A Philosopher's Blog

Altruism and Fear

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2007

The National Institute of Health recently published the results of a study about the ability to read fear in facial expressions. According to the study, those better able to recognize fear were more inclined to behave in more altruistic and compassionate ways. For example, such people are apparently more inclined to donate money and time to help others. In another example, they are willing to say that people are more attractive-if saying otherwise would hurt the feelings of those being assessed.

It has been speculated that psychopaths and criminal types might be less capable of recognizing fear. From this, it has been suggested that such people become that way because they were less capable of discerning suffering and hence less likely to develop empathy and the associated feelings of guilt from wrongdoing.

This is an interesting hypothesis and is similar in some ways to Socrates’ explanation of evil. According to Socrates, people do evil out of ignorance. His view is what is known as ethical intellectualism-to know the good is to do the good. The hypothesis discussed above is similar in that people would do evil things because they apparently do not realize that they are causing harm.

This hypothese does have a certain degree of plausibility. Based on anectdotal evidence, it is common to hear stories about people who treat others poorly described as just not understanding the pain they are inflicting. Of course, there are many altenrative explanations. It might be that these people are well aware of the suffering they inflict but are simply not affected by it in a way that deters such behavior. In short, they know the other people are afraid, but it does not bother them.

To use an analogy, think of how dogs behave. Having observed dogs for years I am fairly confident that a vicious dog knows when other dogs (or humans) are afraid and this actually inclines them to attack such dogs (or people). They know to associate fear with weakness and weakness means an easier kill. Dogs that are better natured also know when other dogs (or people)are afraid of them and act in ways to reduce their fear (lying down and being non-threatening, for example).

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3 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on June 20, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    Ah, interesting…I haven’t heard Socrates’ position on this called anything specific before. I guess that means I’m now an ethical intellectualist! I’m sure I’ll have fun describing myself that way to dates and at parties.

    I wanted to emphasize that, for a given evil act, the theory doesn’t restrict what the evildoer is ignorant of — hence, it can freely shift about between different instances of the same evil act. To use your example of crime, one person may do an evil because they are ignorant of the distress it causes to others, while another may understand that distress and commit the same act anyway because they are ignorant of why it should matter to them.

    Of course, this opens ethical intellectualism (just as with ethical egoism) to a further counterargument by claiming that, since every refutation of its operation in a given instance can be met with a simple reformulation of what the subject is ignorant of, it cannot be falsified and is thus not a viable theory — assuming that one accepts Karl Popper’s principle of falsification.

    Since I am an ethical intellectualist (I love saying that!), I’m obviously not convinced by that counterargument, though.

    • Asur said, on June 20, 2010 at 11:56 pm

      I meant psychological rather than ethical egoism…*cough*

      On reflection, it seems that psychological egoism implies ethical egoism, not the other way ’round.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2010 at 11:05 am

      Philosophers love labels. I think Aristotle started it with his categories.

      Interestingly, most other philosophers (and poets) thought Socrates was obviously wrong in his view about why people do evil.


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