Two senses of caring

Life is more about doing than feeling

-My dad

This is another one of those posts which is going to be painfully obvious to a lot of readers, but which others might find helpful. I wanted to talk through something that I only consciously grasped in my early twenties. The difference between two senses of caring about something or someone. It’s important to be clear on this because being woolly about it might give you an unwarranted cynical view of people- and of yourself.

Once, attending the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park, I listened as a speaker proposed that we don’t really care about what happens to the vast majority of people. We might learn that 20 have died horribly, and shudder for a moment, but we’ll sleep fine just afterwards. I objected that if the angel of death appeared before you and offered to give a reprieve for those 20 people in exchange for 200 bucks, almost everyone would take the deal, indicating that we really do care.

The speaker’s point was echoed centuries ago by Adam Smith, in a quote often repeated:

“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment[…] And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

But here’s the part of the quote that is not normally reproduced, it makes my point:

“To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. ”

So if we measure care in terms of feeling, we care more about our little finger than the whole population of China. If we measure care in terms of action- in terms of the tradeoffs we’re willing to make- we care more about China. We might call the first kind of care F-Care (feeling care) and the second kind A-Care (action care).

Like all tendencies to action, A-care is primarily defined in terms of what you are willing to forego to make the action happen- the costs and opportunity costs you are willing to concur. A-care then is fundamentally about sacrifice.

Sometimes A & F care actually go in opposite directions. To my shame I have inwardly rejoiced in the misfortunes of my enemies. Nonetheless, if you’d given me the option, I would have gotten them out of their predicament- even made big sacrifices to do so.

The most important sense of caring by far I would submit is A-Care. Jesus of Nazareth implicitly recognised this when he said:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

If love/care is defined in terms of A-care, and sacrificing your life is generally the greatest sacrifice you can make, Jesus’s statement stands to reason.

Even though A-care is more important than F-care, A-care takes up a lot of our mental space. Those who seek a disciplined spiritual mind have often been greatly distressed by the possibility that their motives are not pure, and have sometimes interpreted, for example, their longing for glory incidental on a greater desire to serve goodness as proof that their motives are not pure. For example, in Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, the soon to be maytred Archbishop of Cantebury laments:

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Because the thought of being a famous martyr is very attractive to him- as one who has admired marytrs, his heart glows warmly at the thought of being a famous martyr. There can be no question that he would go ahead with this even if he would not be a famous martyr as a result, but he worries that his rejoicing in the possibility of a famous martyr invalidates his good intentions. At least if The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim, this sort of struggle to bring feeling and action in line was a key feature of Reb Simhah Bunim’s life as well.

This desire for “clean” feelings which match my moral values has been an ongoing struggle for me. I’ve felt my heart sore at the news of things that I would quite literally give my life to stop, and I’ve felt my heart plummet at recieving what is, in terms of my considered views, great news. This disconnect in judgement isn’t just related to direct outcomes, sometimes it can be about evaluations. For example, I’ve felt myself swell with overweening pride emotionally, feeling confidence in my own abilities- while nonetheless I still wouldn’t take a prideful bet. Presumably, at some point, this begins to shade into the subtle distinctions between categories of beliefs that I previously covered here.

My personal advice, after years of wrestling with the contradictions between these two kinds of care, is to stop caring about F care, and only care about A care when you’re evaluating yourself. Easier said than done, and I acknowledge the possibility that I’m wrong, but trying this has worked well for me- especially in light of my self-critical form of OCD which has made clarity very hard to come by.

I have my own half-baked linguistic proposal to clarify the distinction between F & A care in contexts where it is very important to be clear about what you mean. I propose that for A-care we revive the Latin word “necessitas” which according to Google translate means: “necessity, compulsion, urgency, requirement, tie, relationship”. For F-care I propose we revive the Latin word “sollicitudo”, which according to Google translate means “solicitude, care, concern, anxiety, worry, apprehension”. I have found thinking about myself and my actions in a way which clearly distinguishes them is useful  in trying to understand myself, my strengths and failings in a realistic way.

We are, on the whole, what we do, not what we feel. If there’s one other takeaway here, it is that you are more fragmentary than you may realise. A person is more like an interlocking field of gears, or the parts of a chariot than they are like an animated marble statue.


3 thoughts on “Two senses of caring

    1. I think it stands to reason this is true in most contexts- once the distinction is explained I think it’s hard to see it some other way. I’d rather be friends with a guy who wouldn’t cry a tear at my funeral, but who would risk his life to save mine, than the inverse.

      Do you disagree?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. > Do you disagree?

        Not necessarily. The possibility that F-care might be more important or at least closer in importance occurred to me as something that would be a fundamentally controversial thought in the circles I run in (LessWrongers).

        I can think of one way F-care could matter more: if you take a signaling view of life and society, where it’s more important that you signal affinity, than it is necessary to tithe or live righteously. In some ways, I’ve come closer to this view after reading this post of yours:

        Related from 2004:

        > At the Democratic Convention this week, Hillary Clinton offered voters an intriguing choice. “Some polls,” she noted, “ask voters: ‘Who would you rather have a beer with?’. I don’t think that’s the question in the 21st century. Who would you rather be in a foxhole with?”

        However, the fact that the first question is the standard one says something.

        I think people’s revealed preferences match closer to the idea that stated preferences matter more to others than people state they do. I’m not necessarily saying that it’s right, but I tend to be more drawn to entertaining people than are reliable ones.


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