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American social lifeSteven Mazie does well to criticize the complacency of Stephen Asma. Asma, citing obvious facts of evolutionary psychology, observes that our natural powers of knowing and loving are limited. So “universal love” is impossible. Our “empathy” extends with any significant force only to our family, friends, and “tribe.” According to the evolutionary psychologist, we are hardwired to be concerned with ourselves and our “group.” The larger our group is, the more attenuated our empathy for each member will be.

Nature intends us, so to speak, to be social animals concerned with perpetuating ourselves, our genetic material. Genetic perpetuation, for animals such as ourselves, depend on experiencing ourselves as parts of wholes greater than ourselves. But such wholes can only be so big. There’s no evolutionary reason to imagine that our empathy could or should expand to include billions of people. So “universal love” and “universal brotherhood” are impossible. All men and women are not, in fact, brothers and sisters.

There’s nothing new about this observation. Aristotle and Plato—thinking that citizens should actually know and be concerned about one another—thought that political communities, if they’re genuinely concerned with virtuously pursuing a good in common, have to be small. And Aristotle added, of course, that anyone concerned with the quality of friendships—that friendship be more than mere networking—would only have a few friends.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his amazing Democracy in America, adds that one downside of democracy is that it is bad for personal love, bad for awakening our natural capacity to know and love particular beings. The egalitarianism of democratic thought favors the general over the particular, how we’re alike over how each of us is different or unique. Individuals get lost in the crowd and life becomes more anonymous. It gets harder to know anyone in particular. There’s a gain in justice here, because those in charge—such as the aristocrats—don’t get to play favorites. But what’s good for justice—for the human rights we all share—turns out to be at the expense of love.

So, according to Tocqueville, the progression of this “heart disease” of democracy goes through stages: There was the intense love and hate characteristic of aristocracy, based on deep attachment to the small number of members of one’s class and extended family. That morphs into the more general compassion of democracy; compassion is weak in animating virtue in particular individuals, although it can be the foundation of government programs that benefit the unfortunate in general. Then compassion erodes in the direction of indifference—or being apathetically locked up in oneself.

Surely it’s easy to say that social classes in America today view each other less with hostility than indifference. And indifference—or the lack of love or even compassion—is one explanation for the erosion of marriage, families, friendship, and citizenship in our time. The powers of personal knowing and loving are limited; social conditions may have actually been working against our natural capabilities. Our progress in the direction of justice continues to be at the expense of love.

Plato actually has Socrates get someone to feel very guilty for preferring his friends just because they’re his friends. That’s just favoritism. Socrates adds it’s not just to prefer friends over enemies or those you love over those you don’t. So Mazie is surely right to complain that a polemic against universal love has the evil effect of justifying our nihilistic indifference to suffering by people we don’t know or love.

The Christians really do believe in universal love. Here’s why: I’m to love everyone out of love of God. It’s my love of the personal and loving creator of us all—the love of one (in three persons, given the relational Trinity)—that leads me to love strangers, to make no one created in God’s image a stranger to my concern. That love is the foundation of the virtue of charity, which really can’t be explained by some evolutionary account of empathy.

It’s true enough that the idea of universal brotherhood in the absence of a personal creator makes no sense. All men are brothers only if they have a common Father. And so the philosopher Nietzsche was right to criticize liberal “neighbor love” as an inauthentic and shallow attempt to have Christian morality without Christian belief.

If Mazie is right that we ought to encourage affirmation of universal love as an antidote to lazy and nihilistic tribalism, as well as to individualistic indifference, we ought to be about encouraging our Christians.

I have to add, of course, that you can certainly believe in universal “human rights”—or a universal standard of justice—without believing in the personal God of the Bible. But then it’s justice, not love, that causes you to reach out to people far away.

We can wonder—another time—whether even the idea of human rights depends on the Christian discovery of the unique irreplaceablity of every person.

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6 replies to this post
  1. It would be interesting to hear the author respond to scientific experiments, which i cite and link elsewhere on this site, that explore exercises to physically alter the brain and thus increase empathy and sympathy. The world may have moved on from Ancient Greeks and de Tocqueville on matters of science.

  2. Lawler surely does not think that the capacity for empathy or sympathy is a fixed quantity, either across individuals or across time. Perhaps the greatest charge of motherhood or fatherhood is developing those faculties, instilling an ethos of continuing to develop them in the next generation. And to the extent that society's flourishing is bound up in the perpetuation of virtue through the generations, so our public institutions should cultivate these characteristics.

    But two things do not follow from this. First, it does not follow that it is possible to develop these qualities to a different kind, rather than simply a different degree. Lawler, we can assume, believes in a real and enduring human nature. On such an account, we acknowledge that different people have different levels of empathy, and even here citizens of a democracy will find their empathic faculties dulled. But a person cannot, through aid of science or magic or will, change WHICH faculties he has. To make the some point in a more pedestrian way, you might get some gain in empathy and sympathy, but we can't expect it to expand to cover billions. Perhaps it is enough if we can stretch it to the neighboring village.

    The second thing that doesn't follow is whether we prefer a global community, understanding community in its strong sense. Even were it possible to flick the neurochemical switch in our brains and turn on love for the other 7 billion or so humans, what would that world look like? Would we hesitate to support our local soup kitchen because we know the need is exponentially greater for our brothers in another part of the world? Perhaps this sounds like a market argument, but I mean to capture the moral foundations of markets – political economies.

    I suspect Lawler would regard with suspicion proposals that suggest science might overcome the wisdom of millenia. After all, our nature is not some accidental arrangement, so we should attempt to reprogram it only with great caution.

  3. Is "universal love" the same as "love thy neighbor?"

    On the face of it, no: the definition of neighbor would seem to rule out people on the other side of the world we haven't met or aren't likely to meet personally.

    Moses may have understood "love thy neighbor" to mean family and tribe; the parable of the Good Samaritan appears to extend it to those we happen to encounter even if they are from a different tribe which are nominally enemies of our own.

    "universal love" might well be impossible or meaningless if we take its object to be every person in the world, at once. That doesn't rule out good-Samaritan type behaviour.

  4. To better understand these problems, I recommend Max Scheller's book Morality & Resentement. It is a Christian polemic contra Nietzsche, but its specific contribution to this discussion would be Scheller's elaboration of the wholly new virtue of Christian agape in contradistinction to philos, eros and philia. Scheller claims agape is a totally new category of love that in many ways addresses the problems raised here.

  5. This discussion is exactly what I need this very early morning as I ponder whether to cut ties with those who have professed their personal love for the individual me, yet are highly critical of my efforts to love those in my “village.” I want to continue being charitable, and of good report, as Paul advises in the book of Timothy. I do not want to forget the really good memories of a fairly long life. I feel tied down with the responsibilities of taking care of many, many valuable ($$$$) items, yet am made to feel guilty for wanting to share them with the less fortunate folks who have demonstrated gratitude for my help. If i now abandon those responsibilities to take care of myself first, will they understand? Am I being a “martyr”? Am I selfish to expect those I have loved to love me in return? In other words, am I being right for the wrong reasons?
    Thank you for helping my heart (and my broken arm) to heal. I’m told relieving stress will also help to heal that physical pain.
    Thank you again. I do not know you personally, Dr. Lawler, but would like to virtually shake your hand. Maybe when we do meet, my dominant right hand will feel a lot better! I thank my iPad for allowing me to tap, tap, tap with the left hand. Do you suppose dominant right handed ness is somehow connected, at least linguistically, to the right-wing conservativism?

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