On Feeling Others’ Pain

Years ago a friend confided at the dinner table that he felt no connection to the events he read about in the paper. He noticed that other people felt appalled or sad or moved by the terrible events they read about, but to him they were just words on paper. He recognized it was strange to have no empathetic response, but he just couldn’t muster one.

I’m the other extreme. I get teary when I hear about the most minimal acts of kindness as well as the most distant suffering. I cried when I saw Solidarity take to the streets in the 80s, and I could barely sleep thinking about people jumping to their deaths on 9/11 or about the suffering and grievous loss following the tsunami and Katrina. I think most people are more like me than my friend at that dinner table.

I don’t take much stock in something like Hume’s notion of an inner moral sense. But there does seem to be a palpable difference in how people respond to the suffering and the joy of others. There’s evidence that this difference is hardwired, but I’d like to think there is more to it than that.

What Counts as Philosophy?

Apart from the question of “Who has the rights to the lands of Palestine?” little can be more contentious than the question, “What counts as philosophy?” What are the bounds of this discipline of ours? I like to think that there aren’t any clear and proper boundaries but that there is a roughly common approach (but don’t ask me to define it) and, delightfully, a common canon (at least for what is understood as pre-20th century western philosophy, though lamentably white, male philosophy). Anyone of any persuasion teaching an intro to philosophy class is likely to include some of the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bentham, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rousseau, and maybe some selection from Marx, Nietsche, and James. With texts of the twentieth century all bets are off. But what’s one century in a discipline that goes back 25? Given our long history, we’ve had nothing like the canon wars that tore apart English departments in the 1980s. The common canon saves us, but it doesn’t give us a way to define or set bounds to what philosophy is. Philosophy has a way of undermining boundaries, like the boundary between what is properly philosophical and what is not. Just try to set up a fence and see how long it stands.

Even to the extent that we have a common canon, the question of what counts as philosophy is desperately unclear, at least once one strays from a “view-from-nowhere” approach to metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, or any of the many philosophy-of-x arenas. Once the approach becomes more specific and situated, the border wars arise. And the lines are usually drawn between what is hegemonically understood as proper philosophy and what is not. Philosophy that is not in fashion in “the best” schools, not “prestigious,” not hard and clear and rigorous, not properly erected — including today American pragmatism, critical theory, post-Kantian European philosophy, and, oh, certainly feminist philosophy — doesn’t seem to count as philosophy at all, at least by those who are counting and protecting a certain definition of proper philosophy.

Just look (and you’ll have to scroll down and then scan the rigt-hand column) at the specialities of the list of evaluators who were invited to rank graduate programs in philosophy for the 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report. I am told by a defender of the report that this is a “remarkably diverse” group of good philosophers and so it is truly able to gauge what are, objectively, the outstanding graduate programs in philosophy. Any program that doesn’t end up on the list, I’m told, simply isn’t a good program.


Who defines what counts as good philosophy and hence who counts as the good philosophers? Isn’t this kind of counting tantamount to defining philosophy itself, to saying that M&E (metaphysics and epistemology) counts, but feminist philosophy doesn’t? Or if it’s feminist, it isn’t M&E? Or if it’s concerned with Derrida and not Tarski, or the late Wittgenstein but not the early Wittgenstein, it just ain’t philosophy?

Is that very philosophical?

Doing the Right Thing

The title to Spike Lee’s now-old movie, “Do the Right Thing,” supposes that it’s not hard to know what the right thing is to do; it’s just awfully tempting not to do it. You know damned well that you shouldn’t use your position of trust to give special perks to your sweetheart. A three-year-old knows that fair is fair and unequal-treatment-for-no-good-reason is not. But there’s the concomitant temptation to do what most everyone can see is the wrong thing, hope that no one notices, and if they do protest that it wasn’t really wrong, or not all that wrong. And there’s the temptation to argue that one can misuse the one’s trust and still be trustworthy. Just pick up this morning’s paper to see what all the Wolfowitz apologists are saying on his behalf: Cheney says he’s “one of the most able public servants I’ve ever know” and “a very good president of the World Bank.” Treasury Secretary Paulson says, “these facts do not rise to the level of warranting dismissal.”

Whether you can be a good public servant and misuse public — and world — trust is highly doubtful. But let’s get back to the main point. Wolfowitz had to know he was not doing the right thing. He did something wrong. And he got caught.

Every other week there’s a new ethics scandal in business or government or the nonprofit world. Ever since Watergate, a general response has been ethics education. Today students of law, medicine, and business have to take ethics courses. The rush to teach ethics presupposes that these students haven’t a clue what the right thing is to do.

I teach ethics. But I don’t teach it as a matter of imparting knowledge of what’s right. The task is to cultivate our sensibilities about our relationships with each other. There are repercussions for how we act — not just the repercussion of punishment but really the wrenching effects on social trust in one another.