I would…

Illustration: María Elena (Mani) Hinojosa

A while ago I stumbled upon a line that got me thinking. It went something like this: “If you were in someone else’s position, your life and behavior would be exactly like that person’s.” In some sense — if we stretched the meaning of “position” to encompass everything — it seems obvious, but we never really consider things that way. In fact, what we normally think and say is more like: “Oh, but if I were him I’d have done this or that”, implying, no doubt, that “this or that” would have led to a better outcome.

Is that not, though, an absurd thing to say? It’s like saying “If I were you, I’d be someone else”. But of course we don’t mean literally “if I were the exact person you are”. What we mean is “if I were in your situation”.

That’s fine, but then we should recognize that that’s not very relevant when we’re judging somebody else’s actions and life. We shouldn’t judge someone as if they were a different person, as if their life circumstances had not been what they were. Yet that’s what we do if we claim that we, in exactly the same circumstances as another—which circumstances should include everything, that is, their life history, all their personal experiences, their looks and genes, etc.— would have chosen a better path. It makes no sense.

Of course this is related to the incoherent notion of libertarian free will. But even if one believed in it, on what would he base his supposed capacity to choose differently if he truly were in someone else’s shoes? If the life of the “freely choosing” individual had been identical to the one of another whose actions he questions, and if his constitution were equally identical, and yet such individual claims he would have been able to choose differently, on what can he base this assertion? The only way is that he thinks he is still somehow different in his essence. Maybe his “spirit” is more alert, better attuned to the good, better able to see the light — but that would be cheating! That would be departing from the premise, which stipulates that everything be identical in the two persons in question. Let’s keep this in mind when we’re inclined to pass judgment on others. Let’s be thankful that we’re not that homeless person we just passed on the street, and let’s recognize that “if we were him”, we’d be homeless too.

Interested in natural selection, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, science in general, human nature, consciousness, philosophy and ethics.

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