Pain vs. Pleasure: An Incongruity of Sympathies

If you are reading this, then I am guessing that you are not suffering too badly, nor are you having the time of your life—although I guess it would be rather flattering if either of those things were happening and you were that determined to read this. But assuming you’re not, let me ask you to imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are suffering greatly. There are people who are being burned alive unable to escape their homes on fire, who have just lost their spouse, children who are gasping their last breath from starvation, and on and on. It is hard, but imagine them. ——However, and thankfully, there are other people having other experiences, as well. Now, if I may, let me ask you to clear your mind for a moment, and imagine the most nondescript, boring thing you can. Hold that in your imagination for a few moments. ——And now, if I may be a demanding author one more time, let me ask you to once again imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are having a wonderful time. There are people who after years of trying are right now finally giving birth to their first child, people who have just settled onto the beach for the first day of their long-awaited honeymoon, people who overcame great obstacles, years of discrimination, and they have just found out that they were admitted into the University of their dreams on a full scholarship, and on and on.

Yesterday while writing a short piece on consciousness, it occurred to me that there may well be an interesting, if not also troubling, incongruity between our empathetic reactions to different kinds of events. My hypothesis is that the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel some sort of empathetic pain on behalf of those they were imagining suffering; however, the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel little or no empathetic joy on behalf of those they were imagining ecstatic or joyful. To be clear, I think this is an empirical question, not one that can be argued a priori. Perhaps it reveals something of myself; perhaps I am projecting my own responses onto others.

However, in posing this issue to my wife last night, she had a similar thought about the incongruity in people’s responses to these different kinds of events. While that is certainly a ridiculously small sample size, perhaps we can find further evidence for this incongruity in Buddhist philosophy. That is, one of what are sometimes called the Four Immeasurables can be translated as sympathetic joy. The basic idea is that one cultivates an ability to take pleasure in the pleasures of others. As Sharon Salzberg describes it:

An alternative to feeling painfully cut off is to learn to rejoice in the happiness of others. In Buddhist teaching, this is called sympathetic joy. The term is unusual; sympathy is commonly used in the sense of feeling bad for others. Learning to share their joy revolutionizes our thinking about where we can find happiness. Usually we rejoice in what we get, not in what others have. But sympathetic joy is a practice of generosity, and giving isn’t just about doing someone a favor-it makes us feel better.

It is significant that this emotional response is something that Buddhism assumes must be cultivated, i.e., it’s not necessarily a given, and that Salzberg notes how the term “sympathetic joy” is unusual—as sympathy is usually reserved for other people’s pain and that we usually “rejoice in what we get, not in what others have.”

Given my intuitions, those of my wife, and the fact that Buddhism thinks sympathetic joy is something we need to cultivate, there is better than prima facie reasons for thinking this pain/joy incongruity of sympathies exists.

An obvious question, then, is why? Assuming no prior training in fine-tuning or heightening one’s sympathies, whether that of Buddhism or some other school thought, here’s one possibility: when another person is in pain, and when we are not in pain, there is a safe distance between their experience and hours. This distance opens up the possibility of feeling bad for the other, for if we ourselves felt bad, our attention would most likely be focused on ourselves. Our sympathies would be self-directed. But here the distance allows our sympathies to be other directed. And if we have lived at all, we have some idea of what it is to be in pain—we see the other person in pain and we are glad that it is not us, and we know what that must be like, how terrible it must be, and thus sympathy arises (if not the lesser even more distant form of pity).

But now consider when another person is experiencing great joy. That distance that constituted a space of safety in the case of pain, now constitutes a space for envy. This need not be conscious, of course. It is not that we react with disgust at the other’s joy; it may simply be that we have a kind of flat affective response. We see the other person’s experiencing great joy, and while we are not suffering, we are also not experiencing that. We know what is like to experience joy, even great joy, and it does not happen often enough. And so, instead of prompting sympathetic joy, the great pleasures of others leave us either unaffected or explicitly envious.

Is this analysis too cynical? Is there something else or more going on? I am reminded of another incongruity; namely, one that has been labeled the “Knobe Effect.” If I recall, one illustration of it is where the R&D folks for a company tell the boss that if they go through with the product it will harm the environment. He says he doesn’t care what happens to the environment, he just wants to see the profits. When the product ends up hurting the environment, we are asked whether the boss is responsible for the harm. Most folks seem to say “yes.” Changing the situation, now the R&D folks for the company tell the boss that if they go through with the product it will help the environment. The boss says he doesn’t care what happens to the environment, he just wants to see profits. When the product ends up helping the environment, we are asked whether the boss is responsible for the benefit. Most people seem to say “no.” I must admit I am not familiar at all with the literature that attempts to explain this incongruity. Are there any connections between this incongruity and ours? With the Knobe Effect, people seem reluctant to see the foreseen but unintended benefits from one’s actions as praiseworthy, while they are willing to see the foreseen but unintended harm from one’s actions as blameworthy. Perhaps it is the other way around in our case. We might see the pain of others as not their fault, while their pleasures are their responsibility, such that in the pain case we see them as victims, and thus deserving of sympathy, while in the pleasure case, they are getting what they deserve, and thus do not deserve sympathy. However, that strikes me as problematic, for consider the case of poverty. The poor are often blamed for their own condition—they “make bad choices.” And thus they are not deserving of sympathy, much less help, though maybe a little bit of pity.

Whatever the proper analysis of this seeming incongruity is, it will likely not be nice and neat. The reasons for our pains and pleasures are varied and have diverse “value valences,” we might say. The psychology of those responding to other people’s pains and pleasures are varied and have diverse “value valences,” as well. So, no analysis will capture every situation or reason. These issues aside, what does this incongruity say about us? It’s certainly not bad, as long as you’re not Nietzsche, to feel sympathy for the suffering of others. But why do we stop there? Why not sympathetic joy as a more natural human response? Or is it a cultural issue?

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