Sophisticated Philistine: Stephen Asma and “The Myth of Universal Love”
By Dennis Loo (1/9/13)
Stephen Asma writes in The New York Times series “The Stone” (devoted to discussions of philosophy) on January 5, 2013, that people who believe that all people should be treated equally are adhering to a myth. His column is a much-abbreviated version of his book, Against Fairness, published by the prestigious University of Chicago Press in November 2012. In the book description at the publisher’s website one can find this:
Through playful, witty, but always serious arguments and examples, [Asma] vindicates our unspoken and undeniable instinct to favor, making the case that we would all be better off if we showed our unfair tendencies a little more kindness—indeed, if we favored favoritism.
We would all be better off if we showed more favoritism for our family members, our friends, and those who we know versus those who are strangers to us. Who would have thought that we can all feel good about this? Per Asma we ought to indulge this tendency even more and should not feel guilty about things like nepotism and reserving our empathy for those nearer to us and closer to us.
In his NYT piece Asma states: “It seems dubious to say that we should transcend tribe and be utilitarian[i] because all people are equal, when the equal status of strangers and kin is an unproven and counterintuitive assumption.”
Did he just say what I thought he said?
Let’s consider Asma’s language and argument more carefully here. (I have not read his book so my comments are based upon his NYT article and on the material available about his book at the publisher’s website.) What makes treating everybody in humanity equally “counterintuitive?” Is it counterintuitive because Stephen Asma has never considered that his kith and kin are an accident – that he was not born to African, Indian, or Eskimo parents, that he is a privileged male in America in 2013?
What makes something intuitive in the first place: the fact that you are accustomed to thinking and feeling a certain way? If so, would not slave owners of the American South or Roman Empire find counterintuitive the outlandish idea that there ought not to be slave owners and slaves?
The ahistoricity and anti-historicity of Asma’s perspective is astounding. Yet he is celebrated for his refreshing logic, granted a forum at the NYT, which appeared as one of the top ten read articles on their website as of January 9. Meghan Clyne, in the Wall Street Journal, wrote of Asma’s book: “Mr. Asma offers a rightly critical diagnosis of our obsession with egalitarianism.” 89.8 FM KPCC’s Larry Mantle declared, “Asma’s philosophical take on reevaluating what is considered to be ‘fair’ addresses the topic of fairness in a refreshing way, eschewing the culture of rewarding everyone for favoritism.”
That someone who writes for the Wall Street Journal should deride egalitarianism comes as no surprise. That gadfly Larry Mantle should breathlessly praise Asma also comes as no surprise.
What is surprising is how what is so sophomoric about Asma’s argument seems to have escaped these celebrated pundits. If what you say fits into things that people who are materially well-off want to believe, if what you are saying gives them a refreshing way to justify their privilege, then they might very well greet what you have to say with pleasure and laud you for your remarkably innovative thinking. Comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted by ignoring them. Of course those who we are not related to and don’t know are not of equal status!
By Asma’s logic not only should and would slavery never have been overthrown and defeated but treating women as mere chattel and minorities as second-class or worse citizens to be lynched and burned would still be with us. Because for those changes to occur required that a significant number of members of the oppressor class join in common cause with those who were oppressed, based among other things on empathy, an emotion that Asma considers too limited by its nature to extend out to all of humanity. Charity begins at home. No need to bother with those far away.
By not feeling guilty about our tendency to favor those who are closer to us, he says that we could then expend more energy on other virtues. Those that he specifically names are “loyalty, generosity and gratitude.” In discussing each of these virtues in turn, he speaks of them entirely in the context of lavishing more empathy on those who are already close to us. For example, he states that nepotism gets a bad rap as being associated with corruption when it should really be seen as affection for those closest to us.
Holding people as inferior based on their tribe, gender, race, national origin, creed, or religious beliefs are no longer legal. How could that be if, as Asma tells us, the idea that people should be treated equally is an unproven, counterintuitive notion?
Asma further claims that the equality of human beings is “unproven.” Interesting that he feels no need to show that it is unproven and merely has to assert it, as if asserting it is a sufficiently rigorous argument. In his article he says that it is obvious that people favor their family over their friends, their friends over their acquaintances, and acquaintances over strangers.
But to say that most people behave this way, which is true, isn’t the same thing as saying that any other way is unproven and impossible. If that were so, of course, then ending segregation by race and gender would not have happened. People who joined in and sacrificed, including their own lives, in the pursuit of racial equality – whites, for instance, who adopted the crazy idea that people of color should be treated de jure and de facto as their equals, must not subscribe to the intuitions of Mr. Asma. And what a pity that they devoted their lives and some of them lost their lives to pursue such unproven, counterintuitive ideas!
What we have here in this New York Times guest columnist is a defense of narrowness and philistinism. It fits perfectly the perspective and logic of the 1%: “This is mine, these are my family and friends, and screw the rest of you all. I don’t care if you are the 99%. I’m part of the 1% and it’s only logical and intuitive that I should not care one whit about the rest of humanity or the fate of the planet and all of its creatures and plants. As long as I can live and travel in luxury, I’m happy. Why are you squawking?”
Brian Bethune, reviewing Asma’s book at Maclean's says, “Asma realizes, with a sigh, ‘that I will be seen as some conservative Ayn Randian and my book read as a social-Darwinist screed,’ merely for telling his son that it’s not possible for everyone in a race to win it.”
But there is a big difference between those who think everyone should get a blue ribbon so everyone’s a winner - Asma’s ostensible and easy target for refuting - and recognizing that treating one’s own over and above everyone else is a strategy that is ruining the earth and human relations, endangering our very fates. Asma relates a story in his NYT piece:
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 nonprofit 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 is a too easily defeated foe for him to pick on: of course we can always find someone more needy than someone else. Of course this chain of reasoning becomes impossible to implement fully and soon therefore absurd and unworkable if you try to carry it out to its logical conclusion.
Who says, however, that we must calculate precisely who is more needy and give that person what we have to give? Inequities exist in manifest ways between the privileged and the oppressed and unless you are blinded by that privilege because you yourself enjoy some or a lot of it, pretending that they’re of no concern or arguing forcefully that we are better off ignoring them does not make those inequities disappear. It doesn’t make them any less real.
There is a difference between telling everyone they are winners and giving everyone a trophy (a practice that certainly has become unfortunately prevalent in the U.S.), and seeking to bridge the gaps that yawn between people based on whether or not they’re in an imperialist country or part of the third world, whether they’re a racial superordinate group or a subordinated, brutalized group, whether they’re a male of privilege and sense of entitlement who thinks that he can rape and kill females with impunity or they’re a female who is subject to this savagery from male supremacists.
Asma, as do so many others, conflates the meaning of egalitarianism with the notion that everyone is actually equally endowed. Asma appears to disagree. As do I: I think it is obvious that every one of us is unequal in numerous areas – some of us are better musicians, athletes, stronger, better artists, engineers, cooks, spatial reasoners, and so on. But this is very different from the idea that some are more worthy than others. Compare the following from my book Globalization and the Demolition of Society to Asma:
In any population of people, it is true, there are going to be those who are better at specific things than others. Having incompetents handling critical matters such as medicine, or people in charge of disaster prevention and relief who know nothing about emergency management, violates most people’s expectations of a good society. Not everyone can become a physician, and only qualified individuals should take key posts. But this obviously sensible policy differs from excluding the working class, oppressed minorities, and/or women from learning about the grander vistas that humanity has achieved. To understand how the political system really works, to be exposed to the best in art and science, to be introduced to humanity’s key philosophical questions, the varying answers to those questions historically, and to be steeped in history and its lessons and so on in this fashion should be the norm for virtually everyone in a society, regardless of what they end up doing as an occupation. Specialized skills and area specific knowledge are not the same as these kinds of lessons. It does not take exceptional intelligence or talents to benefit greatly from that manner of education.
So why exclude people from these arenas? The only reason can be that the existing division of labor and hierarchy of prestige demean and diminish many people in comparison to their capabilities and the regard they deserve as human beings. Were this not the case then there would be no necessity to conceal so many arenas of knowledge from people. The problem here, in other words, lies with the stratification of society and the differential material and non-material rewards attached to the different strata. The shortcomings here do not lie mainly with the people; the populace’s ability to understand exceeds the capacity of a highly stratified society to accommodate them and their fullest roles. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 311-312)
Asma’s writing, moreover, is an example of the kind of reasoning that people who support Obama’s use of drones to kill others abroad engage in. Time Magazine’s Joe Klein, for example, aggressively asserts that it’s not American babies who are being killed, it’s non-American babies being killed, and so it’s quite all right, indeed, it’s better than all right, it’s morally defensible and just. It reflects a none-too subtle message in the film Zero Dark Thirty: torture is ugly, but sometimes it's necessary to protect Americans by treating non-Americans as of lower status and torturing them. Americans are our kith and kin, after all. And the equal status of all humans is counterintuitive and unproven, right?
Not only is it morally indefensible for those who engage in these kind of sophisticated rationales for brutal inequities; it is also factually wrong. A central theme of my book Globalization and the Demolition of Society makes that very point from multiple angles. For Asma is wrong that the inter-connectedness of people is unproven. We could not have a society without this inter-connectedness. Consider, to begin with, Mr. Asma’s notion about it being somehow natural and proper that people treat strangers as less worthy and deserving than those who are near to them by blood or by other forms of proximity such as a shared neighborhood or nation: this narrow view is the same as the one of those who continue to deny global warming as a threat and unfolding catastrophe or who, while accepting the reality of global warming, still refuse to do anything about it. The Republican Party is an example of the former and Obama an example of the latter. We are, according to Asma, apparently condemned to watch as the planet proceeds pell-mell into catastrophe. If we can’t see beyond our own immediate horizons, then the idea of acting on behalf of the entire planet is counterintuitive and unproven.