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The myth of universal love
February 22, 2013 10:32 AM   Subscribe

"All people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties." In his book "Against Fairness," (trailer) Stephen T. Asma argues in defense of favoritism and against universal love. "Whence then do we find morality and justice in an unfair world?"

* Aristotle vs. Rawls and the meaning of fairness (part 2)
* Rawls' Original Position, i.e. "justice as fairness"
* Justice as fairness: all gender and no class?
posted by mrgrimm (86 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs; South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don't like anybody very much.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:44 AM on February 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.
posted by notsnot at 10:48 AM on February 22, 2013 [17 favorites]


Is it unfair that the men I love most are the men who say that I must love my fellow man?
posted by No Robots at 10:48 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


God knows our society is overly fair, just, and equitable, and nobody's favored or disadvantaged arbitrarily in any way. I'm glad somebody's finally come along to challenge that boring status quo.
posted by edheil at 10:53 AM on February 22, 2013 [24 favorites]


I have to concede that I want cosmic love to work. I want Rifkin to be right. And in some abstract sense, I agree with the idea of an evolutionary shared descent that makes us all “family.” But feelings of care and empathy are very different from evolutionary taxonomy. Empathy is actually a biological emotion (centered in the limbic brain) that comes in degrees, because it has a specific physiological chemical progression. Empathy is not a concept, but a natural biological event —an activity, a process.

Similarly, these hands of mine are just collections of chemicals, mostly water -- a NATURALLY OCCURRING MOLECULE. They are literally biological machines, that work on and in the plane of matter. So yes, if I am happening to slap all the animals in the pet store, I think it's fair to say that Biology. Welp hope this has been enlightening bye
posted by Greg Nog at 10:57 AM on February 22, 2013 [26 favorites]


notsnot wins for Tom Lehrer quote

There's a minimum level of respect that every human being deserves. But that's the MINIMUM. Everybody wants more than that.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:58 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Ideally, people would be less ego-centric, but I'm too ego-centric for that to work! Oh well."
posted by selfnoise at 10:59 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


"I mean really, why should I bother flipping over that turtle? Who is that turtle to me?"
posted by benito.strauss at 11:01 AM on February 22, 2013 [23 favorites]


I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world because they'd never expect it.
- Jack Handey
posted by chambers at 11:03 AM on February 22, 2013 [18 favorites]


GUYS GUYS I HEARD WE'RE MADE OF PHYSICAL MATTER AND HAVE CERTAIN INBORN DISPOSITIONS SO ALL IS PERMITTED

IF ANYONE NEEDS ME I'LL BE JAMMING MY DICK IN A BOWL OF MINESTRONE
posted by Greg Nog at 11:04 AM on February 22, 2013 [46 favorites]


My soup!
posted by boo_radley at 11:05 AM on February 22, 2013 [38 favorites]


....and guess what gender and race good old S. Asma belongs to? And his general physiognomy? Short, swarthy and chubby or blond, blue-eyed and thin? And his social class? Is he one of the few proles teaching at Columbia? A short look at Wikipedia is revealing.

My contention, speaking as a whitey of northern European descent, is that folks like me tend to feel that it's too much of a drag to be worrying about "fairness" and "love", because that usually means that we have to be fair to others and love others, when under the usual regime, others tend to have to be fair to us and [pretend to] love us because we hold all the cards.
posted by Frowner at 11:06 AM on February 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


Oh wait, he's at Columbia Chicago, not real Columbia.
posted by Frowner at 11:07 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Loving everyone doesn't require liking them, thankfully.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:07 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


(disclaimer: I've only read the Pigliucci article so far)

(dlsclaimer: I'm frequently seen wandering the countryside muttering "I hate everyone")

I don't find the general line of argument about the finitude of human empathy to lead to the idea that we should apportion our empathy so that there's no portion left for some actual people we encounter in our lives. Yes, it might be true that I cannot have unconditional love individually for seven billion people, but I should be able to remember that everyone I actually speak to is a human (or maybe a cat) and at a minimum deserves common courtesy.
posted by jepler at 11:08 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's easy to mount our high horses and declare an absolute and egalitarian love for mankind in general, but the example he gives from Godwin (which came to my mind immediately before even clicking on the link) is a powerful challenge. Do any of you actually believe that if it came down to it you'd rescue some famous philosopher at the expense of your mother's painful death (or, if you happen to have complicated feelings about your mother, substitute some other beloved significant other) because of the overall good to humankind that that choice would represent? I think there are precious few of you who could honestly answer "yes" to that question, and I think most of us would see such a person as ethically suspect.

Abstract universal benevolence is a nice idea, but to imagine actually living on that basis is to imagine something radically unlike what we think of as any normal human life.
posted by yoink at 11:08 AM on February 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


"All people are not equally entitled"

AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH

NOT ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUALLY ENTITLED...

Basic logic! Not that hard to write down properly.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Who is that turtle to me?

To be fair, though, I've never met a turtle I didn't like. They seem pretty agreeable on the whole.

I've met a lot of people who were assholes.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'd read this, but not all people are not equally entitled to my time.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


In the nytimes Stone article he is ripped apart by astute readers. The comments contain clearer thinking than his stunted theorizing.
posted by polymodus at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Besides the impracticalities of such redistribution, the problems here are also conceptual. Say I bought a fancy pair of shoes for my son. In light of the one-tribe calculus of interests, I should probably give these shoes to someone who doesn’t have any. I do research and find a child in a poor part of Chicago who needs shoes to walk to school every day. So, I take them off my son (replacing them with Walmart tennis shoes) and head off to the impoverished Westside. On the way, I see a newspaper story about five children who are malnourished in Cambodia. Now I can’t give the shoeless Chicago child the shoes, because I should sell the shoes for money and use the money to get food for the five malnourished kids. On my way to sell the shoes, I remember that my son has an important job interview for a clean-water nonprofit organization and if he gets the job, he’ll be able to help save whole villages from contaminated water. But he won’t get the job if he shows up in Walmart tennis shoes. As I head back home, it dawns on me that for many people in the developing world, Walmart tennis shoes are truly luxurious when compared with burlap sack shoes, and since needs always trump luxuries I’ll need to sell the tennis shoes too; and on, and on, and on.


My god. He's made of straw!
posted by jsturgill at 11:11 AM on February 22, 2013 [16 favorites]


Besides the impracticalities of such redistribution, the problems here are also conceptual. Say I bought a fancy pair of shoes for my son. In light of the one-tribe calculus of interests, I should probably give these shoes to someone who doesn’t have any. I do research and find a child in a poor part of Chicago who needs shoes to walk to school every day. So, I take them off my son (replacing them with Walmart tennis shoes) and head off to the impoverished Westside. On the way, I see a newspaper story about five children who are malnourished in Cambodia. Now I can’t give the shoeless Chicago child the shoes, because I should sell the shoes for money and use the money to get food for the five malnourished kids. On my way to sell the shoes, I remember that my son has an important job interview for a clean-water nonprofit organization and if he gets the job, he’ll be able to help save whole villages from contaminated water. But he won’t get the job if he shows up in Walmart tennis shoes. As I head back home, it dawns on me that for many people in the developing world, Walmart tennis shoes are truly luxurious when compared with burlap sack shoes, and since needs always trump luxuries I’ll need to sell the tennis shoes too; and on, and on, and on.

I mean, is this anything besides internet trollery? "Oh, I literally cannot help the helpless because there are just too fucking many of them, each worse off than the last - and they are helpless through some mechanism totally unconnected from me - so I might as well buy my kid the nice shoes so he can get paid to "help" the helpless, amirite?"

This whole line of reasoning suggests
1. That people are immiserated by chance, not because of political and economic systems;
2. That Dr. Asma's many advantages have nothing to do with the disadvantages of the disadvantaged;
3. That there is no political dimension to this whole noblesse oblige/white elites get jobs saving the rainforest because they are just so generous like that routine;
4. And that the only way Dr. Asma can help people is by participating in white-led nonprofit-industrial complex charity at the expense of his "innocent" family.

Fuck a bunch of that.
posted by Frowner at 11:14 AM on February 22, 2013 [15 favorites]


My god. He's made of straw!

No, it's: "My God! It's full of straw!"
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:14 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I've never met a turtle I didn't like.

They are delicious, aren't they?
posted by adamdschneider at 11:14 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


or jsturgill's tl;dr version
posted by Frowner at 11:14 AM on February 22, 2013


I mean, the whole problem is that it is just so blindly selfish and privilege-y to frame the whole "what do we do about human suffering" matter in this way - it's the "have you stopped beating your wife yet" of philosophy questions.
posted by Frowner at 11:16 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Humanity lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping. You're too busy playing with your fucking tortoise. What's with you and that goddamn tortoise, anyway? You never write, you never call...

My tortoise? Let me tell you about my tortoise, mother...!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:25 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


To be fair, though, I've never met a turtle I didn't like. They seem pretty agreeable on the whole.

Oh man not even close. In the spring I am constantly finding turtles stuck in the middle of the country roads I bike on. They get scared by cars and huddle in their shells until they get smashed and die. I stop and try to move these jerks and they hiss at me and try to bite.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:28 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The one reason Meritocracy is a frakking failure is that dishonesty and disrespect are inevitably the most valued skillset.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:37 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh, I literally cannot help the helpless because there are just too fucking many of them

Now this is a straw man. Nowhere, at all, does he suggest that we should not care about or attempt to alleviate the sufferings of people in other countries. He is arguing about the philosophical basis and the type of ethical engagement we have with these kinds of cases. He is saying that the notion that we either should or could care for some nameless and unknown person on the other side of the planet in exactly the same way that we care for, say, a family member is false. And I can't help but agree with him. I don't know anybody who is as personally grief-stricken by, say, a report in the newspaper about a horrible bus accident that kills 30 people in some far country as they are about their own mother's death by cancer. Such a person would be unable to function as a normal human being (either because they would be eerily untroubled by the misfortunes of those close to them or because they would be in a permanent state of agonized despair).
posted by yoink at 11:37 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Seems to me people always feel compelled to take whatever passing marginally true observations they make, stretch them out well past the boundaries of reasonable generalization into a form of totalitarianism, and then run around selling books on the subject. What's up with that?

Sure, a little personal favoritism may sometimes be justified and a commitment to absolute, bullet-proof fairness can be impractical and unrealistic in specific cases. But that doesn't mean adopting a personal Anti-Fairness Ideology is any kind of reasonable alternative to holding fairness up as an abstract ideal.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:38 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


"I have plenty of friends that I don't like." --Lady Violet Grantham
posted by gimonca at 11:40 AM on February 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


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.

...

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.

...

I submit that care or empathy is a very limited resource. But it is Rifkin’s quixotic view that empathy is an almost limitless reserve. He sketches a progressive, ever widening evolution of empathy.

...

...in some abstract sense, I agree with the idea of an evolutionary shared descent that makes us all “family. But feelings of care and empathy are very different from evolutionary taxonomy. Empathy is actually a biological emotion (centered in the limbic brain) that comes in degrees, because it has a specific physiological chemical progression. Empathy is not a concept, but a natural biological event —an activity, a process.


...

Of course, when we see the suffering of strangers in the street or on television, our heartstrings vibrate naturally. We can have contagion-like feelings of sympathy when we see other beings suffering, and that’s a good thing — but that is a long way from the kinds of active preferential devotions that we marshal for members of our respective tribes.

A lot of this reminds me of the argumentative twists and turns of the Bhagavad Gita, in which we are told that killing other people, even our own relatives, is okay, because we're all just blobs of flesh anyway, temporary vessels, and everyone is going to die eventually, so please, go and kill people now, to protect your own tribe. I'm not having any of it.

The crux of the author's position seems to lie in this quasi-positivistic stance that since being universal in our care for others is really hard, even to the point of being against our biological instincts, we should therefore not expect people to behave as moral creatures, and that lowering the ethical grading curve, so to speak, would make everyone feel better about how selective human beings tend to be with their attention and care – and to finally take the weight off our shoulders for this whole environmental problem we're having, which is really not that big of a problem, you know – or not for our tribe, anyway, which again is the only tribe whose needs we should consider.

I am not a philosopher by training by any means, and maybe it's just my latent Catholicism coming out, but to me, moral philosophy should constantly be putting carrots in front of our human nature, suggesting how we might be more ethical instead of trying to scale back our expectations when the categorical imperative becomes burdensome. And in my subjective experience, the people who perform such a "moral scaling back" process on a regular basis – which is to say, those for whom the guilt and shame reflexes are underdeveloped, or otherwise diminished – tend to be conniving, self-serving, dishonest people that I want nothing to do with. I would prefer a guilt-ridden neurotic who is trusting and kind over a man who is thusly liberated from his burden to not be the self-serving dick he really is.
posted by deathpanels at 11:44 AM on February 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Nowhere, at all, does he suggest that we should not care about or attempt to alleviate the sufferings of people in other countries.

See, what I was trying to get at is this is the wrong way to frame things - the idea that "we" (implicitly white, educated, secure, privileged - arbiters, philosophers, masters) pick and choose how we allot our feelings (as we might develop an investment portfolio) among those closest to us and those farthest away, none of whose situations (except possibly our immediate family's) are because of our own situation, privilege, mastership. "Is fairness possible" coming from the hand of a white, secure, respected heterosexual man in these United States is...well, it shows a degree of moral confusion or incredible provincialism and triviality.

There was a time not so long ago when I - white, middle class, comparatively secure, educated, extremely unlikely to end up in jail - put together a panel of white middle class speakers to talk about "the prison industrial complex" and what "we" could [charitably, nobly, like it's a better hobby than badminton or surfing the internet] do about this thing. Like other people's lives were a particularly fascinating mental puzzle for me to solve; like this was an appropriate way to approach the world. It is left as an exercise for the reader both to imagine the many ways in which this event went to hell and why it was a sign of my own moral blindness to have put it together in the first place.
posted by Frowner at 11:45 AM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


Beggars in Spain, baby.
posted by adipocere at 11:46 AM on February 22, 2013


Is he running for mayor of Chicago or something?
posted by srboisvert at 11:46 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


deathpanels, you're begging the question by assuming that the categorical imperative is what morality is all about.
posted by smorange at 11:48 AM on February 22, 2013


These days middle class liberals seems far more concerned with equity than equality; with ending discrimination on the basis of irrelevant characteristics like gender and sexuality rather than ending poverty.

It's certainly worth reading the other linked posts, by the way - they show you precisely who you're dealing with.

In another post, someone was wondering who our Chesterton was....I'd almost nominate this guy, since he seems to hate poverty but have no love for the poor, hate homophobia while disliking homosexuals, disapprove (gently, very gently) of sexual inequality but think that women are whiny complainy demanders who aren't paying attention to "poverty". Poverty is the exclusive property of white, straight men...or at least their exclusive moral property. Et patati et patata.
posted by Frowner at 11:50 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


"I can't do everything, so it's ok for me to continue to do as little as possible!"
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:52 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Do any of you actually believe that if it came down to it you'd rescue some famous philosopher at the expense of your mother's painful death (or, if you happen to have complicated feelings about your mother, substitute some other beloved significant other) because of the overall good to humankind that that choice would represent?

Fortunately, since I do not know the future, I do not have to decide who to save based on their utility to mankind. Maybe my mom will discover a cure for cancer. Maybe the famous philosopher is a molester. At the point of action, I have to make decisions based on what I know, not based on carefully constructed hypothetical scenarios that will never actually happen.

I don't believe we have to love everybody. If we simply decided to stop hating anyone, that would take care of many of our problems.
posted by emjaybee at 11:59 AM on February 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


He's either talking about things few people would disagree with in obfuscatory, grandiose terms (a handful of banal observations such as "people form communities, and members of communities demonstrate their ties to each other by granting each other special considerations not always given to the out group, and this isn't necessarily or always immoral or unethical"), or he's just a complete and utter jackass spewing hate-filled bile that is dangerous to our continued existence as a species. It's hard at a glance to tell which.
posted by jsturgill at 12:04 PM on February 22, 2013


Related: Dunbar's Number
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 12:20 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Do any of you actually believe that if it came down to it you'd rescue some famous philosopher at the expense of your mother's painful death (or, if you happen to have complicated feelings about your mother, substitute some other beloved significant other) because of the overall good to humankind that that choice would represent? I think there are precious few of you who could honestly answer "yes" to that question, and I think most of us would see such a person as ethically suspect.
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
Ethically suspect, indeed.
posted by No Robots at 12:30 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Humans appear endlessly able to rationalize their actions after the fact; very few people are ever the bad guy in their own movie.

That said, I find that (in the United States, at least; I can't speak very far outside that parameter) it is the emphasis on what one person can/cannot do that seems to be the limiting factor when speaking of love and kindness and ending suffering.

The burden was never meant to be carried by any one person, but by us all, and those who refuse to see that should not be used as an excuse by the rest to lay the burden down.
posted by Mooski at 12:30 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is a perpetual war in morality: the idea that everyone is of equal but finite worth (the collective point of view that demands that pain and pleasure be distributed) wars with the idea that each individual is of unlimited worth (and that thus their peculiar interests, their experiences, their well-being are of the essence).

Personally, I find the idea of needing to be morally concerned about everyone equally (or even remotely close to that) to be blind and bloodless, insufficiently concerned about the individual, and too eager to submerge his identity and worth away as a mere vessel of world improvement. Loyalty, love, family, close friendship: these are the real arenas where an individual can retain individuality while also helping others.

And I would also argue that true, durable, world-changing altruism would come from this kind of closer love anyway. Just as it's a truism that one cannot love others if one does not love oneself first, so too one cannot really the love world at large if one does not love the ones closest first. It is only by truly loving them, caring for them, and empathizing with those people closest to you that you will in fact create the kinds of healthy, loving circles so overflowing with goodwill that they voluntarily, joyously help those around them, and that act, importantly, as examples. That is the kind of widening circle that will eventually change the world. But it starts and ends with the self and close relationships: without that kind of loyalty and love as a priority, helping-the-world is divorced from critical emotional roots.
posted by shivohum at 12:39 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Zizek and Badiou, who are both communist philosophers, argue similarly against universal love and in favor of privileging the One whom you love. Where Asma takes on Singer, Zizek advances a related critique against Levinas:
the universal proposition "I love you all" acquires the level of actual existence only if "there is at least one whom I hate" - the thesis abundantly confirmed by the fact that universal love for humanity always led to the brutal hatred of the (actually existing) exception, of the enemies of humanity. This hatred of the exception is the "truth" of universal love, in contrast to true love which can only emerge aganst the background - NOT of universal hatred, but - of universal indifference: I am indifferent towards All, the totality of the universe, and as such, I actually love YOU, the unique individual who stands/sticks out of this indifferent background. Love and hatred are thus not symmetrical: love emerges out of the universal indifference, while hatred emerges out of universal love.
The difference is that here, justice is in the domain of universal indifference, not love. Justice is blind, etc.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:40 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


But, my dear Zizek, what of those of us who love the All?
posted by No Robots at 12:58 PM on February 22, 2013


Sucks to your Asma.
posted by stenseng at 1:14 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


As soon as I saw the phrase "We know it in our bones" pop up in the first minute or so of the video I closed it, because that tells me all I need to know about this guy. That's a colloquialism for instinctive reaction over reason.

So... that village way over on the other side of the bay - the one where they make really nice pots and always catch the biggest fish? They're not really the same as us, are they? They don't see the same patterns in the stars that we do, and their clothes are strange, too. I think they're inferior to us, and represent a threat to our lifestyle.

If we go over there, as a group, wielding weapons, and slaughter their men, rape their women, enslave their children and burn every hut to the ground.... we will have quelled our fears, and as a bloody adventure it's going to feel absolutely fantastic. We'll be riding that high for weeks.

I feel it in my bones.


This is why civilization was invented. Because we were smart enough to realize that tit-for-tat blood lust was not the fast track to a better life, despite what our urges told us to do. but, ever since the first laws were declared and enforced, it seems for every two steps forwards, regressionists takes us one step back.
posted by CynicalKnight at 1:17 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


The essential problem with love is that it doesn't work on everyone, and those it doesn't work on, need to be dealt with in some other way. If love is the only tool in our philosophical toolbox, we're not just unable to engage the unlovable, but actively vulnerable to their hostile engagement with us.

I refuse to accept a philosophy that, by never enforcing good conduct, effectively grants a continued right to continue evil conduct.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:22 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Do any of you actually believe that if it came down to it you'd rescue some famous philosopher at the expense of your mother's painful death (or, if you happen to have complicated feelings about your mother, substitute some other beloved significant other) because of the overall good to humankind that that choice would represent? I think there are precious few of you who could honestly answer "yes" to that question, and I think most of us would see such a person as ethically suspect.

Are there any extant philosophers we wouldn't be better off without? Discuss.
posted by rocketpup at 1:25 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sucks to your Asma.

Damn it stenseng -- you couldn't wait until I got back from lunch?
posted by steambadger at 1:32 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Zizek and Badiou, who are both communist philosophers

I'm assuming that "who are both communist philosophers" is not meant to be some kind of "see, see, left wing philosophers take a similar tack to Asma" (who I keep wanting to write Asda or Asbo) as some kind of "if you're objecting to Asma on political grounds you can't because Zizek"...even if you accept that "loving all" versus "loving some" is a useful way to think about problems - which it isn't, it's just a 'should we throw the fat dude on the trolley tracks' piece of mind nonsense - Zizek and Badiou are rather....specialized, and are some kind of Philosophy Masters Of All The Left or anything.
posted by Frowner at 1:34 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


No Robots If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Ethically suspect, indeed.


I know your whole deal is "the Left needs to be come Christian again!", but Jesus of Nazareth is extremely ehtically suspect.

Frowner: loving all" versus "loving some" is a useful way to think about problems - which it isn't

Yes it is. (You're right, it is fun to make absolute statements about inherently arbitrary and subjective things!)
posted by spaltavian at 1:36 PM on February 22, 2013


Besides the impracticalities of such redistribution, the problems here are also conceptual. Say I bought a fancy pair of shoes for my son. In light of the one-tribe calculus of interests, I should probably give these shoes to someone who doesn’t have any. I do research and find a child in a poor part of Chicago who needs shoes to walk to school every day. So, I take them off my son (replacing them with Walmart tennis shoes) and head off to the impoverished Westside. On the way, I see a newspaper story about five children who are malnourished in Cambodia. Now I can’t give the shoeless Chicago child the shoes, because I should sell the shoes for money and use the money to get food for the five malnourished kids. On my way to sell the shoes, I remember that my son has an important job interview for a clean-water nonprofit organization and if he gets the job, he’ll be able to help save whole villages from contaminated water. But he won’t get the job if he shows up in Walmart tennis shoes. As I head back home, it dawns on me that for many people in the developing world, Walmart tennis shoes are truly luxurious when compared with burlap sack shoes, and since needs always trump luxuries I’ll need to sell the tennis shoes too; and on, and on, and on.

Oh, and "Christ, what an asshole!"

Geez, having equitable amounts of empathy for all humans won't prevent me from bashing someone's head in to protect my tribe in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I'll just do it recognizing my opponent's essential humanity.
posted by rocketpup at 1:37 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way guys, this is just Nietzsche: "Love of one is a barbarism; for it is exercised at the expense of all others."
posted by spaltavian at 1:45 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


As soon as I saw the phrase "We know it in our bones" pop up in the first minute or so of the video I closed it, because that tells me all I need to know about this guy. That's a colloquialism for instinctive reaction over reason.

And if could you provide a non-question begging justification for your moral beliefs, your objection would have more force. Dig deep enough and you'll find that we all start with beliefs we feel but can't explain.
posted by smorange at 1:53 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


If all this were true, why would Asma tell us about it instead of keeping it to himself and only communicating it to his blood relations and friends so that he and they could extract the tremendous competitive advantages of being the only people in possession of such an important truth, while the rest of us blunder heedlessly into the pitfalls of universal love and understanding?

I'm tempted to say he knows it's a lie, and that this essay must therefore be a cynical manipulation of its readers for necessarily nefarious ends which Asma chooses not to disclose because that would defeat his malign purposes.

But I'm more inclined to grant him the benefit of assuming that he does believe what he's saying, and that he's telling the rest of us because of a commitment to the truth which has overruled his narrow conception of his self-interests.

Because I have a suspicion that's most of what's necessary for the triumph of love and understanding: a willingness-- even merely a tendency-- to tell the truth to everyone when it may seem more advantageous to you and yours to lie.
posted by jamjam at 2:15 PM on February 22, 2013


"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
--John Kenneth Galbraith
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 2:43 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


By the way guys, this is just Nietzsche: "Love of one is a barbarism; for it is exercised at the expense of all others."

Which knowing Nietzsche may very well have been a compliment. Because in its spirit, modern secular liberalism (with the Dawkins-Dennett brand of atheistic scientism at one end and the duties of multicultural happiness-maximizing world altruism at the other) can sound perilously close to the belief system of Nietzsche's ultimate figure of contempt: the last man.
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest.
'We have invented happiness,'say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth...
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
'Formerly, all the world was mad,' say the most refined, and they blink...
One has one's little pleasure for the day and one's little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
'We have invented happiness,' say the last men, and they blink."
--Thus Spake Zarathustra
posted by shivohum at 3:01 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


People suck. Love them anyway. Next.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:29 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jesus of Nazareth is extremely ethically suspect.

I'll go with the guy who said that to love the All and to love one's fellow man amounts to the same thing, and that this is the essence of the teaching and of the prophets.
posted by No Robots at 3:32 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


My view.
posted by Decani at 3:34 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Justice as fairness: all gender and no class?
This one really deserves its own post, or a post where it gets to associate with other thoughtful essays on class, equality and social justice. It's a good tack on here, in that it provides a valuable counterpoint, but it's a pretty good read in its own right.
posted by byanyothername at 3:42 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tribalism (and Religion) will always be forces to be reckoned with. But as humans increasingly move from rural to urban environments, they'll just have to try to get along with each other better, if possible.

The problem with the Altruism question is that it is often framed in a simplistic yes/no equation. In everyday life, we are often both selfish and altruistic every day.
posted by ovvl at 3:57 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


...And everybody hates the Jews.

Well, I know one two ways to bring them all together: gays and atheists.
posted by klanawa at 4:10 PM on February 22, 2013


Many of the reactions here strike me as uncharitable.

The Equality Principle at stake is that each person (or the suffering or the preferences or ... of each person) deserves equal consideration. Not just some consideration: Equal consideration. On this view, we should treat helping people close to us -- literally and figuratively -- and helping people not close to us equivalently. If we are obligated to help someone close, we are equally obligated to help someone far away.

Some commentators accuse Asma's shoe thought experiment of being full of straw. But while his story might be a strawman against a view that says we should give some consideration to the interests of each person, it is not a strawman against the Equality Principle.

If the Equality Principle is true, then you should always spend money to satisfy the basic needs of strangers before buying gifts for friends and family whose basic needs are already satisfied. Consider. I bought an inexpensive board book for my son the other day. I think this was morally permissible. But if I were convinced by the Equality Principle, I would regard this act as immoral. Rather than buying that board book, I should have sent the money I spent to someone in Tanzania or rural China, where it could be applied to satisfying basic needs that have more real value. Even walking a few blocks North and giving the money to someone in one of the poorer neighborhoods in my town would have been morally better given the Equality Principle.

Asma's response to the Equality Principle is not that we shouldn't care at all about other people or that we shouldn't care about strangers or people in third world countries. Nor is Asma saying that considerations of loyalty to family or tribe always trump other moral considerations, which seems to be the way people are reading his article. Asma's thesis lends no support to the idea that persecuting Jews or homosexuals is permissible. He is not saying that we shouldn't care about people who are different from us. Rather, his main point is simply that we shouldn't care equally about all people. If we are really morally required to care equally about all people, then spending money on luxuries for ourselves or even simple presents for our loved ones is immoral. If the Equality Principle is true, then it is immoral for me to do any more for my son than satisfy his basic needs until the basic needs of everyone else on Earth have been satisfied.

The Equality Principle might turn out to be true. But it is not obviously true. And it is not (contrary to what many commentators here have said) required in order to ground the judgment that we shouldn't hate people who are different than us. For example, one might think that we have positive duties to people close to us but only negative duties to people not-so-close to us. Or one might think that we have some positive duties to everyone but more positive duties to close relatives. Neither of those principles is compatible with the Equality Principle.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 5:07 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I read once about someone who was trying to put the "Equality Principle" into practice--a relatively affluent man (in some kind of finance, maybe?) who became convinced that he shouldn't prioritize the happiness of those close to him over the happiness of any other human. He donated one of his kidneys and gave away a largish chunk of his money, and kept looking for more ways to give. But he had a wife and children, who were increasingly miserable as he transferred his time, attention and resources away from them and into his charity work. (I seem to recall that he was the primary breadwinner of the family, which made it all the more problematic.)

I believe that fellow embodied the ideas against which Asma is arguing. Does anyone else recall who it might have been?
posted by fermion at 5:15 PM on February 22, 2013


Yes, fermion.
posted by smorange at 5:30 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


If all this were true, why would Asma tell us about it instead of keeping it to himself and only communicating it to his blood relations and friends so that he and they could extract the tremendous competitive advantages of being the only people in possession of such an important truth, while the rest of us blunder heedlessly into the pitfalls of universal love and understanding?

Because, again, he isn't, actually, advancing the stupid straw man argument that most people in this thread are imputing to him. He is not saying "you should do down everybody who you aren't intimate with" or some such nonsense. He's not saying that we do not have any ethical obligations to people-as-such. He's saying that it is unrealistic and, in fact, harmful to suggest that the ideal ethical practice would be to care for every single person in the world equally.
posted by yoink at 6:04 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Aha. Thanks, smorange!
posted by fermion at 6:31 PM on February 22, 2013


Frowner, that was meant to be an argument for left-wing misanthropy, which can have more beneficial impacts on humanity than all the pious sentimental pity in the world. Another problem: Asma's idea that the civil rights movement and feminism are a kind of tribalism also has something in common with anarcho-communist philosophy of Jacques Ranciere, where this would be solidarity with the oppressed.

I don't think you are wrong about where Asma's ethics would lead us politically, but you are clearly wrong about why.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:48 PM on February 22, 2013


Thing is, people aren't going to be fair to me. The world isn't either. I don't know when I'm going to get fucked over, attacked by a dog, or crushed by fallen masonry. So I need to conserve my emotional and physical energy for those few things I can trust.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:54 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I know the tortoise thing is a Blade Runner quote, but not only are tortoises not the same species as me they're not even mammals. They're way down the list of things we should feel empathy for.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:56 PM on February 22, 2013


his main point is simply that we shouldn't care equally about all people. If we are really morally required to care equally about all people, then spending money on luxuries for ourselves or even simple presents for our loved ones is immoral.

I think the problem isn't the argument per se; it's that treating it as a big revelation, or as a counterargument to a dominating Equality-centered worldview, is misleading and has potentially bad consequences. The Equality Principle isn't dominant. Most people already care more about their close relatives and friends far more than the rest of the world, and few of us are deeply troubled over that preference. I would say that in the US our spending on needless crap that gives us little or no pleasure is a lot greater than our charitable giving; likewise we waste time doing marginally entertaining things rather than spending time to improve our communities. So presenting this argument justifying our already-ingrained non-altruistic tendencies is kind of like telling a bunch of alcoholics that a drink now and then isn't harmful, or telling a junk food addict that a little ice cream is a good treat. It's likely to be misinterpreted to justify the worst excesses of cultural behavior that's already skewed pretty far toward wastefulness and selfishness.
posted by daisystomper at 7:45 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Which knowing Nietzsche may very well have been a compliment.

Indeed; my point was that this piece is really just a rehashing of Nietzsche's aphorism. (I truncated it though, right after he adds "The love of god too".

The the love of all would be identified by Nietzsche as the slave mentality of Christianity.

No Robots: I'll go with the guy who said that to love the All and to love one's fellow man amounts to the same thing, and that this is the essence of the teaching and of the prophets.

Sure, if you accept some very perverse values of "love". He explicitly endorsed the Old Testament.
posted by spaltavian at 8:11 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Many of the reactions here strike me as uncharitable.

Fortunately, though, Asma's not part of my immediate kin-group, so it's cool for me to be as uncharitable as I wanna be.

*jacks off to watercolor of Mussolini while child dies of malaria*

Ha ha ha, this rules
posted by Greg Nog at 8:55 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, that's basically the aforementioned uncharitableness.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:45 PM on February 22, 2013


Less snarkily. Asma is not saying that you have no moral obligations to people outside your immediate kin-group. He is saying that you (typically) have greater moral obligations to your friends and family than you do to strangers. Again, this is completely consistent with thinking that you have serious moral obligations -- both positive and negative -- to strangers.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:55 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


He explicitly endorsed the Old Testament.

Indeed.
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.--Leviticus 19:18
posted by No Robots at 10:51 PM on February 22, 2013


I'm not convinced that love is a finite resource that we run out of. It's more like a muscle that gets stronger if you exercise it but atrophied away if you never use it.

Stoic philosophy has a principle called Oikeosis, literally bringing-into-the-household. Stoics also see the human world as made up of concentric circles, with yourself at the centre, then your immediate family, then your extended family, your friends, neighbours, fellow citizens, fellow humans. To make moral progress you work to draw the circles inward: treat your brother like yourself, your cousin like your brother, your neighbour like you cousin, and so on.

You will probably never get to be morally perfect and treat all humans as having equal value, but as you practice this you will get morally better.

This guy seems to be making several errors to me. Firstly a false dichotomy between loving everybody and just loving the inner circle. Second the is - ought problem:he argues that because it is hard to love strangers, therefore we ought not to love strangers.

Third, in the fire rescue analogy he seems to be struggling to reconcile two different ethical ideas, a consequentialist view that we should maximise benefits to humanity, and a view that we should love everyone equally, in which case it doesn't matter who we save. If you're partially successful at stoic Oikeosis you will choose to save your mother in that scenario, but that's not a bad thing: the alternative was no more valuable as a human being than your mother.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:39 PM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


No Robots, so you're just going to ignore when he criticized the Pharisees for not executing disobedient children? You're going to pretend the rest of Leviticus doesn't exist? Dude killed a fig tree for not bearing figs, even though it wasn't in season!
posted by spaltavian at 8:51 AM on February 23, 2013


Until the Left comes to a reasoned understanding of the Bible, the Right will continue to dominate.
posted by No Robots at 9:49 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Bible is right-wing. And the Bible is no guarantee of electoral success.
posted by spaltavian at 11:25 AM on February 23, 2013


Frowner, that was meant to be an argument for left-wing misanthropy, which can have more beneficial impacts on humanity than all the pious sentimental pity in the world. Another problem: Asma's idea that the civil rights movement and feminism are a kind of tribalism also has something in common with anarcho-communist philosophy of Jacques Ranciere, where this would be solidarity with the oppressed.

I always wonder what the fuck Zizek has done for the world that's so great. He's sold a bunch of books - helping out Verso, a deserving press but also making bank. He's married to an underwear model and gets to sleep with lots of young women. He has tons of academic fanboys. I know a lot of Zizek groupies, actually, and I have not noticed them doing fuck all - neither the youthful street-demonstration style stuff nor, for example, agitating for immigrants' rights, protesting police brutality, running rape crisis centers or even volunteering doing anything. (And I would notice - I am precisely socially placed such that I'd encounter them and hear about their beliefs.) Most of them are busy making their careers. Lenin would puke.

I mean, I've been at this sentimental pity game for better than twenty years now, and I've gotten to know both a lot of left misanthropes and a lot of sentimental pitiers, and I just don't believe that the hard-edged "realism" of a Zizek (or the waffling of Lyotard and Derrida for that matter) mobilizes anyone to do anything. (Foucault? He was another kettle of fish, but then it was another time.) The people I know who actually do shit even when it's boring or difficult or uncomfortable - it's not so much that none of them read any theory, some do and some don't - but they're motivated precisely by sentiment. It's sentiment that has them trying to get people out of the ICE lockup even though that means cozening awful people; it's sentiment that has them housing their homeless friends even when that process drives them up the fucking wall. Certainly, theorize, be realistic about your goals and the possibilities for large-scale social transformation, but basically you're pretty shit if you're just deferring helping individual people until after the revolution.

I've met lots of people - mostly men, mostly white - who will talk boldly about how "we" need to "draw lines" and "be comfortable with violence" - people who get a big, obvious kick out of the clean ruthlessness of the language and the transgressive feelings of talking about being above pity and so on. Naturally, they're not going to encounter any really violence, either in the moment or systemic, and their "lines" will rarely be about anything more than an intra-department debate about critical theory. If you're not the RAF, don't come to me with that.

I add that it's always other people's movements that are tribal.

There's this great scene in Sarah Schulman's amazing and powerful novel People In Trouble: the privileged, secure and wealthy artist is talking to her younger girlfriend, trying to justify why she doesn't want to get involved in the girlfriend's AIDS activism. "But we're on the same side, right?," she says. "When shit really goes down, we'll both be on the barricades." "Shit is already going down," says her girlfriend. "There are already people on the barricades."
posted by Frowner at 2:41 PM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


For my money, Asma's point seems a less nuanced version of B. Williams's objection to the idea that care for humanity constitutes a universal obligation, namely in B.W.'s critique of the 'obligation in, obligation out' principle (as in his example of London commuters passing the homeless and the way greater obligations don't supervene upon lesser ones) [in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy].

I say less nuanced because Williams didn't have recourse to any hollow-sounding naturalism of 'empathy capital' on which such obligations could be based; to the contrary, for Williams what we feel we should do (or should feel) is not conditioned by what we can do (or feel) ["ought does not imply can."]
posted by rudster at 12:24 PM on February 24, 2013


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