I’ll take the sterile rock, thanks

The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has written a post recently (H/t to Brian Leiter) responding to recent books written by Owen Flanagan (The Geography of Morals, 2016) and Paul Bloom (Against Empathy, also 2016). To oversimply grossly, these two writers think we would be better off getting rid of certain kinds of emotion, in Flanagan’s case anger and in Bloom’s case empathy. Flanagan thinks we would be better off striving to become like Buddhist or Stoic sages, and Bloom thinks we could achieve a good society better using cool, rational compassion in place of empathy in making social decisions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Schwitzgebel doesn’t like these proposals very much. He advances (though admits he doesn’t at the moment have an argument for defending) a view that the world would in an important sense be poorer without these emotions even if getting rid of them might in some sense make the world better. He thinks that there is an intrinsic value to having a “rich” world, and articulates his understanding thusly:

I want to push back against the idea that we should narrow the emotional range of our lives by rejecting empathy and anger. My thought is this: Having a rich emotional range is intrinsically valuable.

One way of thinking about intrinsic value is to consider what you would wish for, if you knew that there was a planet on the far side of the galaxy, beyond any hope of contact with us. (I discuss this thought experiment here and here.) Would you hope that it’s a sterile rock? A planet with microbial life but not multi-cellular organisms? A planet with the equivalent of deer and cows but no creatures of human-like intelligence? Human-like intelligences, but all lying comatose, plugged into simple happiness stimulators?

Here’s what I’d hope for: a rich, complex, multi-layered society of loves and hates, victories and losses, art and philosophy, history, athletics, science, music, literature, feats of engineering, great achievements and great failures. When I think about a flourishing world, I want all of that. And negative emotions, destructive emotions, useless bad stuff, those are part of it. If I imagine a society with rational compassion, but no empathy, no anger — a serene world populated exclusively by Buddhist and Stoic sages — I have imagined a lesser world. I have imagined a step away from all the wonderful complexity and richness of life.

Most of Professor Schwitzgebel’s commenters seem to agree that the “wonderful complexity and richness of life” seems to trump any advantages to getting rid of things like anger.

My response to Professor Schwitzgebel’s though experiment is the good antinatalist one: “sterile rock, please.” I do find it entertaining how the way the experiment was set up allows me to echo Schopenhauer.

If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.

Again, you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence. And, in any case, even though things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.

Wenn man so weit es annäherungsweise möglich ist, die Summe von Not, Schmerz und Leiden jeder Art sich vorstellt, welche die Sonne in ihrem Laufe bescheint; so wird man einräumen daß es viel besser wäre wenn sie auf der Erde so wenig wie auf dem Monde hätte das Phänomen des Lebens hervorrufen können, sondern, wie auf diesem, so auch auf jener die Oberfläche sich noch im krystallinischen Zustande befände.

Man kann auch unser Leben auffassen als eine unnützerweise störende Episode in der seeligen Ruhe des Nichts. Jedenfalls wird selbst Der, dem es darin erträglicher ergangen, je länger er lebt, desto deutlicher inne, daß es im Ganzen a disappointment, nay a cheat ist…

Note on the texts

I’m not about to offer a global defense of my view any more than Professor Schwitzgebel is of his, but I will offer first this observation: the “rich, wonderful world” that Professor Schwitzgebel imagines is surely one containing a lot of suffering. I don’t think Professor Schwitzgebel would deny this claim and indeed language like “…negative emotions, destructive emotions, useless bad stuff, those are part of it” seems to admit it, but to expand a bit on the point. The existence of anger — at least, any sort of anger that is somehow rationally motivated — seems to require the existence of suffering, something for people to be angry at, and seem also likely to be the cause of suffering as people act on that anger or, alternatively, bottle it up and stew. An empathy, if it’s to have much of a positive point, needs suffering to empathize with.

Having made that observation, I’m inclined to offer an error theory for why it is that people can believe that it’s so great to have a “rich, wonderful world,” and it’s that when people are allowed to contemplate cruelty and suffering as spectators, rather than as people who have to undergo the suffering, it turns out that they rather enjoy the spectacle. Our literature abounds in atrocity: from the Iliad to the latest action-movie productions of Hollywood, violence and death draw eager audiences. Those pages of history are most avidly read that are written in blood, whereupon are chronicled stories of war, massacre, and persecution. Our sporting events, from gladiatorial combats to American football, are given their seasoning by the prospect of injury and pain. And, without going too deeply into the politics of the present day, I must observe that much current political behavior is at best hard to explain if we do not take into account how the winners in political struggles savor, if only through their television screens, the sufferings inflicted on the losers. Old Nietzsche was right: spectatorial cruelty is woven deep into our natures. Small wonder people like Professor Schwitzgebel and his commenters want the “rich” world. It gives them something fun to look at, or at least contemplate within the confines of their imaginations. Honestly, it is all enough to make one sympathetic to that dark kind of antinatalism.

Let me say that I do not for a minute that I do not think for a minute that I am a better person than Professor Schwitzgebel or his commenters. I have just as much spectatorial cruelty in my nature as they, perhaps more, as a quick glance at at least one of my other blogs will quickly reveal. If I differ from them, it is only in my unwillingness to think well of myself.


Note on Schopenhauer’s text:

The German text is taken from this online version of his Parerga und Paralipomena under the heading Nachträge zur Lehre vom Leiden der Welt (§156). It represents my own transcription from the rather painful-to-read original Fraktur text. I have tried to follow the punctuation of the original. In one instance I have taken the liberty of updating Schopenhauer’s spelling (from “Noth” to “Not”). The words “…a disappointment, nay a cheat” are in English in Schopenhauer’s original text. The English text is from a translation by Thomas Bailey Saunders, published as “On the Sufferings of the World,” published at Wikisource. Both texts were accessed on March 15, 2017.

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