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.
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.” 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.”
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?” 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.
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 non-profit 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.
This brings us to the other recent argument for transcending tribe, and it’s the idea that we can infinitely stretch our domain of care. Jeremy Rifkin voices a popular view in his recent book The Empathic Civilization that we can feel care and empathy for the whole human species if we just try hard enough. This view has the advantage over Singer’s metric view, in that it locates moral conviction in the heart rather than the rational head. But it fails for another reason. 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. First, we had blood-based tribalism (in what Rifkin calls the time of “forager/hunter societies”), then religion-based tribalism (after the invention of agriculture and writing), then nation-state tribalism, but now we are poised for an empathic embrace of all humanity — and even beyond species-centric bias to Buddha-like compassion for all creatures. He argues that empathy is the real “invisible hand” that will guide us out of our local and global crises. Using a secular version of Gandhi’s non-attachment mixed with some old-fashioned apocalyptic fear mongering, Rifkin warns us that we must reach “biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse.” The way to do this, he argues, is to start feeling as if the entire human race is our extended family.
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. The feeling of care is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time — duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted. The limbic system can’t handle the kind of constant stimulation that Rifkin and the cosmic love proponents expect of it. And that’s because they don’t take into account the biology of empathy, and imagine instead that care is more like a thought.
If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers and nonhuman animals. 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. 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 — and you return all this hard work. 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.” 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.” Why should our care be concentrated in small circles of kith and kin? I’ve tried to suggest that it can’t be otherwise, given the bio-emotional origin of care, but more needs to be said if I’m making a normative claim. If we embraced our filial biases, we could better exercise some disappearing virtues, like loyalty, generosity and gratitude.
Cultivating loyalty is no small thing. George Orwell, for example, 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.” In general we have circles of favorites (family, friends, allies) and we mutually protect one another, even when such devotion disadvantages us personally. But the interesting thing about loyalty is that it ignores both merit-based fairness and equality-based fairness. It’s not premised on optimal conditions. You need to have my back, even when I’m sometimes wrong. You need to have my back, even when I sometimes screw up the job. And I have to extend the same loyalty to you. That kind of pro-social risky virtue happens more among favorites. I also think generosity can better flourish under the umbrella of favoritism. Generosity is a virtue that characterizes the kind of affection-based giving that we see in positive nepotism. So often, nepotism is confused with corruption, when it really just means family preference. And favoritists (if I can invent a word here) are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.
Gratitude is another virtue that thrives more in a favoritism context. The world of Singer’s utilitarianism and Rifkin’s one-tribism is a world of bare minimums, with care spread thinly to cover per capita needs. But in favoritism (like a love relation) people can get way more than they deserve. It’s an abundance of affection and benefits. In a real circle of favorites, one needs to accept help gracefully. We must accept, without cynicism, the fact that some of our family and friends give to us for our own sake (our own flourishing) and not for their eventual selfish gain. However animalistic were the evolutionary origins of giving (and however vigorous the furtive selfish genes), the human heart, neocortex and culture have all united to eventually create true altruism. Gratitude is a necessary response in a sincere circle of favorites.
Finally, my case for small-circle care dovetails nicely with the commonly agreed upon crucial ingredient in human happiness, namely, strong social bonds. A recent Niagara of longitudinal happiness studies all confirm that the most important element in a good life (eudaimonia) is close family and friendship ties — ties that bind. These are not digital Facebook friends nor are they needy faraway strangers, but robust proximate relationships that you can count on one or two hands — and these bonds are created and sustained by the very finite resource of emotional care that I’ve outlined. As Graham Greene reminds us, “one can’t love humanity, one can only love people.”
'The Myth of Universal Love’ by Stephen T. Asma from the New York Times.