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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Feelings and Explanations

We frequently conflate feelings with explanations of feelings. It's important that we not do that. 

From the fact that people are infallible authorities on whether they experience, say, pain, it does not follow that they are infallible authorities on why they experience pain on any particular occasion. They can't be wrong about the former, but they surely can be wrong about the latter. It would make no sense to say, "I thought I was in pain last night, but I was wrong." Yet it would make perfect sense to say, "I thought my mouth hurt because of a cavity, but I was wrong. The source of the pain was my right temporomandibular joint. The connection between effect and cause is even looser with things like anxiety. One might feel apprehensive or dysphoria generally, but how does one pin down the precise cause with confidence?

People of course can lie about being in pain, or not being in pain, but that is beside the point. I assume sincerity here.

So imagine someone suffering distress because, despite his homo sapiens body, he sincerely believes that his real species identity is that of an extraterrestrial. That is, he was "given the wrong body" and mistakenly "assigned" to the category homo sapiens. How does he know? He says he feels like an alien and doesn't feel like a human being. He also insists that his explanation must be correct because only he has direct and perfect knowledge of his own identity. Therefore he demands that everyone not only acknowledge it but also really believe it. 

Leaving aside some serious problems (what does it mean to feel like an alien or for that matter a human being?), a rational person could take his claim of distress at face value while rejecting his explanation as wrong and even absurd. Expressions of doubt about, not to mention the outright rejection of, his explanation might hurt that person's feelings, yet that would be no reason to patronize him by pretending to take the explanation seriously. If he reacted to the doubters and "deniers" as phobic bigots and exclusionists who ought to be drummed out of enlightened society, he would be the irrational one. One can certainly sympathize with people who suffer without being committed to embracing their explanations for their suffering. We all have the moral (not to mention legal) right to judge the plausibility of explanations for ourselves. 

Needless to say, the sort of person I have in mind should have the same rights as everyone else, which boil down to the right not to be aggressed against. People should be legally free to aspire to any identity they want. But identity is always a two-way street; it's a social phenomenon. And that means that other people have rights too. If those others find the positive obligations being expected on them unreasonable (such as the obligation to accommodate a self-identified extraterrestrial and to recognize that person as such), they have a right to say, "Sorry, but no. Live and let live applies to you too."

We cannot show respect for others by adopting their reality-defying fantasies. Sensitivity to suffering does not require us to check our common sense, our logic, and our reason at the door.



Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sheldon. I liked your approach.

Sheldon Richman said...


JdL said...

Well put, and I think that maybe I can guess what group(s) you had in mind as stand-ins for aliens.