Sympathy for Sinners?

Sympathy is a Moral Emotion

What is sympathy? In “Taking Sympathy Seriously,” philosopher John Fisher notes “sympathy” enters our vocabulary in various  ways:

We give sympathy to persons, we feel sympathy for someone, our sympathies are engaged, we are sympathetic to you, your plight, your line of thought.

While sympathy involves concern, it doesn’t arise every time we are concerned.  “The threatened destruction of a valuable historical building might upset certain citizens, and even move them do whatever they can to prevent its demolition.  But unless they are mentally aberrant they will not literally feel sympathy for the building.”

Because objects lack thoughts and feelings we can recognize and anticipate, it is not possible for us to “feel” as objects do.  Objects have no feelings.

Sympathy goes beyond the intellectual understanding of others’ views (which we’ve called empathy).  As Fisher states, it involves feelings directed at individuals or groups:

Sympathy is something we feel towards particular individuals—say a dog in a pound or a child being abused—or towards a group of individual creatures—say, elk or cattle which are starving as a result of a blizzard, or humans who are starving as a result of famine.

Such feelings, then, are feelings of concern.  To feel sympathy is to be moved by someone’s predicament.

Fisher believes “sympathy involves empathy,” but this is a matter of debate, as the nature of empathy is contested topic.  Some people argue empathy involves sharing an others emotions and feelings, whereas we’ve previously indicated that empathy is better understood as a cognitive understanding of anothers perspective or experience..  But there can be no doubt that sympathy involves feelings.  Maybe sympathy allows us to feel anothers pain as if it were own.  Or, perhaps sympathy involves something different but experientially similar, like compassionate attunement.  For our discussion here, we can leave this part of the debate—which now extends to mirror neuron research—open.

What we will argue, however, is that sympathy is a moral emotionHaving a well-developed capacity for sympathy is an integral part of being a moral person.  Those who lack this capacity have poorly developed character and can find it difficult to make good moral judgments about others.

Imagine you meet a friend who tells you that after a late night at the office a mugger stopped him on the way to his car and robbed him at gunpoint.  At this point, you’ve got two basic options.

  1. You can be sympathetic.  This means telling you’re friend you’re sorry to hear about his situation and asking him if he’s okay.
  2. Or, you can be unsympathetic.  You can shrug your shoulders and proceed to tell him about your day.

Anybody who chooses the unsympathetic option is morally deficient.  He or she has a poorly developed character, and we would surely judge that person to be cold, heartless, and possibly so self-absorbed as to be narcissistic.  We’d be reluctant to call that person a friend, much less a decent human being.  The presence of sympathy, or lack thereof, thus can function like a moral litmus test.  Scholars even argue that “psychopaths’ inability to behave morally is related to a deficit in empathy or a reduced ability to emotionally respond to the observation of distress in others.”

Perhaps we should we follow Rebecca Rosen’s lead and extend our negative judgment further, considering someone who selects option #2 downright thoughtless. In The Atlantic articled titled “What Was Reddit Troll Violentacrez Thinking?“, Rosen reminds us that Hannah Arendt‘s essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” conceives of sympathy as the engine of judgment and empathy, as the act that would diminish the distance between the person who is mugged and the friend who hears about it:

Once you are thinking about something, it is no longer the object itself, but the object in your mind. In that sense, thinking somehow vanquishes distance, forcing you, the thinker, to come into contact with the thing (or person) you are thinking about. And, perhaps, through that, a natural consequence is empathy, even just a drop of it.

Let’s put this in normative terms that spell out what ethics requires responsible people do.  We should feel sympathy for people when they are caught in a range of unfortunate circumstances.  An important set of sympathy deserving circumstances is when people are caught up in situations that prevent them from getting what they deserve or behaving the way they’d to, due to pressures exerted by forces outside of their control.  

Imagine hearing a story about one of your young neighbors being unable to pay her rent on time.  Should you feel sympathetic?  This depends on the role that control played in the situation.

If the neighbor is a fashionista who blew her money on shopping spree of expensive clothes, sympathy isn’t warranted.  She could control how her money was spent, but exercised poor judgment when choosing how to dole it out.

However, if the neighbor developed cancer and had to spend her otherwise rent allocated money on medical treatment, sympathy is called for.  Under typical circumstances, to say that a young person would willingly choose to let cancer go untreated is to distort the concept of ‘choice’ beyond reasonable use.  Doing so here requires being callous about the pressures that come from being seriously ill.

Judgments of sympathy deeply affect the American legal system.  While during a trial jurors can be instructed to ignore a host of information that can bias their judgment by tweaking emotions, emotional influence is allowed when they consider whether mitigating circumstances were present that should diminish the severity of the punishment.

A recent study from the journal Nature Communications gathered participants and put them in the role of potential jurors for a murder case.  The experimenters provided details of actual murder cases and asked participants how much they would change the murder’s prison sentence (initially 20 years) if they were on the jury.  The experimenters then conducted brain imaging on the participants while they were making decisions.  The images showed that the areas in the brain associated with sympathy light up when people are asked to explicitly consider mitigating circumstances around the murder, such as poverty, illness, and so on.  This sympathy resulted in the participants recommending that the prison sentence be reduced.  In those cases where sympathy wasn’t triggered, participants reported that they would have increased the sentence.

The Scope of Sympathy

Philosophers and scientists have long argued that it can be difficult to extend the scope of sympathy—to enlarge the sympathy circle.  Consider Robert Wright’s Ted talk, “The Evolution of Compassion.” (Although Wright discusses ‘compassion,’ his ideas apply to what we’ve here been calling ‘sympathy.’)

To summarize the relevant points:

  • Due to what biologists call “kin selection,” our ancestors felt compassion for close relatives.  We’re no different today.
  • Due to what biologists call “reciprocal altruism”—doing good things for those who “return the favor”—our ancestors felt compassion for “friends and allies.”  We’re no different today.
  • The more removed in time and space from our social circle, the harder it can be to feel compassionate for a person.  Wright thus says: “If a close friend has something really terrible happen to them, you feel really bad.  But if you read in the newspaper that something really horrible happened to someone you’ve never heard of, you can probably live with it.  That’s just human nature.”
  • The more we see someone as unlike the various tribes we identify with, the harder it is to expand our “moral imagination” and feel compassion for them.  Wright gives the example of groups being labeled as “enemies.”  Once that happens, it becomes very difficult to see the world through their eyes, even when someone tries to explain how more commonalities exist than meet the eye.
  • Being placed in a zero-sum game (one person or side wins and the other person or side loses) makes it harder to develop compassion for someone than being placed in a non-zero-sum game (which permits win-win outcomes) with them.  Wright says: “Compassion most naturally flows along non-zero-sum channels where people perceive themselves as being in a potentially win-win situation with some of their friends and allies.”

Sympathy for Lance Armstrong

[Much of this section is adapted from Evan Selinger’s “’But Everybody’s Doing It!’ Lance Armstrong and the Philosophy of Making Bad Decisions” originally published in The Atlantic.]

Renowned cyclist Lance Armstrong’s decision not to fight the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has drawn mixed response: supporters and detractors wasted no time in airing their views.  In the New Yorker, Michael Specter was very blunt in his condemnation,

…Armstrong didn’t just dope: he was the king –– better at doping than he was at pretending to win bicycle races through grit and determination.

Based on the considerations reviewed in the last section, it is easy to understand why people have a hard time being sympathetic to Armstrong.  Beyond knee-jerk associations of cheating with immorality, Armstrong’s performance takes place in a context few can relate to: professional athletics.

Now, some supporters have maintained that Armstrong still deserves our sympathy even though he is guilty of blood doping and using banned substances.  It is crucial to understand why this might be the case, as the implications of the judgment extend well beyond feelings directed at a high-profile athlete.

The sympathy argument is expressed clearly in “Pillorying Armstrong: Complete Nonsense,” a piece co-written by Arthur Caplan –– one of the most famous bioethicists in the U.S.  –– and two other NYU professors.  The authors write:

Shouldn’t Armstrong, especially because of the inspiration he is to cancer survivors or anyone on the short end of the advantage stick, get a pass for being no more dirty, but a whole lot better than everyone else in his sport?  Armstrong isn’t being investigated as the only cheater.  He is in all likelihood just the best, most talented one.”

In other words, we should feel bad for Armstrong because LiveStrong promoted so much social good that it blunts part of the cheating stain, and because professional cycling is rotten to the core, filled with so many cheaters that breaking the rules is the only viable way to compete.

For the sake of argument, let’s say this assessment of the state of cycling is correct.  Why should its constraints incline us to be sympathetic for a cheater?  Why shouldn’t we instead appeal to the lesson about individual responsibility and peer pressure that we learned in Kindergarten –– the one that ends with not jumping off a bridge just because Johnny did?

Michael Shermer gives us the answer to this in his 2008 Scientific American article “The Doping Dilemma.” In the context of professional sports like racing, moral choices are perceived as economic decisions, and the stakes are simply too high for rational athletes to not cheat.  To illustrate this point, Shermer models the decision whether or not to dope upon the game-theoretic problem of the prisoner’s dilemma and shows how the relevant variables can be broken up into clear payoffs for the strategies of abiding by the rules, and cheating.  A significant divide separates the two –– one big enough to make the honest competitor looks like a sucker who fails to grasp the incentives and expected values associated with the basic options.  While the cyclist who wants to be a clean competitor can win the moral contest of clinging to high principles, he or she won’t win the Tour de France.  And chances are he or she will be pressured and ostracized by the other cyclists for not adhering to the sport’s doping norms, and for being a risk of ratting out everybody else.

If we could end the story here and focus solely on cycling competitors being stuck in a Nash equilibrium (in which no player has anything to gain by unilaterally changing strategies), things wouldn’t look too bad.  We could follow Shermer’s advice and advocate for structural changes that make “competing clean” the game-theoretic solution (e.g., create immunity for past infractions, stiffer penalties for future ones, rewards for scientists to create better drug tests, etc.).  Or, we could we could listen to bioethicist Andy Miah and seriously consider the advantages that might come from changing sports through medically supervised doping, potentially leading to events like the “Enhanced Olympics.”

Further insight about the relation between game theory and sympathy can be found in David Sally’sOn Sympathy and Games.” He concludes that article by noting the following:

  • The prisoners’ dilemma has a variety of possible sympathetic outcomes depending on the specifics of the payoff matrix and the players’ relationship.  The outcome can be changed by altering the identities of the players, their relationship and interaction, and the social environment.
  • Mutual cooperation should be expected when the prisoners’ dilemma is played by players who have communicated, who sit across the table from each other, who belong to the same club, or who are both surrounded by foreigners or outsiders.
  • Mutual defection should be expected with players who sit halfway around the globe from each other, who are anonymous, etc.
  • Sacrifice in the prisoner’s dilemma may be expected when a manager plays an employee or a master, a servant; when only one player is informed of the identity and background of another; when players are seated across a one way mirror, etc.
  • Simple games can be complicated by sympathy, and all games may be affected by the social setting.
  • In most cases, strategy requires taking the role of another, or stepping into the shoes of another, and thus, might affect the sympathy and behavior of the strategist.

Considerations like these serve as powerful reminders of how hard it can be to extend sympathy, and how powerful the results can be when it experienced.

The problem is that once we feel sympathetic to Armstrong because he’s stuck in a game-theoretic trap, we might very well have to extend it to others dealing with comparable dilemmas.  This takes us beyond sports, to a range of issues, especially ones in sustainability.  Consider this political cartoon, which we’ve written about elsewhere in a chapter for the book Rethinking Climate Change Research: Clean Technology, Culture and Communication:

The opening panel presents two well-dressed men in an office, with the first saying, ‘The [financial] crash is psychological.  If everyone makes a leap of faith and starts spending again, we’ll be fine!’

The second replies, ‘What if no [one] else starts shopping?   You’ll have sunk deeper into debt as your income shrinks.’

Determined to prove the skeptic wrong, the first man sets out to lead by example, but not before making a green analogy: ‘It’s like recycling.  If everyone does it, the world is a clean place.’

Unfortunately, the last panel depicts the man as unshaven and homeless, living on a garbage-strewn street, declaring, ‘Sure is a lot of litter out here.’ What the cartoon        illustrates, then, is that whenever people make decisions that affect others, or act in response to actions, or even expected actions, of others, they are playing a game.”

Without realistic options for bringing about desired collective action, the game is over before it begins.  This is tragic, even at the personal level, because as the philosopher John Nolt argues in “How Harmful are the Average American’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions?”, over the course of a typical American lifetime, the greenhouse gas emissions related to the activities of a single individual will inevitably cause the death of future people.

To be sure, just like all the other dirty cyclists, Armstrong deserves punishment for breaking the rules, doping, and then lying about it.  But, perhaps he’s also a person that deserves our sympathy.  He was stuck in a trap; forced to either cycle poorly or play the doping game.  In the same situation, chances are we would have all chosen the same path that Armstrong ventured down.  To deny this is to hold yourself up as an exemplar of ethical conduct who is immune to situational pressures.

As we know from a previous blog post, the moral saint fallacy presents us with a seductive and self-congratulatory way of thinking.  Nevertheless, we should be careful not to fall for it.  Doing so means denying sympathy to people who deserve it because their actions are, in a sense, not their own.  These traps are akin to being stuck between a rock and a hard place.  For most people there isn’t any real way to break out and rise above the influential aspects of the situation that direct our choices.

Transcending the Game

Wright ends his TED talk on the upbeat note that our sympathy circle might be enlarging because history is “naturally expanding” the “webs of non-zero-sumness.”  What he means is that relations of interdependence are growing due to such forces as globalization. Citing the recent economic crash, he says that the bad outcomes are bad for much of the world, while progress on solving them is good for almost everyone.

Unfortunately, we’re not as optimistic as Wright is about the power of interdependence.  Interdependence can just as easily be the engine of injustice, as critics have alleged when considering how developed countries are responding to global climate change, ostensibly subjecting developing ones to unfair vulnerabilities.  What matters, then, is how people think about and respond to interdependence.  This begs the question of whether it is possible for anyone to actively transcend the game, rather than passively wait for history to march on.

One of the critical prerequisites to sympathy is the absence of agency.  That is, if a person is suffering as a result of their own actions, or it is within their power to escape their own suffering, then we do not usually expect they are entitled to sympathy.  This is sometimes used as an argument to deny sympathy to those that might deserve it, by claiming that “they brought it on themselves.”

Armstrong’s case raises the particularly interesting question of whether Armstrong was trapped in an impossible game theoretic dilemma, or whether he was actually so influential in cycling that he possessed a power to transcend the game that he never tried to explore.

Until he was stripped of his seven titles, Armstrong was the most prolific and likely the most famous professional cyclist in history.  However, performance enhancing drugs and blood doping have become so pervasive within the sport that the International Cycling Union announced they will not name any winner of the Tour de France for any years in which Armstrong is disqualified.

As Brent Schrotenboer of the USA Today explains, all the top finishers in the Tour de france during those years have either been implicated in blood doping, or are under suspicion.

What good does it serve anyone to take the victory away from somebody who doped and give it to somebody else who doped?” says Neal Rogers, editor of cycling magazine Velo. “This decision makes a statement that this was a dark period. They’re saying, ‘We don’t want to award it to anybody.’

Although the sympathetic view of Armstrong would characterize him as one of many victims, allegations by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) claim that it was in fact Armstrong that pressured other cyclists to dope.  According to the USADA, Armstrong’s role as a leader who orchestrated the doping regimes of other riders justifies singling him out for special treatment.

The critical consideration in any non-cooperative game theoretic problem is the influence that players have on others’ behavior.  Armstrong’s influence in cycling was so great at the apogee of his fame, that he may have been able to transcend the game itself.

If Armstrong had come clean, would the revelations resulted in transformation of the culture of the sport?  Or would he merely have been relegated to a footnote in the history of the Tour de France and written off as a chump that tossed fame away for a meaningless, hypocritical, principle?

Nike chose to sever its ties with Armstrong “due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence” of doping.  But, perhaps this is the wrong rationale for dropping him.  Perhaps Nike should have expressed sympathy with Armstrong having doped while competing, but insisted that he now should step up and embrace a leadership position to change the game.

Social Ethics and Sustainability

Given the interactions between players (consumers, businesses, governments) that govern the dynamics of resource consumption, pollution regulation, and distribution of wealth or opportunity, it behooves us to ask whether any individual, or any corporation, or any country is so influential that they might transcend a non-cooperative game theoretic sustainability problem such as the Tragedy of the Commons, or climate change.  If we judge an individual as powerless under their particular circumstances, then there might be several grounds on which we should be expected to sympathize with their plight, including suffering that they might feel if only from the guilt that can result from failing to live up to their own ideals (e.g., to drive less, eat less meat, turn down their thermostat, recycle more, or donate to charity).  In fact, doing any of these things might simply create incentives for others in the game to behave even worse.  For example, in Dale Jamieson’s 1999 book chapter “Climate Change and Global Environmental Justice” he says that the Clinton administration felt that a resolution directing the President not to sign the Kyoto Protocol without commitments from developing countries would strengthen the US negotiating position.  In this case, the logic was that the threat of bad behavior by the US would somehow encourage other countries to commit to improvement in their own behavior.

But what if a player is capable of influencing other people (or corporations, or countries) to act in accordance with a moral view that sets aside individual interest for the greater good?  In this case, we can say that this player is providing moral leadership that elicits pro-social behavior in others.  Such a leader transcends the game – essentially rewriting the rules of the game – to achieve a different outcome.

Whether someone is truly trapped, or they have greater agency than they have as yet been willing to explore, may be unknowable.  In general, expecting someone to transcend the game in which they are embedded is probably expecting too much.  However, this is exactly the standard that those rare individuals that aspire to be great leaders must achieve.

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