In Empiricism and Subjectivity, Deleuze writes that [For Hume], it is a fact that sympathy exists and that it is extended naturally” (37). As Deleuze continues, “…it is not our nature which is moral, it is rather our morality which is in our nature. One of Hume’s simplest but most important ideas is this: human beings are much less egoistic than they are partial” (38). In other words, according to Deleuze-Hume, we are not defined primarily by solipsistic and egoistic pursuit of self-interest. Rather, at our most primordial level we are defined by sympathies or regard for others. We are defined by sympathies towards our family members, to our children, to our friends, to those who attend the same church as us, to those who look and dress like us, to those with whom we identify.
It is not our regard for ourselves and our own interests that define us primordially, but rather our regard for those others about us with whom we identify. We see this all over the place in our domestic life. When I cook dinner or feed my daughter, I don’t expect to be given something in return. It doesn’t even occur to me to think I should get something in return. I don’t think of the food in my house as “mine”, such that my daughter should pay for it with money or barter. When I have friends over for dinner, I don’t do so for the sake of advancing some sort of self-interest, but for the pleasure of their company. Throughout the day we engage in all sorts of little acts of kindness towards one another as we navigate the world outside our homes that are done without any thought of receiving anything in return. A door opened here, taking half a cup of coffee in the office so your friend can have the other half there, a light given or a cig shared there, etc. This even extends towards our pets. I don’t feed my cat for the sake of fattening her up to eat her later, but simply because she must be fed. I don’t ask anything of my cat beyond the pleasure of her company; and even then it doesn’t occur to me to be upset when she wishes to spend time away from us beneath the bed.
For most of us we engage in all sorts of acts of kindness and sympathy towards those about us without even thinking about us. Moreover, we think far more about others than we think about our own self-interest. If Deleuze-Hume is right, then it follows that the central ethical problem lies not in the question of how we might overcome our selfish and self-interested egoism so as to have regard for others, but rather how we can overcome the partialities of sympathy so as to have regard for the stranger or the anonymous. The problem is not that we are selfish (though certainly some of us are), but rather seems to be that our sympathies are partial, or that we seem to have great difficulty extending them beyond those to whom we are partial.
The partiality of our sympathies is based on two great principles that intertwine in all sorts of complicated ways: locality and resemblance. Locality refers quite specifically to spatio-temporal locality in embodied face-to-face experience. We tend to be partial to those to whom we relate most regularly in space and time. Our partialities are defined by our local attachments, the people we see and talk to daily: our family members, our children, the people we work with, the shop keeper from whom we buy our daily newspaper, etc. It is with these people with whom we have our most immediate attachments and sympathies. This is why someone can simultaneously be a virulent racist or anti-semite, while nonetheless having black and Jewish friends. At the level of locality they have immediate or local relations with their black or Jewish fellow, while at the level of non-locality they generalize about an abstract group as a whole. “X is one of the ‘good ones’ they say.”
As we move away from relations of embodied spatio-temporal locality (though the second principle functions in relations of locality), our sympathies come to be defined by relations of resemblance. At the level of greater specificity, our sympathies tend to be extended to those who resemble us in some way: those who look like us, those who dress like us, those who speak our language, those who share our accent, those who share similar socio-economic statuses, those who share our religious beliefs, those who share our national origins. At the most remote extremes, our sympathies seem restricted to those who share our morphology or species-being. It’s easier to have sympathy for another human being despite that person having a different ethnicity, set of religious beliefs, different skin color, sexual orientation, economic status, etc., than to have sympathy for a great white shark.
If we are naturally characterized by sympathies rather than egoistic self-interest, then it is clear that merely having sympathies at the level of locality and resemblance is not enough for qualifying as ethical. Here we remain at the level of what Lacan refers to as the Imaginary: dual relations based on similitude. We are all familiar with the person who, at the level of local relations, is kind, generous, thoughtful, etc., but who nonetheless advocates morally reprehensible political positions that lead them to vote and enact policies that have horribly cruel and destructive consequences for people. Similarly, most people would be fundamentally unable to douse a child in gasoline and light a match, but many wouldn’t find it particularly difficult to drop an incendiary bomb on a child from a plane. Another person might have broad ethical regard for those who do not resemble them and with whom they have no local relations, and might act in the appropriate way ethically towards those people, but wouldn’t think twice about shooting birds and rabbits in their yard with a pellet gun for the sheer enjoyment of doing so. Here the person’s ethical regard is still based on resemblance restricted to ethical regard only for human beings and not nonhumans.
The problem of ethics is not one of sympathy because short of sociopaths and psychopaths, most of us are already characterized by sympathies at the level of the Imaginary or locality and resemblance. Rather, the problem of ethics is that of non-locality and non-resemblance. The measure of the degree to which a position is ethical ought to be measured by the degree to which it surmounts locality and resemblance. In other words, the more a position is able to extend its sympathy to the stranger, the anonymous, the dissimilar, and the nonhuman, the remote, the more ethical that position is. For me, three things come to mind in relation to this:
1) Ethics should not be about love of the neighbor, but love of the stranger. The neighbor is the person that is like me, the local, the other that resembles me. Ethical systems based on the neighbor tend to lead to profound injustices in the world as we end up excluding the dissimilar and non-similar in our activities.
2) If we are largely defined by sympathies, these sympathies are “natural”, and these sympathies gravitate towards the Imaginary or locality and resemblance, what hope is there for the social world as we know it today? This is a problem we seem to be facing at the heart of all global politics. The contemporary world is one defined by anonymous social relations to strangers both human and nonhuman, that are characterized by non-locality and a profound lack of resemblance. Yet our “nature” seems to be one where sympathy is largely restricted to locality and resemblance. The nature of our sympathies stand in direct contrast to the sort of world we today live in. We can’t opt out of the world of non-locality and strangers. Yet the partiality of our sympathies lead us to pursue, support, and enact policies that are doomed to create conflict and even the very destruction of the world through our inability to think things like climate change due to their spatial and temporal scales beyond our local scales. Is there any hope of navigating this, or are we doomed to ethnic, economic, nationalistic, and religious warfare and destructive environmental policies?
3) What are some ways in which our sympathies might be extended beyond the Imaginary or the local and resemblance, so as to open on to the non-local and dissimilar? In other words, we need a theory of “ethical technologies” that explores how our sympathies are extended beyond the Imaginary through various practices, forms of speech, works of art, etc. Clearly there are many people who manage to have ethical regard for the non-local stranger and who manage to identify with the nonhuman. What is it that allowed them and these sorts of collectives to surmount the primacy of locality and resemblance? We also need a sort of critical theory of ethics that explores how many collectives that might appear to be ethical in fact tend to reinforce partialities that push against an ethics of the anonymous. Enough for now.