On Stephen Asma’s Crude Particularism

Philosopher Stephen Asma makes thefollowing provocative argument. Pace the common view that impartial fairness is the superior moral imperative, we all, in fact, play favourites. And that, apparently, is a good thing, since impartialist morality is false. While I am sympathetic to the notion that moral and political philosophy ought to take actual people’s motivations seriously, and no less sympathetic to writers provocatively challenging common sense views, I am not so much sympathetic to the line of argument Asma makes in his book Against Fairness, as well as a widely discussed NYT piece. Making a provocative statement is, sadly, not enough; having a plausible argument is necessary.

The ongoing debate between universalism and particularism is an interesting and challenging one, which is worthy of a serious discussion. What is the proper balance between the care we owe to our family and friends and the obligations of morality? Should morality be thought of in the language of the abstract or in the vernacular? Some of the greatest minds in philosophy have dealt with these questions, and they are truly worthy of serious consideration.

Asma’s book, unfortunately, will not serve as even a good introduction to this debate, as the author is in the peculiar position of either ignoring the vast literature on these questions over the last century, or misreading it to the point of strawmen building. Asma is off to a bad start by conflating fairness with the related, yet distinct concepts of equality, impartiality and neutrality. Equality and fairness are not necessarily synonymous, mainly because the question of what it means to be equal is in itself contested. Should we understand equality as equality of resources, of opportunities, of moral value, of status?  Must fairness imply equality? Asma reads fairness as the demand for equal concern for all, to the detriment of valuable affective ties of family and friendship. This is a deeply unfair portrayal of the debate.

Asma’s main anatagonists are utilitarian philosophers Godwin and Singer. Godwin is of course notorious for the ‘famous fire cause‘, a thought experiment in which he claimed that justice demanded extreme impartiality, and thus require saving the Archbishop Fénelon over one’s own parent. Singer is sometimes also thought to argue similarly, for example in his famous ‘shallow pond‘ argument.  It is, however, not clear whether these are fair readings of either Godwin or Singer – at the very least, if their justification of full impartiality in the abstract requires first-order, practical impartiality. Asma also conveniently ignores the fact that this extreme impartialist argument is deeply controversial by most of contemporary theorists, even impartialists like Brian Barry.

This would be excusable if Asma’s counter-argument was at least plausible. One does not need to be particularly well-read in order to find arguments against the Godwinian-Singerian argument, certainly in the distorted and shaky version of it presented in this book. Unfortunately, Asma’s arguments shift between an unconvincing mélange of care ethics and Aristotelianism, revealing anecdotes about seemingly-impartialist figures (Jesus had a best friend!), and under-argued gut-feelings.

Perhaps the most problematic line of argument is the care-free reliance on empirical findings from neuroscience, which show the biological foundation for empathy and loyalty. These findings prove, Asma argues, that impartialist morality is unnatural. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that neuroscience actually proves what Asma claims it does. How does that translate into an argument about morality? This controversial drawing of an ‘ought’ from a natural ‘is’ requires some justification, and although I find it generally unconvincing, there is at least some merit in trying. Michael Slote’s The Ethics of Care and Empathy is one such recent attempt, which I found commendable if not fully convincing.  The reader will, however, search in vain for such justification in Against Fairness.

Against Fairness is therefore a weak defence of a crude version of particularism. Where other particularist philosophers struggle with defending their positions against criticism, this book glibly ignores it; where the problems with ‘tribal’ ethics are evident to any reasonable reader – justifying racism, status-quo bias, etc. – the book simply assumes them away. And this way of arguing is – excuse the pun – simply unfair.

Further Reading (for better defences of partiality)

  • Bernard Williams (1981), “Persons, Character and Morality” in his Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press): 1-20.
  • Alasdair MacIntyre (1983). “The Magic in the Pronoun ‘My'”, Ethics, Vol. 94, No.1: pp. 113-125
  • John Cottingham (1986) “Partiality, Favouritism and Morality.” The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 36, No, 144: pp. 357-373.
  • Marilyn Friedman (1991),  “The Practice of Partiality”, Ethics, Vol. 101, No.4: pp. 818-835
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