Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy

We’re torn, today, over what to think about empathy. On the one hand, everyone talks about the need for it; there seems to be a new book on it every week, and we hold it up as the key to bridging divides between hostile groups. On the other hand, we say, “You can’t know what it’s like to be me,” and we insist on the importance of perspective and difference. Some psychologists add that empathy reinforces our divisions into closed, xenophobic tribes, and directs us to help only individuals we see or whose stories we know, rather than doing things that would benefit larger numbers of people.

So which is it? Is empathy essential to cosmopolitanism, and a valuable moral instrument, or does it blur the differences among people, reinforce ethnocentrism, and distract us from fair and effective moral action? Being Me Being You argues that the answer to that question depends on what conception of empathy we have. It recommends the “projective” conception of empathy, introduced by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, as against the “contagious” conception of empathy to be found in the writings of his contemporary and friend David Hume. Smith developed a conception of empathy by which it is not merely an instrument for moral action, but a key component of what it is to be human. For Smith, however, empathy is also crucial to our having distinctive perspectives — to what today we call “difference”; empathy enables our common humanity and our distinctiveness to come together. Relatedly, Smith showed how it could help us combine our cosmopolitan aspirations with our local loyalties, and how it could make for public policies that are sensitive to each person’s different needs and aspirations. In all these ways, Smith’s empathy-centered humanism remains invaluable today.

Author: Sam Fleischacker
Published Date: 2019
Publisher: University of Chicago Press

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.