The Space Between: Post 3

         One of my favorite examples of this switch comes from Jean-Paul Sartre. He asks you to imagine standing at a door, bent over so as to look through the keyhole. You are desperately trying to make out what is happening inside. Why? Perhaps you are a jilted lover. As you are standing there your entire conception of your action is as of gathering intel. Then you hear a noise down the hall. Someone is coming! This realization wrests you from your immersion in your activity and makes you realize that you are, in fact, peeping. The presence of another person makes you see yourself as you imagine they would see you (or as you would see yourself were you the person coming down the hall).          Such shifts in perspective on our own actions are likely to play a crucial role in our ability to be responsible agents. Why? Because it helps us see our own actions in the light we would see other people’s actions in, which tends to be much more connected with their moral and social consequences. Norms are typically organized around actions conceived in such ways.
Heidi Maibom, University of Cincinnati and University of the Basque Country
         The key to understanding perspective taking is to understand that the everyday practice pretends to do much less than philosophers suppose. If I ask someone to take my perspective, I am not asking them to engage in a prolonged process of complete identification. Not only would this be impossible, but it would also be undesirable. Instead, what I want the other person to do is to adopt my perspective on a particular situation. Now, if by perspective I mean Weltanschauung, then the other person is no doubt doomed to fail. But if, instead, what I have in mind is taking up a first-person perspective on the situation, the other person is more likely to succeed. How? By narrowing in on how the situation is related to the other person as the gravitational center of the universe (as it were).
         Reversing actor-observer asymmetries does not just go one way, of course. It goes both ways, which is to say that doing so gives us a way of seeing ourselves as an observer would. An agent perspective gives us only a partial view of ourselves. In many ways this is a self-serving perspective. It facilitates our continued activities by focusing in on factors that are relevant for doing so, while ignoring others, for instance. But actions have many sides. There is the side of the person performing it, who tends to see it in terms of its quality of performance and whether it succeeded in achieving its goal. Then there is the side of the people affected by the action, who are inclined to see it in terms of its consequences for them or for other people instead. Neither side is “the right one.” Each side represents or highlights unique aspects, all of which are part of the larger reality of the action.
         What this has to do with morality and impartiality is the topic of the next post.  
         Reversing our first-person perspective so that we take up an agent stance on the other person as opposed to our usual observer one is much discussed in the literature. Psychologists typically talk of perspective taking, but philosophers might find the term ‘simulation’ more familiar. If we are successful in taking another’s point of view, we come to privilege the other person in the same ways we privilege ourselves and represent the impact on the other person of what happens to him as if it were happening to us. The problem, however, is how to effect such a perspective shift. After all, in my own case, I have the kind of access to my thoughts and feelings that I do not have to those of the person I imagine to be. Moreover, many of my background beliefs, desires, and character traits will be different. How, then, can a simulation be successful?
Given the differences I discussed in my last post between how we regard others and ourselves pre-reflectively (reflectively we understand that others are agents just like us, of course), it should not be surprising that adopting a perspective that reverses these asymmetries can prove very helpful. The differences I have mentioned may be small in many cases, but they are nonetheless significant and, once added up, amount to substantially different ways of thinking.
         In the simplest case, this might be imagining a similar loss, of a pet perhaps, and seeing how that plays out psychologically. Because what we are concerned with here is understanding the first-personal relevance of such a loss, we can bracket concerns about differences in psychological background. The first-person relevance is relatively invariant, as we saw in the previous post, although a person’s particular reaction is not entirely independent of the person’s unique character or beliefs.