The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.



The Myth of Universal Love

By Stephen T. Asma

January 5, 2013

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.

Now that the year-end holidays have passed, so have the barrage of entreaties to nurture a sense of “good will to all mankind,” to extend our love and care to others beyond our usual circle of friends and family. Certainly, this is a message we are meant to take to heart not just in December but all year long. It is a central ideal of several religious and ethical systems.

In the light of the new year, it’s worth considering how far we actually can, or should, extend this good will.

To some, the answer might seem obvious. One of the more deeply engrained assumptions of Western liberalism is that we humans can indefinitely increase our capacity to care for others, that we can, with the right effort and dedication, extend our care to wider and wider circles until we envelop the whole species within our ethical regard. It is an inspiring thought. But I’m rather doubtful. My incredulity, though, is not because people are hypocritical about their ideals or because they succumb to selfishness. The problem lies, instead, in a radical misunderstanding about the true wellsprings of ethical care, namely the emotions.

Two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe. They have different prescriptions for arriving at ethical utopia.

Singer, who is perhaps the world’s best known utilitarian philosopher, argues in his book “The Expanding Circle” that the relative neocortical sophistication of humans allows us to rationally broaden our ethical duty beyond the “tribe” — to an equal and impartial concern for all human beings. “If I have seen,” Singer writes, “that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies.”

Like mathematics, which can continue its recursive operations infinitely upward, ethical reasoning can spiral out (should spiral out, according to Singer) to larger and larger sets of equal moral subjects. “Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.”

Credit Leif Parsons

All this sounds nice at first — indeed, I would like it to be true — but let me throw a little cold water on the idea. Singer seems to be suggesting that I arrive at perfect egalitarian ethics by first accepting perfect egalitarian metaphysics. But I, for one, do not accept it. Nor, I venture to guess, do many others. All people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties — and only conjectural assumption can make them appear so. (For many of us, family members are more entitled than friends, and friends more entitled than acquaintances, and acquaintances more than strangers, and so on.) It seems dubious to say that we should transcend tribe and be utilitarian because all people are equal, when the equal status of strangers and kin is an unproven and counterintuitive assumption.

Singer’s abstract “ethical point of view” is not wrong so much as irrelevant. Our actual lives are punctuated by moral gravity, which makes some people (kith and kin) much more central and forceful in our daily orbit of values. (Gravity is actually an apt metaphor. Some people in our lives take on great “affection mass” and bend our continuum of values into a solar-system of biases.  Family members usually have more moral gravity —what Robert Nozick calls “ethical pull.” [1])

One of the architects of utilitarian ethics, and a forerunner of Singer’s logic, was William Godwin (1756-1836), who formulated a famous thought experiment. He asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.

Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”[2]

Singer has famously pushed the logic further, arguing that we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness. In the utilitarian calculus, needs always trump enjoyments. If I am to be utterly impartial to all human beings, then I should reduce my own family’s life to a subsistence level, just above the poverty line, and distribute the surplus wealth to needy strangers.

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