But there is this basis of powerful natural sentiment; and this it is which, when once the general happiness is recognised as the ethical standard, will constitute the strength of the utilitarian morality. This firm foundation is that of the social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures, which is already a powerful principle in human nature, and happily one of those which tend to become stronger, even without express inculcation, from the influences of advancing civilisation. The social state is at once so natural, so necessary, and so habitual to man, that, except in some unusual circumstances or by an effort of voluntary abstraction, he never conceives himself otherwise than as a member of a body; and this association is riveted more and more, as mankind are further removed from the state of savage independence. Any condition, therefore, which is essential to a state of society, becomes more and more an inseparable part of every person's conception of the state of things which he is born into, and which is the destiny of a human being.--J.S. Mill (1863) Utilitarianism, Chapter 3.
In her essay, Democracy: Instrumental vs Non-Instrumental Value, Elizabeth Anderson describes herself as joining "a tradition of democratic thinking advanced by John Stuart Mill and John Dewey." (214) While I tend to think of traditions as something one continues (or not), it is worth noting the possibility that in so joining the tradition, Anderson constitutes (or legislates) it. One of the characterizations of this tradition is that it understands democracy also as a "culture" and way of living.
One of the core ingredients of this democratic culture is "sympathy." (214) Anderson is explicit that the significance of sympathy is one of Mill's central contributions to the tradition: "On Mill’s view, democratic participation is a way of life that unites two higher pleasures – sympathy and autonomy," (214; the higher pleasures, including sympathy, play a key role in the argument on p. 225: we want to be able to express "mutual sympathy and respect for our fellow citizens." In an efficient dictatorship we cannot develop these pleasures fully.) That is to say, participation in democratic life (in the variety of ways that's possible) can be a pleasing activity and one of these (higher) pleasures is sympathy. (Sometimes sympathy is also called a "power" (221); this, too, has its roots in Mill.) This pleasure is not merely an individual pleasure, but it is also characterized as a "shared good" (219) or an instance of communal "good living" (221) by Anderson. In addition, Anderson understands sympathy as "solidarity." She does so with appeal to Mill.
Sympathy or solidarity – what Mill called the “feeling of unity with others” – is expressed in a person’s never conceiving of himself “otherwise than as a member of a body” whose governing principle is that of a “society between equals,” which “can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally” and “consulted” (Mill 1957: 40). Mill thought such mutually sympathetic societies of equals existed in many forms, including marriage and workers’ cooperatives. But its broadest form is democratic government.--Anderson (221)
She then goes on to fuse Dewey with Mill (and, thereby generates the tradition she joins) by continuing, "Recalling Dewey’s remarks above, democratic sympathy requires recognition of rivals as loyal opponents from whom one may learn," (221; emphasis added--ES) Anderson here offers the merest hint at the existence of non-democratic forms of sympathy in which purported solidarity and unity exclude others, that is, (what we may call with a nod to Adam Smith's treatment) factional sympathy. And, it is clear, that in practice, many of the "mutually sympathetic societies of equals" that exist in the civil society of a democratic culture are both the great, necessary schools of democratic education in which we can experiment with democratic ways of living as well as being, simultaneously, sources of merely partial (or factional) solidarity.+
It is worth noting that Mill embeds his account in a treatment of stadial progress which starts with "savage independence" and ends in civilizational, mutual interdependence. Mill here echoes the eighteenth century treatment (mixing bits of Rousseau, Hume, and Smith). By now it is a familiar, albeit sad, fact that such language also justifies empire (in ways it did not, say, for Adam Smith). But it is, perhaps, less noticed that for Mill it does not follow that the civilized can ordinarily see reality for what it really is: that man's 'social nature' is itself a mixture of natural psychological dispositions and socialization from childhood in a society with advanced, division of labor. So, advanced man tends to take his own way of life as necessary rather than as (a superior) one among many.
In advanced society, especially, sympathy expresses itself, according to Mil as "the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures." I note this explicitly not to remark that Anderson ignores the stadial theory in Mill (for her purposes that's fine as long as the higher pleasures are available), but to note that she jumps from a desire to be in unity to a feeling of unity. For Mill, (the natural sentiment of)* an agent's sympathetic feeling (for unity) does not (necessary) entail the attainment (or the "expression") of "the feeling of unity," even if according to Mill, the disposition toward unity is, indeed, very powerful in advanced society. (Indeed, by Mill's lights it's powerful enough to secure at least the possibility of utilitarian morality in practice in such societies.) The worry is that here Anderson may have confused an outcome of a desirable social process with the disposition itself. Of course, Anderson may be using 'sympathy' in a normative fashion; recall her, "shared good." I return to this below.
But leaving aside Anderson's slippage from the desire for unity to the feeling of unity, one may well wonder what fellow-feeling or compassion (the literal translation of συμπάθεια) has to do with the rather more metaphysically (and politically) loaded use of 'sympathy' by Mill and Anderson. But, in fact, Mill picks up on an important strain in reflection on sympathy from the Ancient Greeks to his own time. In this strain, in which 'sympathy' is either a placeholder concept for some kind of causal relation or the thing that needs explaining, it has five characteristics (see here for my account of this):
- Sympathy is used to explain apparent action at a distance.
- The very possibility of sympathy presupposes that it takes place among things/events/features that are in one sense or another alike, often within a single being/unity/organism (which can be the whole universe).
- The cause(s) of sympathy is invisible to the naked eye.
- The effect(s) of sympathy can be (nearly) instantaneous.
- Sympathy is, in principle, bi-directional even if the elements or agents that enter into a sympathetic relationship vary in their power to do so.
Quite clearly the Mill-Anderson conception of sympathy relies on the second and fifth characteristics. Sympathy is both a means toward unity (Mill) and presupposes it (Anderson). Moreover, 2 (which, recall, I have dubbed the "likeness principle" [LP]) has an equalizing tendency--both (agential) relata in a sympathetic relation contribute to the actualization of sympathy (as is made explicit in 5). So, this is why historically, sympathy is often found in thinkers with a concern for human equality. Of course, in Mill sympathy really still is a kind of social cause (in the very same chapter 3 of Utilitarianism, he sometimes echoes Hume's "contagion" approach to sympathy in). By the time the tradition reaches Anderson the causal conception of sympathy is not abandoned entirely (recall it can also be a "power"); but for Anderson democratic sympathy, or solidarity, is more an effect of a democratic culture (and cultivation/education, etc.) when it can take on a normative significance (and be identified with 'good living").
If one has a providential cast of mind, one might see Anderson's normative use of 'sympathy' as the latent goal of the sympathetic tradition.** One can say, then, that Anderson resonates with the tradition she "joins" and, thereby, transforms and extends it and, perhaps paradoxically, gives it unity.
+Judging by recent BHL symposium, Jacob Levy's Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom (Oxford 2014), explores this line of thought in the Liberal tradition more broadly.
*Mill's locution echoes Adam Smith in a key way (see here for more discussion).
**To be sure, earlier causal usages of 'sympathy' were already often normatively loaded.