Hume on the Cancer Ward: What creates benevolence zones?

Hume thought that we can pick up others’ feelings and that doing so inclines us to act.  In particular, feeling their pain moves us to try to relieve it.  The connection between acquired feeling and action seems to be quite direct.  That is, it isn’t mediated by thoughts of how one will appear to others, or indeed any such thing.

One worrying feature of the account is that if one does really pick up others’ pain, doesn’t it make sense to try to get away from them?  I suspect a lot of us do react rather like that; I have always assumed I’d be a reluctant and not very helpful visitor on a ward for sick children, for example.  So what is the connection Hume thinks exists?

But in addition to that problem, we may feel that there’s another problem:  How does someone’s benefit end up one of one’s own goals?  Hume recognizes that we may be helpful for all sorts of self-regarding reasons, but he also thinks most of us have the capacity for co-feeling – for what he calls sympathy – and that that leads to benevolent, helpful action for those in distress.

We now have a model of how we produce actions that are basically or primitively rewarding, and Hume’s thought could be understood to say that human beings find helping those in distress primitively rewarding (other things being equal, of course)..  The neuroscientific account, to put it very roughly, says that if something is primitively rewarding, then you get a burst of dopamine when you first do it.  After a short while, the dopamine burst occurs in reaction to reliable antecedents of the reward, so you are alerted when the chance for the reward is coming up.  Among the primitive rewards are things like food and sex, and, maybe, helping others out when they need it. 

I’ve thought about Hume’s views, and even written about them, and it was on my mind when I stepped foot for the first time in MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.  US News and World Report has it the top cancer center in the US, and it is – really and truly – something else again.  It covers 25 square blocks, all of which are devoted to clinical and research work on cancer.  It also has a quite remarkable ethos.  Everything is supposed to be about the patients.  For example, when you go into their parking garages, the best and most easily available places are for ordinary folk.  Every medical facility I’ve been to other than this has the first four or five floors reserved for doctors and other personnel.  (I was at first quite suspicious and worried about getting towed.)

Where I was you take the elevator from the garage to the second floor, where you find another distinctive mark of MD Anderson:  tons and tons of nice, friendly volunteers who offer to help you find your way around.

And there are also a large number of cancer patients, some in perhaps tragic situations.  You can see family clusters, with a mother, father, with two young people in their 20’s; one’s got the hat on and so may well be the patient.  Small children are wheeled around.  One older man could hardly move; he was heaving, having a hard time breathing.  His wife told the nurse he thought he had a clot in his leg, a not impossible result of his treatment. 

And none of it seems ugly and distressing.  Everyone seemed helpful and nice.  And one wanted to help as one could.  It seemed to me very remarkable.  And I tried to figure out what was going on.

I’d love to know if anyone else has been in what one might think of as a zone of benevolence.  What could cause it?   My latest hypothesis is that many people have their defenses lowered.  This is not at all like being in a crowded restaurant, where people are turned inward to themselves and their small groups.  For example, I pulled something on an alarmingly reclining chair and it may a loud noise and rearranged itself.  One woman left her patient companion and came over to offer help.  Of course, she might just have been looking for diversion, but I’m not sure that we run about helping people when we’re bored.

Another might be that there’s really extensive gratitude for the excellence everyone seems to aim at.  The reviews of the hospital talk again and again about excellence and compassion.  In fact, I’d dismiss my own impressions as probably fleeting, except for the fact that a lot of reviews from people who have been involved for a long time say much the same thing.

If it were excellence and compassion, perhaps we could aim for something similar in our universities.  Well, why not!?!