Sympathy, sympathetic disruption and a-reflection as concepts of Philosophy of Economic Behavior

In its studies, the philosophy of economic behavior assumes the concept of sympathy in David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s broader sense, which “meant to be a catch-all term for the various kinds of emotional glue that hold social relationships together” (Fleischacker 2012, 274). For both philosophers, sympathy is a subjective mechanism of transfusing emotions from one person to another, because “sympathy operates as the communicability of affect [emotion] regardless of the particular passion” (Agosta, 2016). In fact, philosophy of economic behavior considers that the sympathetic relation, “denote(s) our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever” (Smith, 1759). In this case, by means of imagination, one person puts himself in the shoes of another individual, conscious that she is a different self, because she uses her own parameters to appraisal the situation which perhaps, does not correspond to the real situation experienced by the other individual. In short, the concept of sympathy refers to the transfusion of any kind of emotion, where the self of each part involved is kept.

Sympathy, as used by philosophy of economic behavior, is not similar to empathy, which considers sympathy as a concept only related to pity or compassion, where the observer is immediately motivated by the feelings of sorrow to alleviate the pain of the other person but does not exclude reflective elements (Wispé 2016). In other words, sympathy, as termed by empathy, is only the apprehending of suffering of another individual. “Empathy, unlike sympathy, denotes an active referent. In empathy one attends to the feelings of another; in sympathy one attends to the suffering of another, but the feelings are one’s own. In empathy I try to feel your pain. In sympathy I know you are in pain, and I sympathize with you, but I feel my sympathy and my pain, nor your anguish and your pain” (Wispé 2016). However, the mere view of pain does not have a greater power to engage the spectator with the suffering. Pity is an emotion that can be aroused from the viewing of pain, but it is a secondary emotion originated from sorrow + compassion + desire to help. It leads us to desire to help only after being aware of the individual’s situation.

There are cases where the situation in which the individual is immersed in is so difficult for him to deal with that he makes a kind of sympathetic disruption, in order to cut off all possibilities to engage in a sympathetic relation. The police officer who is responsible for carrying out a prisoner’s death sentence, for instance, enters in a sympathetic disruption so that he does not feel any emotion in playing the role of a people killer. Moreover, he does not make any kind of moral reflection. He must be a-reflective in order to be capable of fulfilling the task he was designed for.

In short, sympathetic disruption occurs to help a person cope with an extreme situation. She cuts off the possibility of the transfusion of emotions (emotional disruption), that is, of entering into a sympathetic relation with another individual. In this case, she avoids thinking about the situation she faces and enters in a state of a-reflection. That is, there is no reflection at all.  We should remark that, a) when an individual is thinking about something he is in a state of reflection, b) when he reflects badly (disdain/neglectfulness/thoughtlessness) he is in a state of reflection in a wrong way, and c) he is in a state of a-reflection when there is not any kind of reflection.


AGOSTA, L. Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved on 19/March/2016

FLEISHACKER, S. (2012). Sympathy in Hume and Smith: A Contrast, Critique and Reconstruction. Dagfinn F. & Christel F. (Eds.), Intersubectivity and Objectivity in Adam Smith and Edmund Husserl. Frankfurt.

HUME, D. (1826) Treatise of Huma Nature. Edinburgh

SMITH, A. (1759). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Eds. D.D. Raphael & A.L. Macfie, Indianapolis: 1982.  retrieved on 12/September/2013

WISPÉ, L. Sympathy and Empathy,  retrieved on 12/June/2016

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