Q&A: Stephen Asma, philosopher, on why we can't love all humankind

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.
Written by Christie Nicholson, Contributor

“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.

Now, why?

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]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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