BIG THINKER Steven 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’s 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. And so individuals get lost in the crowd and life becomes more anonymous. It’s get 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. So it’s particularly easy to see these days that 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 real 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.
Now 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 individualisitc 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.