Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Massimo Lucienne. With me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today? Masimo, today, we've got a great guest joining us remotely, Stephen Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and a fellow there at the research group in Mind Science and Culture.
He's published a bunch of books now about philosophy and culture and Buddhism. And his most recent book, which we're going to talk about today, is called Against Fairness in Favor of Favoritism. Intriguing title. Welcome to Stephen. Well, thanks for having me. So, Stephen, what is it about fairness? It seems like fairness these days is something that nobody questions, at least not in philosophy, I shouldn't say.
What are you against? Motherhood and apple pie, too? Yeah. You want to kick some puppies? Yeah, that's what I think. The editor was worried that that this was like the most unbelievable book ever.
But I think I think there are some real critiques of fairness, but they're sort of under the veneer of politeness and sort of our picture of ourselves is always, you know, the most positive and ethically upright. But I I think there's a lot of problems with fairness. Perhaps most obviously the word is used to mean almost anything and everything. And while I'm against fairness in terms of its sort of conceptual incoherence, I'm very much for justice. And it's interesting, some people have sort of read me as being just against all ethics.
And I must just be like a Nazi in disguise or something. That is not my position. I just think that fairness is a kind of anemic ethical concept and we need more full blooded ethical concepts to work with.
So to get into merel, into the specifics in the in the article New York Times, which we will link to it from from the podcast website, you do a couple of interesting things. You take on basically two examples of philosophers who are sort of expounding the kinds of things you criticize. One is the is Peter Singer and the other one is Jeremy Rifkin.
Now, I found that those were good choices because it really they are good fodder for you, for your listeners. Right? They they're both well respected. They have very different ideas, however, about what it means to be fair with them, with fairness is about. So why don't why don't we start for a minute with Singer, who probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with. But anyway, at any rate, this is arguably one of the most famous contemporary philosophers.
He's at Princeton and he's very controversial.
He's been involved in the animal rights movement back in the 60s, providing sort of some of the theoretical background to that is a utilitarian or a consequentialist from a point of view of sort of ethics perspective. And he's particularly famous for his concept of the expanding circle. And to tell us briefly what that is about and why you have a problem with it.
Yeah, he he does, as you say, kind of embody the contemporary utilitarian. In my book, I tried to trace the the onset of fairness as the sort of dominant ethical discourse from the Enlightenment in sort of two traditions. One is the kind of universal Kantian tradition, and the other is the sort of universalist consequentialism of what eventually turn into utilitarianism. Singer's view is sort of classic in the sense that he thinks, you know, we should maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number and we should ignore all preferential bias.
And that ethics should be a lot like the sciences, that there should be a kind of a rule or principle that could apply without exception. And he thinks he's found it with utilitarianism and he has critiqued, you know, Western opulence, I think with good, good reason. But his argument has been you should not you should basically deny yourself in the more sort of opulent West so that others in the developing world could be raised up. And, you know, I have I agree with some of what he's saying there.
I just think he's going about it the wrong way because he thinks that ethics can be done almost like a sort of cost benefit analysis.
And that kind of approach, that's the basic idea of utilitarianism. I mean, it is, in fact, supposed to be about a happiness calculus or a of pain calculus.
So, yeah, that's that's a pretty good and to be fair to singer, actually, by and large practices what he preaches, which is actually fairly unusual among philosophers.
But at least that's my approach.
I mean, it does give away a lot of, you know, a big portion of his income and all that sort of stuff for that reason. But it is personal behavior is not at issue here. Let's go back to the to the conceptual stuff.
So, yeah, he he thinks there's a sort of the classic view is that there are you can break down happiness into these hedonistic units and that you can do a kind of calculus on the heathens and arrive at the best possible society. And this was driven largely by ethicists who wanted to put ethics on the same footing as a kind of Newtonian science. And I think he's simply putting that into practice today. My objection to his view is that not just that it's impossible on a practical level, which I think many people have raised this issue well, how can you really put this into practice?
I know he does his part, but really it's very, very complicated and very difficult. I think even there's some concept. No problems here, because my own view is we actually owe more to our family and our friends and what I call our favorites and having favorites, being tied and bonded to people in these sort of really dramatic ways skews the utilitarian calculus, unbelievably, that you just cannot find a place for, you know, your mother in the utilitarian calculus because she's never going to be sort of an equal variable, you know, with others that you can plug into this calculus.
So I think that the the mission is misguided because what really is important in the meaningful life are these qualitatively different emotional bonds we have. And so so I criticize a singer on on that basis. And then I turn to to Rifkin, who has sort of a different kind of approach. Rifkin, I think, is at least he's not looking so much for reason to give us the universal principle, but thinks instead that we can expand empathy, a kind of emotional quality that that mammals have to larger and larger circles, until eventually we can include, you know, not just our ethnocentric group, but all human beings and eventually out to animals.
And Rifkin gets a little bit romantic here. And, you know, talks about the entire biosphere is something that we can have empathy for. And my objection to his argument is that I think this is a misunderstanding of empathy and how the emotions work. And so I try to follow up their. Can we go back to Singer briefly and I I certainly agree that descriptively it is the case that I feel more empathy with and more compulsion to help people in my family and my close friends and beyond that, people who I sort of know and like as opposed to people who I've never met.
And I don't feel particularly motivated to change that. Not entirely anyway. But you're saying that you you think you can make an argument for why I am correct in having those priorities. What was that Arnold justification for it?
Right. Right. It's not just descriptively. Right. Normally. Normatively the case. Yeah.
Yeah. I think that I tried to shift the discussion from the utilitarian approach, which I think has, you know, really informed of the way most of us in the West think about ethics to the alternative views of ethics, like one would find in Aristotle or in the ancient world, or for that matter, I look at China and India. And if you could just stay with Aristotle for a moment, Aristotle would not, I think, have recognized these modern notions of fairness.
I don't think he would have been completely on, you know, if you sort of laid it out for him, what he would have got it. But he was a smart fellow.
Yeah. Yeah. Informed by a kind of virtue approach, and for them, the idea of character is crucial, not a rule that universally applies to everyone. And so I try to make the case in the book that there are actual virtues that come out of these strong connections we have with these preferential connections we have with our family and friends, virtues like loyalty that I think is short shrift in the modern ethic, whereas I think they're incredibly important and underrated.
So if we if ethics is partly practicing the life of virtue and loyalty is and things like generosity and gratitude are part of those virtue activities, then it seems to me that living a preferential life where favoritism is, you know, your guiding principle can be defended on the grounds that we are cultivating virtues that are good for us as individuals, good for the the family, the sort of local tribe, and possibly good for the larger society.
So, Stephen, one of the things you bring up, actually, one of the talking about the ancients view of of ethics is the Roman philosopher and thinking thinker, Cicero, who said that society and human fellowships will be best served if we conferred the most can kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated.
Is that the idea that that the cultivation of virtues is sort of a local level is actually what makes for a strong bond within within a particular society?
And then if everybody were to do the same thing, you would have an alternative, a viable alternative model to the let's say, to the dying one.
Yes, that's the idea. I confess that I don't spend a lot of time working that out in the book, because my focus in the book is, is to look at the levels of ethics that I think have been ignored. And that means looking more at family level and at the local sort of tribe and our sort of local communities. And I'm not thinking quite so grandiose, although that's got to be worked out. It does seem to me that most of the people I know are not involved in elaborate policymaking and statecraft, although some are.
But most of us live in the in the world sort of below that radar where we have other kinds of demands and duties on us. And I'm thinking there that, as Cicero said, perhaps if every person treated their family with the greatest amount of love, affection and obligation, then what would happen is that the larger society would be healthier. And this seems to be the driving force behind sort of Confucian ethics, which has done well by the Chinese for over 2000 years.
And so I'm in a sense, trying to appreciate that tradition and see if there's any way to make room for it within the Western liberal tradition.
So, Stephen, I can't quite tell if you actually agree with utilitarianism, but you just have an empirical disagreement with them about what policies would lead to the greatest happiness. It sounds like maybe you just disagree with them empirically and think that prioritizing local relationships would actually lead to greater happiness overall than trying to treat everyone equally. Is that right?
I think I actually have a stronger objection to utilitarianism. And I'm not I don't see myself as sort of a reformer, you know, trying to fix it. I think it's misguided, although it's a little hard to articulate where exactly. One sort of critique that I have been very influenced by is Bernard Williams critique of utilitarianism, which I think some people will be familiar with. He thinks that, well, if we privilege these kind of universal approaches to ethics and treat that as our notion of the good, then we will actually end up sort of denying what he calls he calls these ground projects, which is kind of a fancy way of saying these really meaningful connections that we have in our lives.
And he doesn't sort of make an existential point, but it is a kind of existential point, because if I am so closely connected with my family, my mother, my brothers, my my children, then there is I'm never going to be fair to everyone and treat everyone equally because I have these people in my moral universe that are like huge, like the sun or like Jupiter compared to strangers and acquaintances who are more like, you know, Pluto.
And and, you know, if I can use this sort of solar system analogy and if I try to treat everyone using this grid of impartiality, then I've ignored and I've failed as a. As a brother, as a son, as a father, because those obligations really do require more of me, so I don't think you're ever going to reconcile utilitarianism with the deep values, these ground projects or the deep values of the meaningful human life.
So the classic example there were you talking about in terms of sort of the pool of that certain people I have on us, you mentioned Robert Nozick idea of essentially moral gravity.
There's no way you there's an ethical pool that some people have. And the idea, again, is that to go back to a comment that you made earlier, that this is not just descriptive. I mean, descriptively, I think everybody agrees that that is the case. The idea is that if you abandon or you move away from a utilitarian perspective and you embrace something like a virtue ethics or Confucianism or a variety of other ways of looking in ethics, that is actually the way it ought to be, that that's the becomes prescriptive, becomes normative.
Now, the typical example, there is a situation in which I find myself in a situation where I can I have two children in front of me that are both in danger for their life. And I only I can only save one. And one of them happens to be my daughter. It's clear to me that I have a moral duty, a differential moral duty to her compared to anybody else. And that's not because she's inherently better or worse as a human being or, you know, more or less deserving as a human being just because by virtue of the fact that there is a special bond.
She has she has a special bond of trust with me.
And I have to honor that that trust. So we're talking again about about virtues.
The utilitarian has no way to discriminate between the two to two situations. I mean, for you to time, you should probably unless you know anything else, you should probably flip a coin. And in order to decide who should, you should say or go randomly, however, what you can do is that the basic idea that we're getting at here?
Yeah, that's that's precisely it. And you know, the famous thought experiment that I think God one gives of, you know, you you enter a burning building and you could there's two people. You can only save one of them. One of them turns out to be a very important politician. Let's just update it and say it's the president or something. And the other one is a chambermaid. And you're you're at first, of course, it seems like an obvious cost benefit analysis.
You save this more important person that can help society. And then but then you change the thought experiment and you you find that the chambermaid is, in fact, your mother. And the utilitarian position is, well, ultimately, you have to ignore the filial connection, which is ultimately just a. Yes, and one has to go with the more principled line of action here, the one that would maximize the greatest good for the society, and there clearly you say the president.
So but my argument is no, I'm going to save for my mom every time. And there is a kind of there's a precursor to this position, which I'm trying to point out occurs in Confucian philosophy. For example, there's a great example where Confucius goes to an outlying region. He runs into the the mayor or some official of the region, comes to him and wants to impress him and says, look, you know, we're so virtuous here in my town that that if a father steals a sheep, the son will give evidence against him in court.
And Confucius responds to this by saying, well, actually, where I'm from, the sun shields, the father and the father shields the son. And there's virtue in this. And then that's really the end of the story. And there's not a whole lot of analysis. But really, in my book, I'm trying to articulate, OK, partly OK, why does that happen in terms of how does the bonding occur? And secondly, could you live an ethical life that was dedicated to that, those principles of loyalty and not be a complete schmuck?
That's basically the idea to use a technical term.
I don't think people would consider you're a schmuck because it's such a natural way to live. It just still seems like there are these OK anyone except maybe a few philosophers who people don't listen to anyway. But but it still seems to me like they're these just two different sets of priorities, one being prioritizing these certain virtues like loyalty and the other being prioritizing, maximizing total happiness or minimizing total suffering or what have you. And it almost seemed like you were sort of begging the question that assuming that these virtues like loyalty, trumps maximizing total happiness.
But that is that's, in fact the question under debate. And so far, I haven't seen anyone give a good argument for why one is clearly the correct set of priorities to have. Yeah, I've got my sympathies, but I can't defend it.
Well, I guess part of my my position is this is sort of why I go to the Pluralists sort of traditions later in the book. People like Isaiah Berlin is I'm not sure that that argument is ever going to be forthcoming. My I my job in the book was just to try to show how this position, choosing the ethical life of loyalty, which tends to be, you know, very preferential and biased and sort of tribal, is at least as defensible as the egalitarian ST tradition.
And it seemed to me that in general, philosophers have only been willing to acknowledge the validity of the egalitarian saints, and the rest of it is sort of wiped off with one sort of criticism. Well, this is corruption. This is selfishness. In fact, that's been one of the major responses is since I'm criticizing this universalist position, I must just be out for selfishness, even though it's pretty clear from reading the book that that is not my position at all.
So my job here is just to try to say, well, it's not obvious that the sort of cost benefit analysis of ethics is the is the one that should take the lead. Why is it that sort of being the good alderman and serving the larger public good is automatically preferred to being the good brother or the good son? And so the argument I'm trying to make is, well, let's let's look at this. And in part, my book is not the solution so much as the question why?
How could one have a life that was filled with sort of this proximate meaning and. And so the reason why I look at people like Berlin is there are going to be places where we can find conciliators or some kind of, you know, sympathetic combination. But there are times when you're going to have to choose, is it going to be my people, my for the greater good? And in those situations, I don't think there is a rule or a principle that will allow us to make that call.
So I think there's actually there has to be these sort of incompatibilities in our deep values because there are competing goods.
So but, Stephen, let me let me present you a different way of looking at it and see what would you think about it. So I wrote about your book and some of the reactions that it got on on the Russian speaking blog. And, in fact, what we might be getting back to that in a minute. But I also did a couple of posts on my own attempt to try to reconcile two different views of that that I find both very compelling about ethics.
One is virtue ethics. I'm very attracted as our listeners and readers know, to a sort of a new Aristotelian, of course, sort of more sophisticated modern version of virtue ethics, but a virtue ethics that is very close to what you have been talking about for the last, you know, few minutes. Now, at the same time, however, I've also been influenced and very sympathetic toward moral philosophers like John Rawls when they talk about justice as a as a at a societal level.
And they frame it in terms of, of course, what is very famously referred to as fairness, justice and fairness.
Now, the way I try to sort of bring the two perspectives together is to realize that, in fact, they are two different perspectives, meaning that the virtue, ethical perspective is from the point of view of the individual moral agent. It tells me, as you were pointing out earlier, Aristotle will probably not even recognize some of the moral questions we're asking today, because for him and for the ancient Greeks, the question to ask to ask was what kind of life should I live?
What kind of person do I do I want to be? That is the personal moral question. That is the moral question from the point of view of, you know, the first the first person agent. And I find that in that case, in that context of virtue, ethics is in fact works very well for a variety of reasons.
But when you when then we get together as a group and we try, let's say, to come up with rules and laws and, you know, a social contract and that sort of stuff, then then we are sort of trying to in some sense, transcend, maybe transcend is not the right word, but but to go beyond the individual perspective. Now, we're trying to figure out a way for everybody to sort of live together in, you know, in a reasonable and flourishing way.
And at that level, it seems like it's OK to to think in terms of sort of equality, other things being there, things in the background between different fields.
There is no reason from the point of view of the state or the or of society at large why one person should be more important than than another apriori.
And in fact, in the second case, in the case of a societal level, moral question, issues like empathy and the limitations of empathy, the fact that you, as you were mentioning earlier, empathy is actually an emotion which is limited in individual human beings. Don't even enter into it because there is no question of empathy when we get to a social contract, it's only a question of justice. Does that make some sense to you? It does.
I mean, as far as compatibilities go, I like it the most of any actions I've seen. So my hat's off to you. I think there's some differences that might be I guess my question would be how then how those two different positions, like the first person agent position of virtue, ethics and the social what I call in the book sort of animal centric social contract, which is, you know, this idea that there's a kind of veil of ignorance or there's various metaphors for how to how to begin this calculation.
But essentially, you take yourself out of the picture and you take your family and you take everybody else that, you know, the sort of specific personality out and their particular wealth and so forth, so that you can come up with the most unbiased and impartial system possible. So I guess I guess my question to you then is what do you do when you have a conflict of those two? Those are obviously two goods to use that term. And the question then becomes, what do you what do you do when you have to make a choice between those?
Right. Well, that's a great question.
And I would go back to your example a few minutes earlier of Confucius. Right. So those two perspectives, as in, you know, I realized that my father has done something wrong. Would I shield him? Is that the sort of virtuous thing to do? Because there is a special moral tool that I have towards that person, or should I, in fact, go to the authorities and denounce him? And I think that one can make an argument that from a first for some perspective, it is OK for me to have a special feeling and perhaps even within certain limits to act, to shield people that depend on me or people with whom I have a special bond.
But from the point of view of society, that doesn't make any sense. So as far as society is concerned, as far as the law is concerned, if my father is guilty and there is evidence out there, you know, the society has to do to go on and apply the law impartially. But from my perspective, I don't necessarily depending on the gravity of the crime, by the way, it seems to me.
But I don't necessarily have to be helpful. I mean, we see that actually all the time with, you know, parents, especially mothers of of people that have, in fact, done, you know, pretty bad, bad things that even though they realize that their sons have done something wrong, they still maintain that that special bond. And yes, it is, of course, a you know, an empathic bond. It's important. It's a it's not a philosophical connection necessarily.
But but it's there and it's justifiable. And I think it's it's it's actually part of the fabric of society that that, as you were saying earlier, we need that kind of relationship among people.
But that relationship among people doesn't translate to the sort of third person, you know, God's eye view that society at large is supposed to have. Yes. Sometimes the two will come into conflict. And, you know, this isn't isn't that what sort of the normal course of events in human society is? We need to deal with conflicts.
Yeah, well, you know, one of the things that strikes me is it sounds like there's a lot of agreement here. And I know that you're also interested and have been done a lot of work in philosophy of biology. And this is also a huge interest of mine. And so part of the argument that I sketch is, you know, why is it that we have these preferential bonds? And so I look at these kind of effective neuroscience theories about care and how they're underwritten by, you know, neurotransmitters like oxytocin, opioids and this sort of thing.
And we see that all across the mammal clades. You have this same kind of strong bonding. One one sort of question I have is, you know, how I guess my own eyes are the real engines of ethics. I'm definitely more in the sort of sentimental tradition, you know, of probably human rather than conc. Right. Adam Smith, you know, but I think a lot of this goes back Aristotle to who is definitely looking at human nature in order to derive what the best, you know, things would be for human beings in terms of society.
So there's a sort of a biological approach, obviously, in Aristotle as well. When you I guess I'm sort of curious, how do we expand out those circles? Because I do think we have favorites that are just default favorites. You're born into a family. You are you have this kind of, as you said, embodied strong connection to mothers, fathers, siblings, eventually children and elderly parents to, you know, aunts and uncles. And one could tell sort of a kin selection sort of story here.
But the point is that you're you're rooted into a family. My view is you don't actually come into the world as a as an individual that that only makes itself known as your sort of disentangling yourself from your original tribe. But but my view there is that that's sort of the first laboratory of ethics which is underwritten by these sort of biological systems of care. And my my interest in is like how could you expand that out to these larger areas? And of course, I agree with you.
The law needs to take that thoroughly principled universalist approach. But short of the law, how far can I get my circle of empathy to go? And I know that we basically later in life, of course, we we start to make our own tribe of people and we have favorites that are then chosen rather than given. In terms of friendships, I owe my friends much more than I owe strangers or even, you know, contre singer, I owe them more.
I would argue then I owe starving Africans who I do not know, even though that sounds callous, it's not meant to. It's just means that these are the proximate centers of values.
For me, it's a statement of fact. And now that's a very good question. And, you know, obviously I don't have a fully written answer. They give you a few minutes. But but I thought that the ancient Greeks actually there also got something working.
For instance, you know, I was thinking when you were when you were raising the question, I was thinking of Socrates deciding to die in order not to betray the laws of Athens, even though clearly is is family and his and his friends to whom he did have that bond, that a special obligation that were talking about they were begging him to get the hell out of there and he did have the opportunity to do that.
So this is a situation where there is a here's a person who through reflection, you know, through, you know, one of the greatest philosophers have ever lived through reflection. He sort of got to the point where he said, yes, I do have these duties toward these people who are special to me, but I also have a duty that transcends that, and that is for my community at large. So I can see how even from exquisitely virtual ethical perspective, one might get to the point and say, well, it depends on what the circumstances is, depends on what is at stake.
Yeah, I like this example, but it also brings out the question of, you know, Athens is a very small palace compared with the state as we think about the nation state. And so I can imagine him thinking about Athens in a very kind of proximate way. Like I know that guy. I see him at the market and I know him and I know him. And the nation state seems so big and abstract. And this is one of the things.
Why am I myself? I don't know the answer to this, but I'm very much interested in finding out the parameters of one's tribe because, of course, I loathe some forms of nationalism where ideology has woven together a tribe in the worst possible way. And, you know, history is loaded with this stuff. But it does seem to me that those I want to sort of criticize bad tribes and praise good tribes and contre, you know, the reigning view which sees all tribalism is sort of intrinsically and inherently, you know, immoral.
I'm trying to make the claim that there are, in fact, good forms of tribalism. And they're they're basically governed by emotion and any sort of effective bonds which have a very narrow expansion potential.
Right. Stephen, I wanted to return to the concept of feeling differential emotion or differential empathy for different people, because I think that. Some have a lot of what Singer is advocating in terms of expanding your or maybe it was Rifkin who talked about expanding your circle of empathy is not actually dependent on abandoning favoritism. A lot of it, I think, is just about recognizing that the fact that you feel more empathy for someone who say right in front of you, as opposed to someone who's in Africa who you can't see, is is not that the first person has more of a claim to your help, but just that you happen to be seeing them.
And so a lot of the thought experiments that say, well, Peter Singer suggests just involve making you aware that if you could see that person in Africa, you would feel empathy for him. And so you don't want to let the fact that you happen to not be looking at him right now determine who you give help to, right?
Yeah, that's that's a great point. I, I think I'm actually making a slightly different argument. I'm not sure if I can explain this properly because I might if it was just a case of who's close by, then you're right. That seems quite accidental. And then Singer seems like he's got a good argument. Yeah, just sorry.
Just to refer to the thought experiment in case listeners don't know what I'm referring to. It's the classic thought experiment of you see a kid drowning in a pool, you could jump in and save the kid, but in the process ruin your thousand dollar suit. People say, of course you should do that. Well, if so, then why should you also not be compelled to donate a thousand dollars to save at least one probably more lives of children who you can't see.
Sorry, go on.
Right. And I guess my argument is that empathy has been confused by philosophers generally who because they see it as almost like it's a concept or a way of thinking about people. And my argument is actually empathy is a biological process in large part. And we know a lot about it, given, you know, recent neuroscience about how it works in the brain and how the limbic system generates these sort of very unique feelings and bonds with others. And basically what I'm arguing is that empathy is a limited resource and that I think philosophers haven't really noticed this.
So the idea that you could spend it on everyone if you could just get your get get them insight is itself a kind of incoherent idea, because I sort of liken it to sprint racing. You can't you can't do that all day long. Empathy actually does tax the biological system, the endocrine system, the brain. And what I'm arguing is that one actually has to try to limit and spend that resource carefully. Well, where do you spend it?
For me, the argument is with one's favorites, with one's loved one's one's family and so forth. So I argue that there's a sort of tendency in this disembody approach, a philosophy to sort of say, well, these people very far away are equally as important as my own family. And so I can embrace them all within the realm of empathy. That's not what I think empathy is. What happens when you see you turn on TV and you see a commercial of a starving kid in Cambodia.
What happened? And, you know, you're moved to tears because it is tragic. I think what's happening there is a kind of emotional contagion that's totally reasonable. And we're mammals that have been built to respond this way to suffering. And it's a good thing to respond this way. But that's not the same as empathy or compassion. That's much more involved stuff. And that can't be spread so far and wide because the nature of it that would simply exhausted the system, which I'm thinking of as a biological organism.
But, Stephen, maybe the relevant quantity that determines how we should behave towards other people who we should help is not who do I currently feel empathy for, but who would I feel empathy for if I knew them or if I took the time to think about it? Which which isn't as exhaustible as the actual physical feeling of emotion. Yeah, I guess my response to that is that it it's that sounds great on paper, but it seems to me that this is not how are very differential and partial value systems are born and how they grow and how they evolve.
We find ourselves in a group of sort of thrown if I can use a sort of continental term here, we find ourselves sort of thrown into a group of family members and friends and we are making some rational decisions as we go along. We're not completely, you know, buffeted about by these external forces. We do, of course, as you suggest, make sort of rational choices. But even if we could do that, I would have to make some sort of calculation like, well, I need to do more research on people living in Cambodia.
And then I find that I really like these people. And so I'm going to try to give them more of my empathy, I.
This to some degree, and I'm not saying we don't, I'm just saying there's a limit to that. I'm speaking from personal experience. That's what I've done. I lived in Cambodia for a while. I lived there for six months. I taught there I love Cambodian culture. When I when I can be philanthropic, I usually sort of go there with my money and my time and my energy because I have taken the time to know them. But look at what a limited resource even that has been.
That is not the kind of thing I can do all around the world. I have to be fairly careful with, you know, this resource, which is, I think, grounded in emotion.
So, Stephen, just to close up, because we have a few minutes left, I was surprised by some of the responses that that your articles and your book got. In fact, even when I covered your article in The New York Times on the Russian speaking blog, some of the discussion that ensued among our readers was very interesting. But some of them were very, very upset.
And yeah, and that I actually did two posts on this on this issue and that the first post actually linked both to your article and to a response by somebody that we're not going to mention right now because it's not important. If listeners are curious, they can go to the blog and check it out.
But that particular person was another philosopher I was surprised by. But you didn't receive criticism. You'd received a string of insults.
Is that surprising for you? Is like were you expecting.
I'm getting more comfortable with it, OK?
Yeah, it was a little surprising to me in a way. But then I began to think about it. And I guess I think there's sort of two possible reasons for it.
I mean, ultimately, there are some people who are just rude. And what can you do that just that's the nature of like trying to engage as a public intellectual. On the other hand, it could be that this view that I'm sort of promoting does not sit well with sort of professional philosophy. And what when I say that, I mean, it's coming out of a tradition, actually, you know, that there was a sort of a moment in like the 80s and a little bit in the 90s where there was a kind of feminist push against universalist ethics and they were sort of celebrating particularist ethics and the ethics of care.
And it's pretty clear I'm coming out of that tradition, too. I think that's right. And we need to sort of take that up again. But that did sort of die on the vine, so to speak, in the profession. And the profession has been much more influenced by these universalist approaches to ethics. So if you look at the contents, if you look at the consequentialist, there's very much the idea that we can we can turn this into a mathematics and the principles will will bear us out.
And there's a kind of personality that's drawn to all that sort of clean logic. And I think reality is way too messy for that. And that that falsifies the way it really works. But it's pretty clear that I rubbed them the wrong way. Yes, I think that's an understatement. Yeah.
And then it's also possible I've noticed and I try to point this out in the book, is that we generally, as a Western liberal tradition and I mean small l liberal have been sort of imbibing the universalist approach for a couple. Now, so we don't even and some empirical psychologists have noticed this, too, if you ask the average American student, you know, to talk about ethics, they will only talk about fairness. Whereas if you go to other cultures, they'll talk about all kinds of other things like honor, loyalty, even like spiritual cleanliness is part of ethics.
The average American kid doesn't think that way at all. I don't think the average American thinks that way at all. They think about fairness. So I think since that's the dominant view, my view also was was very sort of disturbing to some people. Makes sense. All right, well, we're just about out of time for this part of the podcast. So, Stephen, let's move on and I'm looking forward to hearing your rationally speaking pick.
Welcome back. Every episode, we pick a suggestion for our listeners that has tickled our rational fans. This time we ask our guests, Stephen Asma, for his suggestion Stephen. Yeah, I guess this is tricky because part of me wants to just, you know, pick a contemporary philosopher or maybe a philosopher that's not well known, but really the the thinker who's had a huge influence on me lately is actually a neuroscientist named Dr. Jack Panksepp. And that's kind of a tricky name.
So spell it. It's J a K and his last name is Panksepp, spelled P and K Asep. And he's basically the founder of what we call affective neuroscience, which is basically the how the neuroscience of the emotions. And he's had a huge influence on my thinking because there's a great book by him called Affective Neuroscience The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. And I think he's really following through on the Darwinian promise, you know, that we're going to understand how the great sort of homology or connections we have with the other mammals.
And he's doing it sort of after the reign of behaviorism has sort of eliminated the mind and emotions out of animals. And he's coming back in a sort of rest rescuing subjectivity. And I think philosophers should really start paying attention to this stuff.
Great. Thank you so much, Stephen. We'll have a link to your pick on the rationally speaking podcast website, as well as a link to your most recent book, which we have been discussing against fairness. It's been a pleasure having you on the show.
I really enjoyed the conversation was really fun. Thanks. Likewise.
This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense. The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Tollan and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission.
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