What’s wrong, are you a ‘goodie two shoes’?

November 4, 2012

Social psychologists have tried to explain altruism and our very capacity for an emotion such as shame, testing theories with names like “the emotional contagion explanation,” which holds that merely seeing someone else in distress can lead to catching that distress, like a sympathetic pain traveling on a sneeze.

Emotions do register more noticeably in the body than in the mind, which can make them feel like involuntary reactions despite the fact they can be somewhat governed by internal decisions about how to interpret the events that trigger emotional reactions in us. Indeed, we’ve probably all caught a yawn this way at one time or another.


On some level, we all know how to restrain ourselves, even when we take to heart the idea that it is better to be generous than to be self-absorbed. The things we know about why appeals for emotional sensitivity are sometimes received with suspicion are the things we tell ourselves when listening for “tells” in a cry for help, in case it was intended to fool us about whether the urgency was such as should apply to ourselves as the nearest passer-by.

But we know our gut feelings sometimes lead us against self-interest by objecting categorically to unfairness (even when the injustice in question would be to our own advantage). Hence the instinct to say it is in the name of cosmic justice one rejects the “dissociation of sensibility” that separates thought and feeling.

Hobbes found aesthetics dangerous enough to be worth writing about, but a student of prosody could miss his point when he contrasts good form with fancy and ornament. He is getting at a principle that can maintain even in the ornamental thickets of the Baroque, if the style of music is not its explicit pedagogy, and some substance transcends virtuoso elaboration in the shaping of its harmony for the listener who cannot keep up with the pace of its pleasant ironies.

Little anticipating just how extravagant Baroque music could quickly become, the early movement of church music toward polyphony had to be defended in Parliament as late as the 1590s against the charge that inclusive simplicity, the great virtue of the arts in statecraft, was giving way to some virtuoso performance sport in which “they toss the psalms in most places like tennis balls,” as Thomas Cartwright complained.

The defense was also made in the language of ethics:

In harmony the very image and character .. of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves … there is that draweth to a marvelous grave and sober mediocrity, there is also that carrieth as it were into ecstasies, filling the mind with an heavenly joy and for the time in a manner severing it from the body .. the very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort … able both to move and to moderate all affections.

Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

There was something to the fear of a society in which art had outpaced its audience’s understanding.

Democracy’s freedom to outpace literacy in the political economy of everyday life seems to have opened new ground to naïve anger over the way things are. Freedom as the banner of democracy seems to stand for an attitude content to make a sneering (but entirely honest) show of egalitarian dislike of one’s fellow man out to be the marvel of the modern world.

Ignorance as a right to experiment until further notice emboldens the least imperialistic of all nations to try internationalism, try adventure. Eqbal Ahmad explains in what sense American’s aren’t imperialistic, that you can tell bcause they aren’t self-conscious about the reputation of their leaders: “This is not a people with a will to rule. This is a people with a will to violence, yes, but not a will to dominate.”

They have difficulty finding the satire in a work like Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror, and would nod in agreement told merely this much:

The trial and death of Socrates would not have remained a subject of reflection and commentary if it had only been an incident in the struggle of evil men against good men and had one not seen in it an innocent man who accepts his sentence, a just man who obeys conscience and yet refuses to reject the world and obeys the polis, meaning that it belongs to men to judge the law at the risk of being judged by it. .. The whole of Greek tragedy assumes this idea of an essential contingency through which we are all guilty and all innocent because we do not know what we are doing.

At the same time, they dislike the ideal hero described by Hegel, who is impartial in the sense of not seeing adversaries as necessarily ‘wretches’ and believing in a life governed by that assumption, or at any rate governed “… everyone being right in a sense, and accomplishes his task without hoping for everyone’s approval, nor his own entirely.”

But Americans are not famous for overthinking things. What went wrong was something else. It’s as if our guts were not our celestial guides to a land of milk and honey as effortlessly governed as cherubs in heaven after all. Could our guts also be contrary in their sentimental preferences, sometimes leading us needlessly into shame instead?

The body may seem inarticulate to the mind, but that does not mean it is without subtlety – depth and complexity are suggested instead by the involuntary and bodily magnetism of spilled blood and mangled bodies described in the passage I quoted earlier from The Republic.


Not everyone is convinced that sympathetic pain makes altruism happen, that generosity is a reactionary kindness. In boredom and in fear of disdain, we flaunt sympathetic pain and talk up our own impatience for meeting the world on its own terms, giving battle to avenge wounds already taken, rather than wait on death and remembrance.

Death could come too slow to allay anything less than a fighting finish. The fact that there are ever Good Samaritans has been cited as evidence against “emotional contagion” explanations for helping others, because if confronted with the disturbing sight of someone else’s misfortune, we could spare ourselves just by leaving the scene. The other way out? “Look Rev, I hate to see a man cry. So shove off out the office; there’s a good chap.” (From Monty Python’s motor insurance sketch.)

If the emotional contagion theory of altruism doesn’t seem entirely water-tight, other “candidate explanations of the cultural origins of moral norms prohibiting harming others” cited in Sentimental Rules include:

  • Nietzsche’s “slave morality” invented by the weak to avoid provoking the powerful
  • Reciprocity by mutual agreement for mutual benefit, or making one’s own terms of personal conduct attractive to those who would at least consider entering into such an agreement, negotiated for mutual gain, eventually
  • Extension to larger social groups of beneficence that originated (by Darwinian evolutionary processes) as a kin-protection strategy giving advantages to one’s genes
  • Emotional sensitivity that disregards self-interest by disposition and finds suffering categorically upsetting, even in strangers (i.e., a reactionary emotional impulse)

Three of these are conceptualized as if the ego (or the selfish gene) had learned to find advantage in masquerading in sheep’s clothing, and the last brings us back to where we started.


Even so, we tend to celebrate the idea of selflessness, and often favor an irrational explanation over secretly self-interested alternatives when explaining away our own acts of kindness. Where will we find evidence for what we want to believe?

Ornamental anachronisms will not revive the ethic of social order, and can glamorize the most anarchic visions of the postmodern as “apocalypse with dystopian elements,” as easily as they can paint idyllic origin stories for traditions being brought back out of disuse for further experimentation.

If lutes belonged to an iconography of concord and were once depicted in diplomatic letters with strong language about the implications should a string be broken or an instrument poorly tuned, when musicology was never discussed without a prologue on cosmology and the soul’s affinity for measure, this itself has come to sound to us more like abandoning the mundane arts to work at flattery, concealing what is unkind about the real with drowsy studies in fancy suspended in a vacuum.

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