William McDougall's theory of the tender emotion (the social psychologist Dan Batson thinks it helps to explain some aspects of human altruism) has been much on my mind lately. This is the core of the theory:
In the human being, just as is the case in some degree with all the instinctive responses, and as we noticed especially in the case of disgust, there takes place a vast extension of the field of application of the maternal instinct. The similarity of various objects to the primary or natively given object, similarities which in many cases can only be operative for a highly developed mind, enables them to evoke tender emotion and its protective impulse directly—i.e., not merely by way of associative re-production of the natively given object. In this way the emotion is liable to be evoked, not only by the distress of a child, but by the mere sight or thought of a perfectly happy child; for its feebleness, its delicacy, its obvious incapacity to supply its own needs, its liability to a thou-sand different ills, suggest to the mind its need of protection.And so we get this:
By a further extension of the same kind the emotion may be evoked by the sight of any very young animal, especially if in distress; Wordsworth's poem on the pet lamb is the celebration of this emotion in its purest form; and indeed it would be easy to wax enthusiastic in the cause of an instinct that is the source of the only entirely admirable, satisfying, and perfect human relationship, as well as of every kind of purely disinterested conduct. In a similar direct fashion the distress of any adult (towards whom we harbour no hostile sentiment) evokes the emotion; but in this case it is more apt to be complicated by sympathetic pain, when it becomes the painful, tender emotion we call pity; whereas the child, or any other helpless and delicate thing, may call it out in the pure form without alloy of sympathetic pain. It is amusing to observe how, in those women in whom the instinct is strong, it is apt to be excited, owing to the subtle working of similarity, by any and every object that is small and delicate of its kind—a very small cup, or chair, or book, or what not.