"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Myth Of Universal Love

In an article of the same name in the NY Times (1.5.13), Stephen T. Asma takes on the liberal social theorists Peter Singer and Jeremy Rifkin who believe that individual empathy must extend beyond narrow family limits to the larger ‘tribe’ to which we belong (Singer), or to all of humanity (Rifkin).  Asma contends that human society works just fine according to the precepts of Cicero and George Orwell:

For my purposes, I’ll stick with Cicero, who said, “society and human fellowship will be best served if we confer the most kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated.”

George Orwell considered preferential loyalty to be the “essence of being human.” Critiquing Gandhi’s recommendation — that we must have no close friendships or exclusive loves because these will introduce loyalty and favoritism, preventing us from loving everyone equally — Orwell retorted that “the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty … and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

New Age philosophers like Rifkin and Singer prefer to ignore both history and current society, for in both of which fierce family loyalties have been the engines for survival.  Shakespeare’s women in the Histories have been she-bears in their ferocious fights for their rights and especially the rights of their children.  Margaret (Henry VI) and Constance (King John) are perhaps the most famous for demanding their rights.  Margaret leads battalions of English soldiers into war to preserve her weak husband’s kingdom, and Constance will ever be the shrill, shrewish, but insistently and passionately loyal to her son, Arthur.

If there were external alliances, they were not empathetic embraces of the larger tribe, they were political alliances designed to expand territory, forestall costly wars, and build ever-larger kingdoms.  Every student of European history has been bedeviled by the bewildering and always shifting array of political and social alliances.  There was no empathy in Elizabethan times, just conflict, and the perpetual playing out of the demands of history and human nature.

“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.”

Most societies are hermetic – individuals take care of family business first, then move on through the concentric rings based on self-interest alone.  People ally themselves with larger groups because of strength in numbers.  I may consider myself as part of a political unit, be it municipal, country, state, or national, because of its provision of benefits. I do not empathize with my fellow citizens of Connecticut because of some particularly empathetic and generalized feeling, but because of political solidarity.  The stronger and more united we are and the more collectively strident our demands, the more benefits are likely to come our way. Asma comes to the same conclusion:

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.”

Those people who follow the likes of Rifkin and Singer have the luxury of thinking beyond the individual and the insular group.  Usually upper middle class intellectuals or wealthy professionals, they can afford to believe in and work for world peace or the environment.  The most idealistic among this elite group subscribe to the most empathetic theory of all - The Gaya Principle:

Organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Topics of interest include how the biosphere and the evolution of life forms affect the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere and other environmental variables that affect the habitability of Earth.(Wikipedia)

What is forgotten by these idealists is the fact that human society at its most general, is nothing more than a series of fractals.  The smallest unit of society – the family – is identical to larger and larger units.  Countries, in their desire to provide for and protect their own; expand their territory, power, resources, and influence, are no different from families; and larger societies are always built on the edifice of the smaller.  Empathy between family members, creating a cohesive whole - one based both on social order and the moral and ethical precepts necessary for preserving this cohesion – will be replicated in larger units.

Chinese art reflects this replication in scale. Formal gardens are designed to replicate in small scale the larger natural world

The Chinese garden recreates natural landscapes in miniature. It is enclosed by a wall and has one or more ponds, a rock garden, trees and flowers, and an assortment of halls and pavilions within the garden, connected by winding paths and zig-zag galleries. By moving from structure to structure, visitors can view a series of carefully composed scenes, unrolling like a scroll of landscape paintings

Chinese scholars rocks are chosen because they are miniature representations of mountains.

Singer argues, as does his philosophical predecessor William Godwin (1756-1836), that societies are not just fractals – miniaturizations and repetitions in scale – but are permeable.  A person at one level can and should react with those of higher levels not just as cohorts but responsibly connected individuals. The famous Utilitarian Principle – Do the most good for the largest number of people – always applies; and who you would save from a burning building provides an example.

One of those persons is Archbishop FĂ©nelon 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.

Of course you would save the archbishop, say Godwin and Singer.  Nonsense, says Asma who hypothesizes about the endless upward spiral of responsibility that such a decisions forces upon us.  Why give away a pair of new shoes to a poor kid in the Detroit ghetto when a Malian youth is more needy? Or why give away shoes at all when you can boycott Nike for its inhuman working conditions in Bangladesh?  Once you start going up that ladder, there is no end in sight.

Not only that, but even if I put my anticlerical feelings aside, I would always choose to save my mother. I could care less about ecclesiastical ruminations about rights, when I know for a fact that my (any) mother has more courage, moral fiber, love, and concern than a room full of Cardinals.

Asma also rightly dismisses Rifkin whose airy-fairy notions of world empathy are based more on hope than reality:

If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers and nonhuman animals.  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. Real tribe members donate organs to you, bring soup when you’re sick, watch your kids in an emergency,  open professional doors for you, rearrange their schedules and lives for you,  protect you, and fight for you... Our tribes of kith and kin are “affective communities” and this unique emotional connection with our favorites entails great generosity and selfless loyalty. There’s an upper limit to our tribal emotional expansion, and that limit is a good deal lower than the “biosphere.”

I agree with Asma, but not his conclusion that we act caringly because of “great generosity and selfless loyalty”.  If we are generous, it is because we expect something in return; and if we are loyal, it is because we expect to be defended when the time comes.

I, like Asma, put no stock in the liberal social theories of Rifkin and Singer; and am firmly wedded to social and genetic determinism.  We might like to think that we human beings are different from animals or from the cavemen from whom we are descended, but we are not.  ‘Improvements’ are nothing more than retouches, tweaks, and minor adjustments. There is no change but change, say Buddhists, whose worldview is perhaps the most insightful of all:

It must not be understood that a consciousness is chopped up in bits and joined together like a train or a chain. But, on the contrary, "it persistently flows on like a river receiving from the tributary streams of sense constant accretions to its flood, and ever dispensing to the world without the thought-stuff it has gathered by the way."[12] It has birth for its source and death for its mouth. The rapidity of the flow is such that hardly is there any standard whereby it can be measured even approximately. (Buddhanet.net)

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