Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Choosing between empathy and rationalism is not something I relish. But let’s try it, just this once.

Assume you’re summoned to the heavens and asked by the non-existent Tribal Elder in the Sky (a/k/a the Fundamentalist Jewish God) to select a quality for your neighbor’s newborn child. You’re given two choices – rationalism or empathy. Is there any doubt that you’d select empathy? Don’t we all understand, in our guts, that empathy as a general matter is the more socially beneficial characteristic of the two?

Now change the hypothetical. This time, you’re summoned to the heavens and the Cosmic Santa Clause (a/k/a the Fundamentalist Christian God) tasks you with selecting a quality for your own newborn child. You’re given the same choices – rationalism or empathy. Now, the result is different, isn’t it? Now that you care with every fiber of your soul about the outcome, you’re a lot more risk averse. When you’re making the selection for your beloved possession, I mean child, you’re choosing between a child who grows up to have her head on straight, and one who is filled with warmth and love. We all know what happens to so many people in the latter category – they get pushed around at the trough (such is the life of people, not just pigs). I think most of us would whisper, stealthily, out of the sides of our mouth: “Hey God? Can you hear me? I’d better take the rationalism, if that’s OK.”

Well, my mama didn’t raise no fool any more than she raised a saint. I’ve frequently become disappointed with my ability to empathize, but I’ve rarely lost the devotion to reason, bless my pragmatic heart. And as I’ve grown older and become a student of philosophy, I’ve realized that reason speaks most profoundly to those who keep their emotions in check -- not eliminated, mind you, but under control.

The reasonable man is a man who thinks globally. He can look beyond his own limited circumstances and search for what’s objectively true. When he strives for the good, he means what is good for the collective, rather than what superficially serves his own parochial interests. To use Spinoza’s words, the man of reason aims to think sub species aeternitatis – under the form of eternity. His ultimate reality is not the human ego, but rather the universe, of which he is a small, but unique and precious part. He is magnanimous, generous, selfless, loving, and, ultimately, empathetic. Reason compels empathy, you see – but an empathy born of strength and discernment, not effeminate weakness.

Harsh words perhaps, but they serve us students of philosophy well, or at least they do up to a point. Philosophy also has its limits, and philosophers must recognize their humanity. To be human is to be a person of desires, feelings, passions. We can repress them, but we can’t eliminate them – even if we wanted to, we couldn’t.

In fact, students of philosophy can’t limit themselves to understanding the world. They must also understand themselves – what lies beneath their exterior of reason. This is a clue to our biases. It is also a clue to the issues about which we can harness incredible power, for power comes from passion as well as from the ability to keep it in check.

With these abstractions in mind, let us embark on an exercise designed to better understand ourselves beneath our calculated, adult-like exteriors. I’ve tried this myself and found the results interesting.

Identify your pet peeves. Make a short list. Don’t try to organize them at first. Don’t try to analyze them, or ask whether they are rational or not. Just think of several examples – whatever comes to your mind. Then, when you’ve made your list, try to determine if they fit into a pattern. In my next post, I’ll reveal the results of my own self-examination.

To be continued.

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