A really fascinating and, as we shall see in a moment, somewhat nasty dispute has exploded in the philosophical public sphere, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see why - both sides have a very good point. In general, as is clear from much of my writing in recent years, I think philosophy is most relevant when it engages in public debate concerning things people actually care about, and this is certainly one such instance.
To set the scene, we are going to talk about apparently irreconcilable views of morality: Aristotle-style virtue ethics and John Rawls-style contractarianism. On one side of the debate is Stephen Asma (Columbia College, Chicago), author of Against Fairness; on the other side we have Marilyn Piety (Drexel University), author of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (which has nothing to do with the topic at hand, however).
I will proceed in three phases. First, I will summarize Asma’s provocative thesis, as it was laid out in a recent Stone article in the New York Times. Then I will consider Piety’s response, published in Counterpunch (she was actually responding to a slightly different article by Asma, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but the NYT version is about the same). Finally, in the next post, I’ll explain why I think both authors are (largely) correct, except for the fact that their respective approaches to morality have different and complementary domains.
Asma begins by noticing that a concept close to “universal love” (i.e., caring for everyone on the planet) is an ideal that is common to a number of religious traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism, as well as of several ethical systems, including utilitarianism. He claims that the idea is also at the center of modern political liberalism, but that it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Empathy, which is necessary to genuinely care about someone, is an emotion, and it exists in a definitely finite supply to most human beings. Since even Kant admitted that “ought” implies “can,” if it turns out that it is simply not possible for members of Homo sapiens to constantly expand their circle of empathic concern, then it makes no sense to build ethical systems based on just such a requirement.
Asma then takes on two of the major exponents of the “expanding circle of ethical concern” way of thinking: Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer. I will limit my comments to what Asma has to say about Singer, the reader can check out the bit about Rifkin in the original article.
Famously, Singer has been arguing that the human ability to reflect on things, and on ethics in particular, has made it possible for us to transcend our instinctive tribalism, continuously expanding our circle of concern throughout history: immediate family and limited in-group > city or local community > nation-state > all humans > other species on the planet (most people living in the 21st century are somewhere between the last three stages, depending on how reflective they are about the welfare of their fellow humans and of other biological creatures).
Singer bases this idea on logic: as I reflect on my concerns and those of other people, I begin to see (i.e., rationally appreciate) that although my own and my family’s needs seem special, in reality they have no unique claims against similar concerns typical of any other human being. The same then applies to thinking about my nation-state vs others (take that, American exceptionalism!), and eventually even to consideration of our species vs others (especially those characterized by brains complex enough to experience pain and suffering).
The problem, Asma contends, is not just that this sort of caring for everyone equally is humanly impossible (though that would be enough, see Kant above), it’s that it’s not actually moral. For Asma it is not true that everyone is entitled to my concern equally. As he puts it: “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.” While, to his credit (for consistency) that’s not too far from what Singer does in practice, a moment’s reflection will show that Asma has a point.
For instance, I have been in the process of saving money for my daughter’s college for close to 16 years now . If I were a utilitarian (which I definitely ain’t!), shouldn’t I instead identify the most needy people in the world and give much or all of that money to them? Surely the total happiness/pain balance would be improved that way. But I won’t do that, and I don’t think my choice is immoral. On the contrary, it is based on the morally binding special relation I have with my daughter. I brought her into this world, and she relies on me to help her as much as possible to get her life in good shape, which surely includes as decent an education as I can afford for her.
Asma applies the same argument to our local community, i.e. to the people we actually interact with throughout our lives: “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.”
Shifting to a more overtly virtue ethical framework, Asma adds that concentrating our care in small circles is also morally good because it fosters the development of good character traits, including generosity, loyalty, and gratitude. He is 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.” Presumably, the idea is that if we all carry out our local ethical duty, the circle will indeed expand, but not because every single individual will come to care for every other single individual; rather, there are going to be a large number of partially overlapping local circles.
Asma thinks there is not just philosophical reason, but good empirical evidence to back up his (really, Aristotle’s) approach. Surveys are quite clear, for instance, that a major component of eudaimonia (a good, fulfilling life) is the extent and solidity of one’s social networks of friends (no, not those on Facebook). As Epicurus put it: “Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.”
The most unfortunate thing about Asma’s article — as we shall see in a moment — is that he uses a vocabulary that too easily lends itself to misunderstanding and outright dismissal. For instance, he keeps characterizing his ideas in terms of “favoritism,” and even “nepotism.” It’s clear from the context what he means by these terms, but someone unsympathetic with his views will have an immediate entry point to tear the whole thing to shreds. Which is exactly what Piety does in her response, and with some disturbing gusto.
She begins in a way that not even the most egregious of the New Atheists would be able to match: “It’s rare when a person does something that is at once so idiotic and so heinous that it brings discredit upon his entire profession. I fear philosopher Stephen T. Asma has done this. ... I’ve bragged for years to friends and relatives that the philosophy curriculum at the graduate level is so rigorous that it weeds out the kinds of morons who all too often are able to make it through other Ph.D. programs. ... I stand corrected! Stephen T. Asma’s article ... is the worst piece of incoherent and morally reprehensible tripe I think I’ve ever read in my life.” Ouch. Clearly, Piety feels strongly about fairness and Asma’s critique of it. But does she have any good counter-arguments? Sort of.
She takes Asma to task for misusing terms like “favoritism,” bringing up the definition of that word according to the Oxford, which includes the word “undue” (as in “undue preference”). However, that’s hardly convincing. Philosophers (and other academics) re-define words all the time, and it is a pillar of philosophical debate (which good Ph.D. programs do teach...) that one ought (morally) to interpret one’s opponent’s arguments as charitably as possible, or one risks fighting straw men. (There is also a difference between a strong attack on someone’s writing — a feature of professional philosophy I do enjoy — and straightforward insult, which is a no-no in any academic circle, and should be so in everyday life too.)
Piety persists in her more than derisive tone before getting to her counter-arguments: “The piece, as Kierkegaard would say, is something both to laugh at and to weep over in that it’s such an inept piece of argumentation that it’s hilarious while at the same time being profoundly morally offensive. ... [Asma positions] himself as a sort of imbecilic David over and against the Goliath of the philosopher John Rawls whose theory of justice as fairness is much admired by philosophers.” Well, I don’t know what Kierkegaard would have said, but calling someone an imbecile hardly advances rational discourse.
Midway through her rant, Piety finally begins to provide some substantive reason to her readers to discard Asma’s imbecility. Her first move is to accuse her opponent of committing the naturalistic fallacy, because he points out that a tendency to care for our immediate circle (“favoritism”) is natural for human beings. Indeed, she chastises Asma for making such an elementary mistake, since as a professional philosopher he ought to know better.
Except that, again, this is a highly uncharitable reading of Asma. Yes, he does point out that “biased” care is natural, but he also goes on to provide what he thinks (justly or not remains to be seen) is a moral argument in defense of his position (the one about members of the in-group being bound to each other by a special — because personal — loyalty, communal dependence, and so on, as well as the one based on the idea that caring for people in your community develops virtues).
Piety has a better point when she moves on to reject Asma’s example of the feminist movement as an example of “tribalism” (which he uses in a positive connotation, not as an insult). Piety is correct that the feminists Asma names, Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, do not fall into that category, since they were asking for equal treatment of women within the context of a profoundly unequal society, not for special consideration. Even so, Piety’s dismissal of Asma’s example here is a bit too quick, as there are in fact significant currents within the many faceted feminist movement that do claim special insights and special consideration for women. Moreover, a major feminist approach to ethics, the so-called ethics of care idea, explicitly criticizes the concept of universal moral standards embedded in the dominant deontological and utilitarian approaches to ethics.
Piety also takes Asma to task for relating an anecdote about his son and, again, getting the big picture fundamentally, even viciously, wrong (this is in Asma’s Chronicle article, not in the NYT piece). The story has to do with Asma’s initial pride at his son coming home with a ribbon for having won a footrace at school. Pride that quickly dissipated once Asma realized that everyone had won the race (i.e., everyone was given ribbons, regardless of actual placement). Asma takes this to be one example among many of a pernicious overemphasis on egalitarianism, specifically of the idea of equality of outcomes as distinct to the much more defensible equality of opportunity. Piety responds that children are in no danger of growing up under the illusion that they will always be winners, so that there is no harm, and indeed there may even be some good, shielding them just a little longer.
There is a subtle but interesting difference in the take of the two writers on this anecdote. Asma makes the (moral) point that it isn’t good for one’s character to cheapen an “award” by giving it to everyone. Aristotle would have said that that is contra to the very purpose or nature of an award. Piety, instead, makes the (empirical) claim that awarding everyone either doesn’t matter or may even be good for the children. She thereby invokes an evidence-based standard (without actually providing the evidence) and completely skirts the virtue ethical point (which is not inherently empirical). I’m with Asma on this one. Indeed, I find it an interesting contradiction of American society that it is permeated with a strong ethos of competition (unlike, by and large, European societies, or Japan’s), and yet Americans of late have become so obsessed with protecting their children  that they engage in the sort of ridiculous “everyone’s a winner” behavior that draws sarcastic smiles from the rest of the world.
Piety, finally, concludes her assault with dire thoughts about the apocalypse. Mentioning Chomsky, who said that — despite major setbacks — we have been making moral progress, as evidenced for instance by the fact that nobody mounts public defenses of slavery anymore, she counters: “if we’ve regressed to the point that it is now socially acceptable to publish moral defenses of favoritism, and attacks on fairness, can defenses of slavery be far behind?”
I don’t think Asma’s position is entirely sound (despite my strong sympathies for virtue ethics), and I do feel the pull of Rawls’ positions on justice as fairness. But no, I don’t think that questioning Rawls amounts to the beginning of a slippery slope that will end in the re-institution of slavery. Indeed, I suspect that there is a reasonable way to reconcile the two very different positions we have sketched so far in an intellectually, and morally, satisfying way. Stay tuned for part two...
 Because I live in the United States, where college is a fracking incredibly expensive luxury. My father, in Italy, paid a few hundred dollars a year for my pretty darn good education. But that’s another story.
 Except when it comes to mass shootings, of course, but that’s also another story.