Episode 136 – “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross”

An early Beatles song begins:

I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend
If it makes you feel all right
I’ll get you anything, my friend
If it makes you feel all right
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money
Money can’t buy me love.

Suppose you could buy things that other people possess, that ordinarily are not things one can purchase, such as years of their life, or their compassion, or their intelligence, where buying it from them means that they no longer have it. Like love, these aren’t things that ordinarily can be purchased or exchanged in any way. In this episode, Salvadore Ross finds that he can acquire things that others possess, and while he still can’t buy love directly, (perhaps because the things he buys from others no longer belong to that other), he can acquire characteristics that will enable him to change in ways that will cause him to be loved by the person whose love he desires.

Salvadore claims to love Leah, but she isn’t interested in him. Salvadore takes the snub as a rejection of his status as a member of the working class.  But Leah is clearly turned off by his gruff and rough manner, which is clearly abusive. He doesn’t have a clue about how to attract Leah, since he doesn’t have a clue about what Leah would find attractive in another. His behavior only repulses her, as it should.

With his new found capacity to acquire characteristics and properties of other people, Salvadore gains some refinements. He appears more urbane and financially successful. Yet his personality remains the same, and he is no more attractive to Leah than he was before. He is still self-centered and clueless about how to win Leah’s heart.

Salvadore lacks compassion. So he purchases it from Leah’s father. The result is that Salvadore now wins Leah’s heart. But Leah’s father no longer has any compassion, and that does not bode well for Salvadore. His life as a compassionate human being doesn’t last very long.

It is very strange to think of something like compassion as something that someone possesses and thus as something that can be traded away. Maybe the strangeness of this way of thinking about compassion has to do with the fact that compassion and other passion-based states are really not isolated states that ‘belong’ to individuals.  It may make more sense to think of compassion as something that individuals have in partnership with other individuals.

One could not possess compassion or sympathy unless there were others to have compassion for or to be sympathetic with. Further, even with the existence of other persons, compassion or sympathy can only kick in when there is some feature or circumstance of another person for which compassion or sympathy is appropriate. What is special about these emotional states is that they depend on coordination with the emotions of others. When one feels sympathy for another person for whom there has been a death in their family, one feels some version of the grief that they feel. In sympathy and compassion one mirrors the feelings of the other.

The problem faced by Salvadore Ross remains after he has acquired the ability to appreciate and feel the emotions of others, because he has removed that capacity from someone in his inner circle. As long as there is someone who has a complete lack of compassion in one’s life, one is at risk. One is not protected by one’s compassion for others. Rather, one is protected by the compassion of others.

David Hume and other philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment argued for the centrality of sympathy and the associated emotions or sentiments in morality. Hume thought that our ability to make moral judgments depended on our capacity to reflect the emotions of others through sympathy.  “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” provides support for this philosophical view, by asking us to imagine a possible world in which sympathy is missing, either oneself or in another. In that world, the grounds of morality will be found lacking.

Further Readings:

Hume, David; (Norton, David Fate; Norton, Mary J., eds.), 2007, A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. Book 3, Part 3, Section 1.

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