Divided Sympathy

Having just completed explaining the role of sympathy in Hume’s moral philosophy to my students at Maryland, I walked out of Francis Scott Key to see an unattractive couple kissing and experienced a dissonant chord of sympathetic reaction. I was happy for them because they were happy and kissy and in love. Yet I was, well “disgusted” is too strong… let’s just say I had a sentiment of disapprobation at the thought of kissing or being kissed by either of them. This, clearly, is an imposition of my own standards upon innocent, unattractive, kissing bystanders. Yet I had the negative reaction only because upon seeing them I immediately, if only partially, put myself in their positions. I would not gross out watching someone eat shit unless I was imagining myself in their position, eating shit. Instead, I would say, “Well, that’s very interesting, that guy over there eating shit.” But this is not how it happens. We sympathize and we react, we judge. Anyway, due to my natural human sympathetic impulses I found myself both glad for and put off by these mediocre, intimate Terrapins and their shiteating grins.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center