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!?!

10 thoughts on “Hume on the Cancer Ward: What creates benevolence zones?

  1. this is an interesting observation. I am going to use the book “Born to Love” as a reading in my ethic courses this fall. It explains the neurological mechanism behind empathy. I will bring your observation up as a topic for discussion.

  2. I think the zone of benevolence might not create the kindness, but merely allow it. Many people would be kinder if it wasn’t a sign of weakness or weirdness. If there’s an area where kindness is permissible, where you can still look cool, and it’s unlikely you’ll be accused of an ulterior motive, then perhaps people would jump to help one another. Helping someone often translates to, “You owe me” which is an uncomfortable place to be. To build a benevolence zone, then, would require a foundational belief that we can give without expectation of receiving.

  3. I have deleted a comment that both makes offensive and false generalizations, and derails the main topics of this wonderful post on benevolence zones. Readers can consult the blog commenting policy by clicking on “Our Policies” at the top of the webpage.

    This post leaves me in deep thought about related situations and the idea of aiming for something similar in universities. Maybe more (from me) later. Others, please continue with the comments…!

  4. Anne, thank you for writing of long-neglected ethical and emotional capacity that human beings possess — benevolence and empathy. I have the privilege of coming from a bunch of unusual and small communities (in the university I work at among the postgraduate students in particular) and among activists in which fellow-feeling is a matter of fact. These are groups of people for whom the kindnesses you describe are everyday matters. In fact, when someone fails to act with concern for another or to respond with care, it’s considered a strong deviation from the norm.

    I wonder what it is about life in academia and particularly in philosophy that makes the experience of compassion, empathy and fellow-feeling such alien things? This has been particularly true of my experience of philosophical discourse in the anglo-american world — esp the US and Australia. I find it much less pronouced in the UK and in sections of Asia. It is almost as if anything which does not start with the concept of self-interest is automatically suspect in these cultures, as if human beings cannot find empathy and care for others genuinely rewarding in itself. This cynicism is the one thing in my experience that is most damaging and toxic for building self-sustaining communities of care. If a person genuinely seeks to meet another person and wishes to help with no thought of return but is responded to with perpetual suspicion and met with doubt at each step, at some point, they will cease caring. Nothing kills care and empathy as effectively as distrust and scorn.

    You speak in your article of the connection between excellence and compassion, as if a person needed the additional motive of pursuit of excellence in order to be compassionate. This again is an interesting assumption and exemplary of the kind of world-view I speak of in the earlier paragraph. Sometimes people need no other motivation in order to be compassionate, not self-interest, not any abstract conception of “excellence”. They merely feel for another.

    I leave you with an anecdote from my travels in India in which I sat in the commoner’s carriage sprawled on the floor outside the toilet with an indian woman I had never met before. She offered me the food meant for her and her child during the journey, knowing she would never see me again, having seen the camera around my neck that would have fed her family for an entire year probably. I did not need feeding weighing probably at least a third more than she did but she wanted to feed me anyway, in recognition of the fatigue of travel and the loneliness of being a foreigner in a strange place.

    Compassion exists. The real problem is a civilizational and academic discourse that treats it with suspicion and makes it disappear by reducing it all cases of altruism into forms of hidden or repressed self-interest.

  5. pragmatic realist: it would be great to hear from you or a student what the result is.
    snydersym: the idea of owing is really complicated, particularly in this situation, I think. I’m going to take a bit of it up in responding to The Silenced. In general, though, you remind us that a zone of benevolence might have positive features creating benevolence or it might lack the negative features that impede benevolence. Thanks!

    The Silenced: I was really unclear about excellence, perhaps because I hadn’t thought it through. There are lots of ways in which excellence can make a difference, and at least two in which it might, as it were, up the amount of compassion. One way would be through trust: In the very complex situation that MD Anderson represents, people feel (let’s suppose and many say this is true) that they can really trust one another; patients trust doctors, doctors trust technicians, everyone trusts those doing the scheduling, and so on. Such trust would at least lower some of the anxiety that can cut us off from one another. And there might be a kind of group pride that develops, that could help with a group feeling of caring.

    No doubt there other things that could be added in here, but let me turn to another way in which excellence and compassion might be linked. That’s through feeling gratitude and owing; the doctors, nurses, technicians, etc, are giving one such valuable treatment, one has a strong urge to pay it back, we can suppose. But it isn’t really possible to do that, so perhaps instead people feel a stong urge just to give, perhaps particularly to give to the doctors’ patients and thus, hopefully, further their goals. In fact at MDA you are assigned a team of people, and this may have the effect that one’s sense of owing is already more than owing to a particular surgeon.

  6. David, thanks for your nice comment. I’d love to hear what you think about building a zone of benevolence at a university. I’m skeptical, I’m afraid.

  7. The university where I teach (as a part-time adjunct) is one of the ones who accepted money from BBT Bank to fund a special course in the business department on Ayn Rand and Capitalism. I have been thinking about doing a unit in my ethics class to take her – um – philosophy of Objectivism head on because I feel some kind of responsibility to do so. I want to give some kind of grounding to the idea of empathy and altruism. Actually I am thinking more of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments rather than Hume, but of course they are deeply related, and the idea that Smith was already committed to the idea of sympathy before he wrote out his ideas of the “free market”. The market would therefore be made up of people whose pursuit of self-interest are limited by human sympathy and benevolence.

  8. Anne, I’m afraid I share your skepticism. One thing that comes to mind is the many official and unofficial “safety” zones at many colleges/universities. Although these take different forms, they usually center around the offices of certain faculty members who are particularly sensitive to the various appropriate things. Supportive friendships and groups of perhaps benevolent students (not necessarily knowing each other) often form around informal meetings at such faculty offices. Perhaps that is a stretch, but maybe not. It would be nice if entire departments or schools within universities resembled such safety zones, at least as a start…

  9. @The Silenced on Why compassion is so alien in academia.
    I think all through school kids are encouraged to be competitive. The rewards given for top students, even gold stars in grades 2 and 3, are enough to foster the concept that all other students are adversaries. Kids are in such a struggle to try to stay near the top, helping anyone else would take away their edge. I teach high school, and I try to dismantle this as much as possible in my classroom, but it’s hard to work against that entire system. I’d imagine university to be worse because the kids attending are all the kids who were closest to the top in high school already. They’re already sucked into that competition.

    Even the way students (in Canada) can choose to go to a school other than the one nearest by signing up to a “magnet program” makes the schools have to compete against one another. I work on environmental initiatives and try to get a few schools working together, sharing resources, but all the teachers keep their cards close to their chest. It’s a drag.

    Interesting question – Is it possible to be competitive and compassionate at once? Is it necessarily the case that trying to get to the top disables our desire to help others? I tend to think I can be more empathetic because I’ve experienced being marginalized and I have no ambitions to move beyond my station.

    I wrote a bit more on my point yesterday here. (I’m snydersymposium above.)

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