Posting in Science
Can we extend care and love to people beyond our intimate circle of friends and family? Stephen Asma says no, universal love for humankind is not practical and therefore impossible.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” so demands the Bible. And certainly, putting religion aside, most of us feel a moral obligation to care about others, even strangers. This may be especially top of mind now, since we have a planet that requires cooperation and the ability to care about the entire human race if we are to avoid its environmental collapse.
But is it possible to truly love and care for all humankind? To love and sacrifice for everyone equally, whether they be your daughter or your bus driver? Even if we forced care and love by our own sheer will, would it be practical?
Stephen Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College, would like to believe it’s possible but says that universal love is a myth. As he wrote in a recent New York Times article, “All people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties.” Asma's most recent book is Against Fairness, which we reviewed in November 2012.
SmartPlanet caught up with Asma in Chicago and asked him to explain his position.
SmartPlanet: You’ve said there is an ingrained assumption in our culture that we can and ought to extend care to others in ever-widening circles. Where did this assumption come from?
Stephen Asma: I think you find it from a variety of sources. In the West we derive a large part of this assumption from the Christian tradition which takes the idea of brotherly love and expands it.
And you see it in other Eastern saints of the modern period like Gandhi. He held that we should never love a specific person too much because that will interfere with the idea of loving everybody, which is our true ethical calling.
And even in secular culture — here I’m thinking about Marxism and communism — there’s an idea that everybody should have equal share. When these ideas were implemented in places like the Soviet Union and in Mao’s China, it was very much about the idea that no one should have any privilege, and that even family bias was bad and should be broken and subjugated to this universal love.
You say this assumption of universal love has led to a misunderstanding of emotions.
In ethics there are two different traditions. There are philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and utilitarian philosophers like John Stuart Mill, and contemporary rationalists like Peter Singer who think that reason can determine what our obligations are to others.
Another tradition is based more in emotion. This goes back to philosophers like David Hume. They hold that we should have the right sort of feelings for other people.
Both of these traditions have been in play for the last few hundred years. What I’m suggesting is that morality is more motivated by our emotions. But we haven’t really understood emotions properly.
How have we thought about them?
We’ve thought about emotions as being infinitely expansive, and I suggest that emotions of love and affection are like a finite resource.
Right, you’ve talked about providing care as similar to sprint racing. Can you explain that?
The more I’ve studied neuroscience I’ve come to understand that care is more of a biological process. It’s found in all mammals.
The quintessential example of care is between mothers and offspring. It turns out that when infants are being touched — we now understand that there’s a physiochemical process beneath that — there is a huge spike in a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. And not only is oxytocin going through the roof when mothers and babies are touching each other and suckling, so are our natural brain opioids. So the brain is actually bathed in really good chemistry that feels really good to both parties.
I’m simply using that data and applying it to ethics and saying, well, if that’s the case, then caring for somebody is a lot like sprint racing. You have to gear up for it, and when you run, you’re taxing the system. When you’re caring for somebody and loving them, it’s actually also making a demand on your system. And my argument is you can apply that to your family and friends and a small group of loved ones, but you can’t expand that out infinitely to the whole human race.
Do you think there’s a scaled-back version of care or empathy that could be put toward humankind?
I think that would be ideal and it is important for us as a species to recognize that we’re part of this larger biosphere. But I take issue with the idea that what we’re talking about there is empathy.
What would we call it?
Instead, I think we have to have something like an ethical regard. I would argue that what I owe strangers is the kind of respect that I owe all citizens of the world as a cosmopolitan ideal.
The social philosopher Jeremy Rifkin argues that we have to expand empathy to include the entire planet, and I just think this is a misunderstanding of how empathy works, because empathy is a limited resource. I’m saying it’s literally exhausting to care about everyone who needs your care.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t have an obligation to all people. I think we have to have a principled approach to how to save the planet.
Going back to the idea that we can care for close friends and specifically family -- can you describe why we have what you call “an ethical pull” toward family members?
Well, consider a burning building. You have the ability to run in and save one of the two people who are inside. Let’s say the building is a hotel and one of the people is a maid and the other is the president. You have time to save one person. So you’ve got the choice to save a very important person or the maid. But here’s the rub: The maid is your mother.
Now, according to the utilitarian calculus, who am I supposed to save? The president and not your mother, because that principle requires you to do so. But I would choose my mother every time. This is an easy decision for me.
In a way it just seems obvious. On the other hand, it has a lot to do with the kind of bond I have with my mother. It’s not just that she’s my mother. Let’s say she didn’t raise me, somebody else raised me. Then I would have all of that oxytocin opioid bonding with that person, not this person who is biologically my mother.
What about the genetically based reasons for why we sacrifice ourselves for our children, or even our cousins? Does it have to do with the fact that the amount of our loyalty can be broken down to a percentage of how much genetic information we share with our different family members?
There is this phenomenon of kin selection, which biologists talk about. It shows that people who are related to each other, or animals that are related to each other, will frequently engage in what looks like altruistic behavior in order to pass down their own genes.
The old joke is you’ll throw yourself on a hand grenade for one brother or eight cousins. When you add up either scenario it means that your gene pool is going to go on to the next generation.
Genetics is one of the great engines of our behavior. On the other hand, there is a level above genetics, which is the one we’re living in every day, in which we’re motivated more by emotions. When I’m throwing myself on a hand grenade to save my family I’m motivated by emotions. So I don’t think that it cancels out this kind of altruism to point out that there are selfish genes.
And do you think that focusing on our close friends and family will ultimately lead to greater happiness and therefore create a better world overall?
In the last ten years there’s been a lot of work done on the major components of human happiness. One of the things that you find over and over again is that strong social bonds are major predictors of human happiness. And even though those strong social bonds between friends and family are highly demanding on us, they seem to be major ingredients in happiness.
If we were to dedicate ourselves to our families and not feel guilty about it, as if it were corruption -- because that’s what we call nepotism, which is really just family preference -- we could celebrate this and maybe be able to factor this into our recipes for happiness.
[Photo: Simon Heath]
Feb 21, 2013
Excellent post.I want to thank you for trustwebsitehostingreviews.com this informative read, I really appreciate sharing this great post. Keep up your work.
to behold someone without judgement and know there is an unseen connection is possible and very doable in fact but it is on a self evident basis only
If you live in a prosperous environment with good education, jobs, and general outlook, then it's much easier to love thy neighbor. If you are competing for scant resources and every day is a struggle to stay warm, fed, and alive, then Maslow's hierarchy of needs trumps.
To base the potential of the human experience of love on genetics and neurochemistry, especially of infants, is to ignore the actual human experience of growing in the capacity to love throughout our lives. Taking the biochemistry of average people and saying that's the best we can do ignores the experience of human aspiration in creating human lives that love greatly. How shortsighted is that? How empirical is that? We are not limited by our biochemistry. There is a growing body of research indicating that our biochemistry is really more limited by our beliefs than the other way around. Shrink our idea of the potential of human love to the biochemistry of infants, or average people not aspiring to grow greatly in their everyday experiences of love, and you will get an infantile and self-limiting idea of love guiding our human experience. If philosophy is supposed to be a guide for our lives, I believe we can do better than that philosophy, Mr. Asma.
My neighbour is a person I am likely to meet, or possibly even enjoy metting. My neighbour differs from the rest of humankind in that he/she is closer to me than most of the rest. There are varying degrees of closeness, but the reason that I have concluded "patriotism" is a superstition is that living in Northern Virginia, I see very little reason to consider the welfare of people in Ciudad Juarez less important to me than those in El Paso. I suspect that they have a worse government, so to the extent that I care about them, I should try to improve that. But the degree to which I can assist or avoid hurting my neighbour is greater than what I can do for distant persons. On the other hand, this planet belongs to all of humanity AND other life, and there are some things that have nothing to do with merely the benefits to my neighbourhood. In "The Age of Reason", Thomas Paine condemned as foolish the idea of loving your enemies. I myself take malicious satisfaction from the fact that Hideki Tojo failed in his attempt at seppuku, and therefore died dishonorably, whereas Isoroku Yamamoto, who advised against attacking the USA, died honorably in war.
I disagree with "empathy is limited resource". The philosopher is assuming that there is no loving feedback that nourish for other people. Love works in this way. When people receive a touch of love, they respond with love, not necessarily to you now, but they respond, so Love reproduces by itself.
Love is a word pointing to a reality far beyond that of emotions. The idea of 'equally' loving is one of misdirection. Trying to measure the substance of man in order to apply the mathematical concept of equal - we are all different and that fact makes us share in similarity. We are all 'similarly' confronted by our intrinsic behaviour patterns, ideas etc, at the same time able to apply qualities in response to our observations. Some may appear to have more or less than others. It would be impractical to assess and thus equality is a word perhaps to use with care. Faced with a need - then meet it. Impartially. One'll unlikely be able to find much use in the ramblings of mankinds concepts at the time of need. The 'bible' doesn't have to be understood as 'demanding' love, for if the precept of finding awe appreciation and a heartwrenching empathy for The One - Originator - Creator - love if you will, it is quite natural to understand ones fellow living soul equally as near to ones heart as the One, and onesself. The living of this is 'perhaps' not easy. Forgive me. This is far beyond law assertions and systemised grasp. It is of the life soul. The poem written, of love, indicates the living soul - the living love. The mind may rebel and the reason and present setting may place a shade before its' deeper and essential expression, but its light is that at the core of the heart - make a space in time to allow that inner resonance to yet again become familiar and the present day may become the beginning of the end of a lifelong nightmare of separation. Our oneness is manifest due to our all knowing the One - not that we spawn the conditions to a seemingly permanent need to be surrounded by 'weak'. So our not being able to love the world is really 'cause we stubbornly will not get to know the one. Apart from our nature as it is, the conditioning of our lifetime, it is not difficult to realise that for the most, we just can't help it, and although not an 'excuse', I hardly feel there is a need for blame - blames and excuses present a side road Away from this issue! 369 - 751
Actually, Jesus was quoting from the Torah when he said that. When questioned about it, he responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Keep in mind that Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' day despised each other. Jesus wasn't saying, "Have feelings of love for everyone." He was saying, "Treat everyone with decency, respect, fairness, and kindness, even if you don't like them." The Torah quote (taken in context) says pretty much the same thing. Love as an emotion can't be extended to the whole world, but love as a principle of how to treat people can be.
I agree we can't love (or know) everyone. (see Duncan Number) But most folks (far more than half and probably closer to 90-95%) don't mean any harm (at least to total strangers--most individual aggression occurs between people who already know and interact with each other). Education helps (although real life education into social resource issues such as pollution are painful lessons for the body politic over generations). I think the idea of 'rights' enshrined in the US Constitution is a good start. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the people who talk about rights nowadays talk about their own rights against everyone else; they never talks about everyone else's rights against their own.
No Room at All How could I love her And not love our kind? How could I think To put them out of mind; The SOB's Who cheated me last week at the market place, The stinking rapper shouting in my face, The righteous sinners, temples air conditioned year around, Who proudly pray on holy ground? How could I love and call my feeling true? How could I love her, friend, And not love you? I'll have to show my passport at deathâs border post; They'll ask the same things that they ask of most, How things are 'cross the line, What folks are doing now to pass the time, And would I go back if I had the chance? It doesn't take a warning glance; They want to know if now's the day To press a button, make it go away. Just how much hatred must they hear to make that so? I vote for love, I do not want to know. The Bible got it wrong, I'm told, The story edited before it had got old: Sodom was not a nice place to live, But Abraham bet God to give Them another chance if he could find Ten refugees with something kind to say About the bastards who chased them all away. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth. For what that's worth. Now I don't know If thirty six is going to do the job. If I was one, I wasn't worth it, that's for sure, But no one said a lammed vavnik* has to be all that pure; He might just have to love the human race, Not flinch from looking all its faults right in the face, And if I loved her should I not as well Love people only love could keep from Hell? It seems to me of late, That leaves no room at all for hate. [author, myself] 2010 revision of a 2002 verse *36âer; Jewish tradition, one of 36 unknown righteous for whose virtue God permits the world to continue to exist.
..."that guy who leaves clever poems about the article in its comments section" I'll love you forever.