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On the Case Against Brotherly Love

Today at the Stone, Stephen Asma brings some post-holiday season grinchitude to bear on the concept of universal love. The call to love all the world’s citizens as oneself is based on a “radical misunderstanding about the true wellsprings of ethical care, namely the emotions,” Asma writes. It is, in his view, normatively corrupt as well:

In general we have circles of favorites (family, friends, allies) and we mutually protect one another, even when such devotion disadvantages us personally. But the interesting thing about loyalty is that it ignores both merit-based fairness and equality-based fairness. It’s not premised on optimal conditions. You need to have my back, even when I’m sometimes wrong. You need to have my back, even when I sometimes screw up the job. And I have to extend the same loyalty to you. That kind of pro-social risky virtue happens more among favorites.

Asma isn’t the first observer to cast doubt on cosmic love. For Freud, love brings individuals together libidinally and binds families, but it cannot unite multitudes. Nor should it. “The universal love of mankind,” Freud wrote, does not constitute “the highest standpoint which man can reach”:

A love that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to its object; and secondly, not all men are worthy of love.

Love imposes duties, Freud explains, and if we’re going to sacrifice ourselves for someone else that person had better deserve our love. Lest this sounds too cold-hearted, Freud offers a dose of realism:

But if I am to love him (with this universal love) merely because he, too, is an inhabitant of this earth, like an insect, an earth-worm or a grass-snake, then I fear that only a small modicum of my love will fall to his share—not by any possibility as much as, by the judgment of my reason, I am entitled to retain for myself. What is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if its fulfillment cannot be recommended as reasonable?

This zero-sum conception of love as a substance to be ladled out sparingly to our closest kin and friends may be dispiritingly tribal, and we can agree with Peter Fraterdeus that it gives “unmitigated cover for first world ‘in-crowd’ privilege,” but it is hard to argue with the more general point: if we try to save the world, we will fail. No one can do it all. As individuals, we cannot stop the bloodbath in Syria, end starvation in Africa, heal inequities in the nation’s public schools or provide housing for every homeless person in our city.

But if we hear this message and throw up our hands, the result is an entitled tribalism at best and nihilistic laziness in the face of human suffering at worst. This is where Asma’s dismissal of universal love falters. Although Asma associates the “barrage of entreaties to nurture a sense of ‘good will to all mankind,’ ” with the “ethical utopias” proffered by Peter Singer and Jeremy Rifkin, he overstates the demandingness of the non-academic appeal to brotherhood.

When the Salvation Army rings the bell for donations, Sally Struthers asks you to send money for hunger relief or your clergyman encourages you to volunteer at a soup kitchen, no one is forcing a global ethical utopia on you. These appeals only encourage you to widen your circle of attention a bit: to remind you that there are people a few or more steps removed from your family and daily life who could really benefit from your help. Giving something of yourself does not require giving it all away or to abandoning those closest to you. And if appeals to universal love push you to care a little more for others than you did before, how bad can that be?

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Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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