From January 23rd-25th, BYU had the pleasure of welcoming Rico Vitz as a visiting professor to talk about how different philosophers view and approach ethics.
Dr. Rico Vitz received his Masters degree from the University of Utah and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside. He acts as the department chair in the Department of Philosophy at Azusa Pacific University. He is also an important figure in Hume Studies where he currently serves as Executive Vice President-Treasurer of The Hume Society. He actively participates in the Society of Christian Philosophers and chairs their Russia-Belarus-Ukraine Committee.
Focusing on Hume and Mencius in his lecture, Rico Vitz began his discussion by comparing and contrasting how different philosophers have approached the idea of ethics, and especially sympathy. “Supposing I saw a person perfectly unknown to me, who, while asleep in the fields, was in danger of being trod under foot by horses, I should immediately run to his assistance and in this I should be actuated by the same principle of sympathy…” -David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (T 220.127.116.11) It makes sense that if you saw someone in danger, you would run to help them, thus showing how sympathy can be a motivating principle. There are others though with objections and concerns regarding sympathy as being a good motivating principle. You may be wondering though, “how can having sympathy be a bad thing?”
According to some philosophers, one of the problems with sympathy is that it can be limited and weak. Hume says that if we only sympathize with someone’s pain a little bit, we might experience revulsion. For example, as you see a homeless person on the side of the road, you can sympathize and feel some of their pain to the extent that you actually feel a sort of revulsion and choose to pass them by. Thus sympathy can actually cause us to avoid helping other people due to our ability to sympathize with them.
The second kind of worry is in regards to partiality. As Rico Vitz stated, “sympathy activates our affections, but there is a kind of partiality for our affections. That people in one family are more likely to feel sympathy, love, and humanity for members of their own family or friends; or for their fellow citizens or fellow religionists. But then you can get this sort of in-group out-group dynamic where you get people who aren’t providing aid to people, because they just don’t feel sympathy strong enough for the people in the out-group.” Hume argues though that it is natural to be partial. Many people believe that as a human race we shouldn’t be partial to one another, but freely give to all around us.
Rico Vitz brought in the example of filial piety concerning this. Filial piety, which is manifested in love of children to their parents, is a kind of partiality, but it can also be considered a virtue. Parents are naturally more partial to their own children than to others, you aren’t giving the same gifts you give to your children to everyone you see. Hume also argues that sympathy affects us only when it is brought near to us. As in the instance of the horse almost running someone over, when you see the incident, it becomes more real and motivates you to action. If you only heard about it though, it might not. Thus, the question arose concerning if it’s a failure in our human nature that sympathy isn’t always actuated unless brought near, and what that means for the way in which we live.
In the second part of the discussion, Rico Vitz compared how Mencius tackled the idea and concerns with sympathy, or as Mencius called it, Humanity or Benevolence. Mencius spoke in regards to partiality, saying that in practice, humanity will not be broad in the way it should be due to the limits of human nature. He claimed that “people need to work at extending the scope of humanity, beginning with partial caring in the context of loving family relations – especially, by cultivating the virtue of filial piety” (Xiao, 孝). In other words, there must be a cultivation of humanity. This sort of discussion continued as students and faculty discussed on what sympathy and humanity means to us and the culture we live in.
Rico Vitz built up a solid foundation upon which he was able to bring in these ideas on how different philosophers approach their beliefs on sympathy and ethics. The comparison between Hume and Mencius toys with your mind in order to look at things a different way. Overall, it was a great discussion to get you thinking and to understand how philosophers can help you broaden your mind and get closer to understanding truth.
While his lecture series is part of the Philosophy 449R class, his lectures are open to students and faculty in the entire college. If you’re interested in learning more, Rico Vitz will visit us March 27-29th from 3-6 pm 4082 JFSB. We hope to see you there!