Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I've got Asma

Stephen T. Asma's essay on "The Myth of Universal Love" struck me as fairly reasonable when I first read it. You can't love everybody equally, and perhaps you can't love everybody at all. This is an odd claim though:
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.
Some people are more central in our lives than others, and this is probably both inevitable and good. But people on the news have moral gravity too. Just as it seems inevitable and good that I should care more about my family than I do about, say, yours (no offence), it also seems inevitable and good that I should care about people I read, see, and hear about who are starving, or displaced by war, or suffering from some other disaster. If I am moved to do something to help such people (assuming I am not so poor or so recklessly generous that my family suffers hardship as a result) then surely that is good too. It isn't inevitable  but it is certainly possible. And Singer's ethical point of view, from which I see that each of us is one among many, is far from irrelevant to this. If you don't like Singer's way of putting things a similar effect can be achieved by substituting "There but for the grace of God go I."

Asma is not a  million miles away from this. He says:
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.  
If his point is only that Singer and others sometimes go too far when talking about how much we should care for others then I agree, as do many others. Singer knows that his is a minority position. But all this talk of tribes sounds suspicious to me, and I wonder whether Asma is trying to make disregard for people outside one's own tribe sound respectable. His claim that generosity, loyalty, and gratitude are "disappearing virtues" also sounds fishy. Isn't he arguing against a certain kind of generosity, the kind that is most needed? It isn't clear to me that these virtues are disappearing. Nor how the rejection of universal love as an ideal would help promote them. So it's not so much that I disagree with what he says as that I suspect it provides cover for other things with which I would disagree.

M. G. Piety is less tolerant of Asma's arguments (as they appear in a different piece, and where (judging by what Piety says) they are indeed used to support an unappealing political agenda):
Stephen T. Asma’s article, “In Defense of Favoritism,” excerpted from his book Against Fairness (I’m not making this up, I swear) is the worst piece of incoherent and morally reprehensible tripe I think I’ve ever read in my life.
Her response (h/t Brian Leiter) is entertaining, but if you just want the meat it's pretty much this:
“Favoritism,” as distinguished from the universally human phenomenon of having favorites, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “[a] disposition to show, or the practice of showing, favour or partiality to an individual or class, to the neglect of others having equal or superior claims; undue preference.” It’s the qualification of the preference as “undue” that’s important here.
Asma explicitly defends favoritism, despite the fact that it is by definition undue. This is one of the features of his writing that makes his meaning unclear. I'm not sure it would be worth the effort to get to the bottom of it (although I say this without having made the attempt, so agree at your own risk). If you're interested in partiality you might be better off reading some Susan Wolf.

[Is it cruel or in poor taste to pun on Asma/asthma? I hope it's not cruel.]


  1. Reading Asma's argument makes me wonder: don't philosophers read about Moore and the naturalistic fallacy any more?

  2. Is it something written long ago, like over 20 years ago, well, then the answear is NO they don't.


  3. Anonymous might be right. Piety points out some of the apparent gaps in Asma's knowledge.

    The desire to naturalize everything might be part of the problem, but so does something like a failure of sense of humour. For instance, Asma writes: "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." How can someone write such absurdity (he isn't kidding)? Compare Wolf on the reasons to love one's children: "And in the case of my children, there is their objective--albeit nonmoral--superiority to all other living creatures." (This is in the penultimate paragraph of the essay I linked to above.) Wolf's intellect is perceptive and, perhaps above all, alive. Asma's seems quite dead. Would he get her joke at all? If he did, could he still see the truth in it?

    Perhaps rather than dead I should say that his intellect seems to be asleep. And this appears to be a case in which science has put his humanity to sleep. Although it isn't only, or even primarily, science. It's more some combination of scientism and some sort of right-wing ideology. Or so it seems to me. Maybe it's just the desire to make a name for himself.