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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