The very title of Stephen Asma's piece, "The Myth of Universal Love," has a particular connotation for students of ancient Chinese philosophy: it prepares us for a discussion of Mozi, inspiration for the Mohist school of thought, who emphasizes the notion of jianai - 兼愛 - which is often translated as "universal love," but might better be understood as "impartial care" or "inclusive care." Indeed, most of the points made in Asma's piece resonate with the classic debate between Mohists and Confucians on whether we can and should extend our good will to all people equally. But, alas, there is no reference to these foundational exchanges in the Asma article. He, like so many philosophers, draws only on Western sources to make his points. And the piece is rather impoverished as a result.
Asma is, essentially, but without reference, a Confucian when he argues:
All people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties — and only conjectural assumption can make them appear so. (For many of us, family members are more entitled than friends, and friends more entitled than acquaintances, and acquaintances more than strangers, and so on.) It seems dubious to say that we should transcend tribe and be utilitarian because all people are equal, when the equal status of strangers and kin is an unproven and counterintuitive assumption.
This is pretty much the point Mencius makes against the Mohists in 3A.5. A Mohist says to him that we should "love without distinctions (之則以為愛無差等), to which Mencius replies with a rhetorical question:
Does Master Yi [the Mohist] believe that a man's affection for his brother's child is just like his affection for a child of a neighbor? (Bloom)
夫夷子，信以為人之親其兄之子為若親其鄰之赤子乎? (China Text Project)
The answer, for Menicus, is so obvious it does not need to be stated.
Asma's article is helpful in that it draws out the logic and psychology of these arguments more extensively than Mencius and Mozi. But attention should be paid to these earlier expressions of basically the same ideas. Interestingly, when Asma shows how Peter Singer's utilitarianism ultimately fails to persuasively demonstrate that loving care can be extended to all people, he is also reminding us of the weaknesses of Mohist thinking, which is also utilitarian.
If he had made a link to ancient Chinese thought, Asma might also have been able to highlight something notable about Confucius: the way that he recognizes fundamental emotional attachments - such as those between parent and child - and uses those to build a moral theory. And it seems that, as Asma suggests, recent science supports this Confucian understanding:
Finally, my case for small-circle care dovetails nicely with the commonly agreed upon crucial ingredient in human happiness, namely, strong social bonds. A recent Niagara of longitudinal happiness studies all confirm that the most important element in a good life (eudaimonia) is close family and friendship ties — ties that bind. These are not digital Facebook friends nor are they needy faraway strangers, but robust proximate relationships that you can count on one or two hands — and these bonds are created and sustained by the very finite resource of emotional care that I’ve outlined. As Graham Greene reminds us, “one can’t love humanity, one can only love people.”
We build our commitments and our moral lives from the inside out, forged from our closest loving relationships and extending outward to the world, but never, perhaps, encompassing the whole world because to make that move would require us to limit the time and attention required to maintain our closest loving relationships: that is what Confucians would argue, at any rate.
Asma includes a nice quote from Cicero: “society and human fellowship will be best served if we confer the most kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated.” He could have easily mentioned Analects 1.2 (Hinton):
Master Yu said: "It's honoring parents and elders that makes people human. Then they rarely turn against authority. And if people don't turn against authority, they never rise up and pitch the country into chaos.
"The noble-minded cultivate roots. When roots are secure, the Way is born. To honor parents and elders - isn't that the root of Humanity?"
And I wonder, now that they have run an obviously anti-Mohist piece, if the New York Times will give space to a defender of Mozi in the interest of balanced reporting....