The Escalator of Reason

When I wrote some scattered comments about Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature last week, truth be told I had not quite finished the book -- I had about 70 pages to go.  That wasn't the best time to make a final assessment of such a thick book, like the way you should never evaluate a backpacking trip while the pack is still on your back.  It so happens it was especially unwise in this case, because (mirabile dictu) the last 70 pages are the best in the book.  Pinker has a very interesting story to tell about moral psychology, and how reason, more than empathy, transports people from self-involvement to morality, from violence to pacificism.  The last two chapters of the book are a must read, and maybe even a must re-read and study carefully.

Pinker embraces Peter Singer's vision of "the expanding circle" and "the escalator of reason."  You start out with self-interest and use empathy to expand your concern just a little, but it's reason that makes you see the problems of a stranger as analogous to your own.  In the next to last chapter of the book, there's some fascinating stuff about how people seem to be getting better at reasoning by analogy, thinking in terms of proportionality, and other cognitive tasks that help them ascend to concern for others and make reasonable choices. Even in these chapters there's too much richness to quickly summarize--I would just say "do read", even if to get to those chapters in this lifetime, you must skip some of the previous chapters.

Interestingly, while I was reading these chapters I had a moral problem to deal with, and found Pinker's description of moral ascent via reason quite apt--though I'm still thinking about the details.  Last week I got an email from my temple (yes, dear reader, I belong to one) about a seven year old boy, the child of a temple member, who has leukemia.  Members were invited to get tested as possible bone marrow donors.  A tricky thing about this is that to find a match, a huge pool of volunteers is needed.  So one is recruited to help a specific person, but the truth is that volunteers are matched to any stranger in a large system, within the five year period after testing.  So the ascent that's needed is from self-concern, to concern for a person you may know or at least can picture, to concern for invisible strangers.

Being risk averse, I got stuck at the first stage--self-concern.  I looked up bone marrow donation, and learned that 20% of the time it's done under general anesthesia.  The rest of the time, the donor takes a drug that stimulates stem cell production--and there are side-effects and risks.  I found myself contemplating these things and wanting very much to forget about the email.  However, there were pictures of the child in the hospital--ouch.  So I got from self-concern to empathy, both for the child and his parents.  As Pinker points out, empathy flickers, and it's much stronger for people you know very well. Call me cold, but sheer empathy alone probably wasn't going to turn me into a donor.

The day after receiving the email, I opened it again and thought some more. Empathy was still percolating, but also an analogy.  Yes, of course, these parents are to their child as I am to mine. I could imagine my own child having leukemia and desperately wanting as many people as possible to step forward as possible donors.  The analogy started making it really hard to justify not showing up.  And that's really what got me closer to a decision.  It takes self-interest and empathy to hop on the escalator of reason, but reason is what seems to carry you up.

Only--yes, I'm risk averse.  Or is that just plain cowardice?  The morning of the bone marrow drive, I learned that Christopher Hitchens had died.  Death from cancer at 62 is bad enough. Death from cancer at the age of 7 is just completely uncontemplatable.  So: more empathy. But I think ultimately I made myself go because of an analogy. I can't coherently hope people would help me if I were ever in this situation, if I won't help someone actually in this situation. Over a thousand people showed up to help this child--I would love to know what the thought process was for those (like me) who had never met him.

Looking at my thought process a little more closely--because I am a philosopher, so think too much; and because this connected so directly with Pinker's last chapters...

I can see several ways the escalator of reason might work. (1) Perhaps it's sheer Golden Rule--I got swabbed to help someone else's child because I would want others to help my child.  (2) Maybe it's some sort of magical causal thinking:  if I help that will ultimately cause others to help if I'm ever in that situation.  (3) Then again, there's this possibility:  I helped to give myself evidence that if I'm ever in that situation, others will help me.   (Reminds me of Calvinist theories about why we should work hard--to created evidence of our salvation, not to cause our salvation.)

But really it felt more like a matter of justification:  (4) I couldn't justify inaction in this case, considering I'd want people to help if it were me.  There's a Kantian flavor there, something to do with adopting policies you could want everyone to follow.  Anyhow--escalator of reason, not empathy alone. That's what Pinker argues, and my experience says he's right.

Update:  just had a look at the child's facebook page.  It looks like they found a match!  It's back to sheer empathy--my thoughts are with him and his family.


Wayne said...

You should donate blood too, whenever you can, as often as you can. I've got a condition that eliminates me from donating, so I can't, but I would feel the obligation pretty strongly if I could.

Faust said...

heh, I can't donate blood either. I tried!

Nice post. I think it's invariably both reason and empathy and I think your post actually shows how it works. Reason is a guide to empathy. The old "torchbearer" paraphrase. Empathy is what powers the escalator, reason is what builds it.

Astro.NJ said...

I registered as a bone marrow donor over a couple of years ago, in response to a case in the Indian community here. Apparently, possibility of a match is higher amongst people of the same race. Also, I learnt that when a match is found in some particular case, the identities of the donor and the recipient are not revealed for a certain period (5years?). So..this is indeed a case of donation to a complete stranger. I thought to myself "Man.. there are so many people I dont like.. so many adherents to ideologies that I really dont like.. what if I end up donating to them?". In the end, I treated it like a transaction, and registered to be a donor. Small part compassion, large part reason.