our own fittest, then we wouldn’t feel empathy for anyone else except for those to which we are genetically linked…. ”

    If natural selection only worked on the genetic level, then you’d be right. Evidence is showing that NS is at play on more than just the genetic level, and that group selection, while denied for a long time, is now being reconsidered. Darwin himself argued that altruistic groups would be fitter than non-altruistic groups.

    Levi, here is a great article I found on the topic.

  15. it’s the mirror neurons
    it’s the mirror neurons firing. of course if it’s your offspring, it’s the mirror neurons and your descendant dna(and someone you’ve raised and love.). but I think mirror neurons are a grand biological basis for empathy.

  16. Mike, I’d forgotten about
    Mike, I’d forgotten about mirror neurons — yes, that’s relevant as hell to this, thanks for bringing it up. Here’s a NY Times article on mirror neurons:

    And, hepcat, that Stanford article on biological altruism is a great find too. There sure does seem to be a lot of scientific basis for this (and Stanford and NY Times are pretty reputable sources). I’d love to hear a proponent of Rand’s theory explain how these findings mesh with Randian individualism.

    Of course, it also needs to be said that the scientific basis of altruism — the idea that we are literally wired to care not only about our isolated physical selves but about others in our environment — is only one facet of the critique of Ayn Rand’s doctrine of rational self-interest. I wouldn’t want to stake the entire position on a biological/empirical fact at all. But it sure does provide a strong core to the anti-Randian position!

  17. “Mirror neurons allow us to
    “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”

    “And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.”

    Great article on the mirror neurons! These two quotes above would seem to prove your theory, Levi, that the line between direct experience and observational experience is a fuzzy one at best.

  18. I don’t understand what any
    I don’t understand what any of what you have said in your post has anything at all to do with Ayn Rand. If you talk of empathy as something that does not fit into Ayn Rand’s philosophy, you are wrong. There is empathy everywhere. Let us take Atlas Shrugged for example.

    Dagny Taggart can empathize with Hank Rearden’s pain of letting her go. Hank Rearden can empathize with Fransisco’s pain in letting Dagny go and likewise John Galt. The self interest in the story is in Dagny choosing to be with the man she is meant to be with – John Galt. She does so without any apology. Empathy is in Hank Rearden understanding that she needs to be with John and not him. 3 men and 1 woman couldn’t share a more honest relationship. That is the point.

    Dagny will disclaim any thought of sacrificing her love for John and continuing to stay with Henry. There is therefore no concept of sacrifice only clear thought. An acceptance of your deepest desire and acting on it knowing fully well the consequence it has for another individual. Therefore, she takes responsibility for the situation the other individual is in. Henry makes it easy for her by empathising. Knowing that Dagny and John being together was inevitable and it had to happen. His pain is private. But his pain is not something that is the centre of the story.

    Fransisco systemically destroyed his assets. That was out a self interest of the ideal he held true. It can be clearly distinguished from self preservation. All your examples and all your arguments are a confusion caused by replacing the concept of self preservation with self interest.

  19. Thanks for pointing this out
    Thanks for pointing this out about empathy in Atlas Shrugged. I believe you that Ayn Rand’s novels recognize the reality of empathy in our lives.

    I wonder exactly where we differ here. I didn’t mean to imply that followers of Ayn Rand would deny the existence of empathy (indeed, it’s impossible to imagine existing as humans without empathy). Rather I’m saying that Ayn Rand’s ethical philosophy will not be able to explain the existence of empathy, other than to try to explain it away as a quality derived from other qualities. I think a Randian, to be consistent with the doctrine of rational self-interest, would have to say that we are empathetic because it serves our selfish needs to be so. I am saying, in contrast, that empathy is an elemental fact of life — not a derived or secondary quality but rather a primary, direct component of our existence. Does that help clear anything up?

  20. Thank you for this. I
    Thank you for this. I recently wrote a blog about how we react to trauma given the recent events in Japan and I hope you don’t mind that I linked this piece to what I wrote. I particularly like this part “I propose that your experience of getting a shot in the arm and your experience of watching your child get a shot in the arm are more similar than they are different”
    This one of a few articles out there that talk about this, so thanks again.

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