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June 05, 2003

The futility of universal love

Note: This post has been a while in coming. I am going to start and approach issues that touch upon political philospopy and the possible implications of evolutionary psychology & behavioral genetics. It has been stated-by me at least-on this blog that politics is something we can argue about once we agree on the basic facts that serve as the substrate for our norms. I am a strong believer that ought does not follow from is, but I also must acknowledge that the bounds of ought are constrained by is. Reader input is encouraged!


In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker makes the cogent point that the political philosophers that those who engage in liberal studies are familiar with in higher education, Plato, Hobbes, Locke and Burke, formulated their thought before the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis and the renaissance of consiliated knowledge in the human sciences that emerged from work of E. O. Wilson, to be expanded by researchers like Tooby & Cosmides and popularizers such as Robert Wright [1]. Human political thought today is shaped by 18th century ideas informed by the ancients (Plato, Polybius, Cicero, Seneca), unenriched by the revolution in knowledge that has exploded upon the mind-space of the intellectual scene in the past century and a half (Darwin to Dawkins so to speak). And yet what Pinker does not add, though alludes to, is that some political philosophies have forshadowed hypotheses about human nature that have emerged out of modern biology and psychology, and that these philosophies and theories of man have often proven most resilient against the vissicitudes of history.

This is clearly illustrated in the case of ancient China-for one can look toward the Mohists, under the leadership of Mo Di, as exemplars of the idea of "universal love," set against the teachings of Confucius, who acknowledged the importance of tradition and the "natural order of things" (in contrast to forward thinking constructed ideals), giving great weight in particular to the need to accept the paramountcy of family above all other institutions and loves [2]. Unlike the messy and often cantankerous Confucians, Mohists were in many ways a laudable group of individuals, driven by a genuine desire to do "good." Not only did they preach that one must love all human beings equally, they organized defense militias that aided weak principalities against the strong, putting into their practice the principles of justice and egalitarianism as goods that could be achieved within their lifetimes. Not surprisingly Mohists were utilitarians who inveighed against wasteful "music" and other fripperies, objecting to excessive bending toward tradition, even in time-hallowed areas like mourning for the dead, when misery and suffering was the staple of much of the human condition for the living [3]. In a fashion they presaged the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, who asked to have his skeleton preserved to show how little he cared for his flesh emptied of cognition. In contrast to the Mohists, the Confucians, and in Bentham's day Burke, emphasized that human beings have natural inclinations to care for their parents, to spend inordinate time on rituals, art and religion, and though these were not necessarily rational and easily justified when set against the material short-comings of their fellow man, they were constants of the human condition that could be channeled usefully to maintain the greater good short of turning men int automatons who were cost vs. benefit calculation machines. The ultimate end was the same for both camps, the greater happiness of the human race, but while the Mohists assumed that abstract concepts of justice could actualize Heaven-On-Earth, the Confucians argued that there were pre-ordained predelictions that had be accounted for and made the foundations upon which a political order was grounded-for man did live for more than bread or water.

Though the Chinese dynastic system that began with the Former Han owed much to the harsh Legalistic reign of the Chin dynasty, its spirit was still Confucian, and it was the ghost of the philosophy of Confucius, Mencius and Hsun-Tzu that animated it for 2,000 years. Historians have long marvelled at the fact that where the blind law and later military autocracy of ancient Rome was not resurrected in the Middle Ages, the Chinese system of governance recapitulated itself time & again for 2,000 years-bouncing back from repeated chaotic interludes.

Why was this? I believe that part of the answer lay in the fact that the pre-industrial mind did, as some historians intuit, have difficulty with internalizing abstracts such as Roman Law, while personal rule by the Mandarins of the Confucian system was not difficult to grasp because in some ways its paternalism resembled the natural family organization that served as the center of Chinese culture (to be sure, any human culture, as the family is a biological as much as a cultural unit of organization). Ultimately the Emperor was the Son of Heaven, but he was Father of China as well, the common-folk his "children," just as foreign potentates were also viewed as lesser relations and subordinates in the family superstructure. Chinese legal tradition even granted some legitimacy to the heirarchy of priorities, during some periods sons could not be prosecuted for aiding & abetting a criminal father, because it was natural that a family would aid and shelter their own (of course, there is also the tradition of executing whole family lines because of the treason of one member).

On the issue of "music," costly and time-consuming mourning traditions and the like, Confucius freely allowed one to dissent as to whether there was any direct utility in these things, but he and his followers simply asserted that no matter the root cause, the impulse to love and honor family and parents in particular were natural feelings, to mourn was a reaction to a genuine and universal emotion, and these facts of life had to be assimilated into any coherent theory of humanity that could be applied to governance. Additionally, filial piety and these natural inclinations toward "goodness" could be harnassed to shape a better individual who could serve the good of the whole, the state. Utlimately, the complex emergent structure of the Chinese state was rooted in truths about human psychology and basic atomic familial structures, rather than created de novo with engineering efficiency in mind. Idealists driven by the force of human perfectionism might demand that their followers renounce preferential love, such as Mo Di did, or raise their children in a communal setting, such as on the Israeli kibbutzim, but such waves of fervor and universal world-shaking altruism tend to run up against the parameters of human nature.

Elaborated by W. D. Hamilton, the idea of kin selection indicates the thinking of philosophers such as Confucius who believed it natural that human beings favor close relatives over those who were distant from them by blood. The fact that anti-kin selectionist thinkers like Mo Di could arise points to the power and influence of higher level cognition and abstraction in the human psyche, but it still must run up against the more deep-seated instincts inherited from ancient mammalian forbears. As I have noted, Confucianism, unlike Mohism or Legalism, was based on the idea that family, and cultivation of filial piety, "good-heatedness" (jen) and "ritual" (li) would ultimately produce a better society at the top by percolating character upward from the gentry to serve the rulers. Though bastardized and bowlderized Confucianism did serve the Chinese Empire well for 2,000 years, an admirably successful mode of political governance and organization if longevity is to be used as a criteria-a good clue as to whether the initial axioms of the philosophy were valid or not [4]. Almost certainly the unconscious leveraging of the idea of kin selection, hard-wired into human beings, was a part of this success. In contrast the principate, the early pagan Roman Empire, the dominate, the militaristic late pagan Empire, and the Christian Roman Empire, were not animated by any similarly durable political philosphy. Rather, the Empire spent its capital over time, husbanding it in the east until after 1100 it became but a small petty kingdom slowly wasting into obscurity [5].

In the end, familial love served as the glue for Chinese civilization, while the universal love of Mo Di sailed over the horizon of historical memory, only to be ressurected now and then and trotted out by Maoists or Christian missionaries for their own ends [6]. Of course universal love and preoccupation with individual salvation, two extreme antipodes against the norm of the Golden Mean of family and kin, manifest themselves in many other cultural traditions. The original messages of Christ and Buddha for instance were rather anti-social and difficult to reconcile with worldliness. And yet both of the faiths that sprung from these charismatic teachers quickly adapted to themselves to the powers that be and tempered their messianic tendencies and lived with compromise. In fact, the Buddha is said to have almost turned his back on the world, and only entreaties from his disciples brought him back to engage with the masses and teach him the way to salvation and nirvana. In contrast, Christ unequivocally brought his message to the masses, and preached a radical spiritual doctrine that seemed to break out of the narrow sectarianism of Pharisaeic Judaism and taught a rejection of current order of things in anticipation of a new kingdom of God upon the Earth [7]. The idealistic, pacificist, and anti-government message of "primitive" Christianity became transformed into the militaristic "muscular" faith that peaked during the early Crusades and later emerged once more during the Victorian Era. Buddhism flourished in societies as militaristic as Tokugawa Japan and Oiyrat Mongolia. The axiomatic points & principles of the faith were superseded by the practical decisions made by prelates and abbots who had to live within a system where temporal figures wielded great power over religious folk. Additionally the elite religious clerisy were easily able to sway the masses of the faithfull to break with axiomatic points because the latter were not literate or sophisicated enough to comprehend the historically unorthodox application of religious principles.

Today, with the spread of literacy and the decentralization of power, the force of religious texts and the basic theological axioms are rising to the fore in many places (Islam for instance). This has happened before, the Reformation was in part a reaction against the quasi-paganism and worldliness of the Catholic Church heirarchy of the time. While in past periods of dissension the heretics were absorbed or eliminated, the existence of information technology in the form of the printing press meant that the wildfire of dissent coud not be extinguished. Martin Luther's conception of Justification by Faith alone was in large part motivated by his reading of the scriptures, and each iteration of the Protestant Reformation (Lutheran -> Zwinglian -> Calvinist -> Noncomformist) became progressively more "primitive" in orientation, turning against the temporal powers and withdrawing. The idea of "unviersal love" permeated the early Church, and its non-pragmatic concern for all individuals (rather than just the powerful), was clear to even pagans. As St. Augustine had noted, from fair-haired Angles (Germans) and dark-skinned Ethiopians, all were possessed of an immortal soul. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century, though partially motivated by venal intentions by the princes of the day, were also giving vent to universal love and concern for their fellow man. Those who found the Gospel in its most unadulterated form wanted to spread this to others, to the whole world if need be. By the sword did Protestantism spread in much of Europe, while Catholics re-converted many others also by force, for the love of their fellow man, against the follies of heresy and eternal damnation. The volatile balance of the Medieval Age, where a "universal church" accepted de facto paganism among the masses so long as there was lip-service to the strictures of the Christian faith, were gone. Christian creed now soaked into the heart of Europe, rather than enforcing hollow outward forms and rituals that served as scaffolding for political institutions.

And yet a peculiar consequence of the Protestant Reformation and its world-changing zeal was that it too was subborned and underminded, the last iteration of the Reformation saw the emergence of narrow sects that rejected practical universalism, accepting that in truth most of humanity was doomed to hell-fire. Of course the principle of universalism remained, the Good News would be spread by word, but the Wars of Religion had disabused many even among the state supported denominations of the idea that universal salvation could be coerced. Only so much were they willing to do for universal love.

And yet after the de-centering of Christianity from the Western identity, the whithering of Christianity, other forms of universal love replaced the messianism of radical/primitive Christianity. Marxism, Fabian Socialism and other "Left" movements made strong claims about justice, the universal dignity of man, and the importance of spreading the world from shore to shore over the face of the world. Within the modern Left there still exists tensions over the various levels of universalism, nationalist labor leaders disputing with transnational Leftists who wish to attack globalism and bring "power to the people," all people, not just kin & kin, fellow citizen or subject.

While modern Leftism tends to emphasize the higher emergent properties of cognition, free choice, abstract system building, much of the Right has unwittingly taken refuge in our biology, from libertarianism with its individualism to social conservatives who emphasize family & tradition. Conservatives freely admit that if they could have a just world by fiat, they would do it, but argue powerfully that there are parameters and limitations on the level of perfection, on the goodness, that exists within individual human beings. Of course, conservatism is by nature a shape-shifting ideology, one generation's abstract systems giving way to another-one generation's "progress" and "fad" becoming the status quo wisdom of the later years.

As humans, rather than post-humans, we are trapped in the cage of our nature. Modern day political movements tend to express elements of who we are as a species-it is a virtual tautology, for they are products of our minds, the basic unit of identification. Both the Left & Right draw from ancient traditions and tendencies. Over time some ideas may change in the conception of the "natural order," slavery, female circumcision and human sacrifice, the higher emergent products of our psyche, but others remain constant, our love for kith & kin being foremost among them. To rage against nature is futile, but to tame it is possible.

On a contemporary note, I believe Islamism is a partial expression of universal love, though rooted and co-existent with other urges and tendencies. The conservatism of one age is the progress of the days of yore, and it will be perhaps true that "Islam" as a culture will transmute as it goes through the same cauldron that Christianity did, that individual Muslims will one day wake up, one at a time, Islamists, moderates and seculars, see that the world is sloppy, that though God is perfect, his creation is flawed. The Koran might be Uncreated, but it is holds a different promise to the hearts of each man, that a universal message to mankind is futile.

[1] The great exception being John Rawls. His seminal work in Theory of Justice and its point of initiation, "the original position," have been criticized as being excessively abstract and to my mind seem not to take much account of our biological predispositions as opposed to our cognitive pretensions.

[2] Chinese politico-philosophical schools were complex and multi-faceted, so for instance, Mencius and Hsun-Tzu both effected latter-day Confucianism at least as much as St. Paul or Augustine shaped Christianity, if not more. But as general camps I believe one can distinguish Mohists and Confucianists, for though leaders of both groups had their differences, they were held together by a certain spirit of opinion.

[3] A strange fact the Mohists were the one school of ancient Chinese philosophy that most closely approached the theist concept of a God. Also, it might be important to remember that Mohism rose to the fore during the "Age of Warring States," when social disorder had mostly likely reached a crescendo in ancient China.

[4] See the book The New Chinese Empire for an argument that Confucianism and Legalism still serve as the mode of governance for the Communist dynasty.

[5] The Roman/Byzantine politico-historical entity did experience mild cycles of growth and collapse. For instance, the climax of the principate during the Antonine Age (~100-180), gave way to militarized chaos that peaked in the mid-3rd century, only to usher in the centralizing tendencies of the dominate under Diocletian and the Tetarchy. But these patterns are harder to discern and much more attenuated than the clear cycles that characterise Chinese dynastic patterns.

[6] Communists liked Mo Di's egalitarian orientation and contempt for excessive ritual, tradition and "old ways," while Christian missionaries saw a kindred spirit in the Mohist conception of Heavan as a beneficent spirit.

[7] There is much dispute over what Christ preached and what his followers attributed to him. Current research and scholarship seems to indicate that Christ did not have nearly as expansive a conception of the Christian message and his successors such as St. Paul.

Posted by razib at 12:52 AM




I have an eensy quibble with what is otherwise a well-written essay, viz., the Reformation may have been many things, but it was in no way universalist. From the first moment when Luther had his moment of realization of sola fide on the crapper to that time when the Cromwellian regicides decapitated their sovreign, the Reformation was concerned with salvation by faith. The most important corollary to salvation, though, is the damnation of everyone else. Luther was more indulgent than Calvin on who is in and who is out, but if you read his "On the Bondage of the Will," you note that he says that man is an ass ridden either by God or the Devil, and he's quite certain that a good many people are ridden by the Devil. By the end of the Reformation, you had the Calvinists who were happily saying that God pre-destines the vast majority of mankind to everlasting suffering just because He can, but the theological basis of such was in there at the beginning.

Posted by: Andrew Reeves at June 5, 2003 07:29 AM


There's a lot there and this is a very interesting beginning.

In Confucianism vs. the Mohists and Legalists two of the big issues are personal government vs. government by law, and rational government and organization versus traditionalistic, culturalist government and organization. (The Legalists got rid of the populist altruism of the Mohists while supressing family connections even more harshly).In these respects all secular modernists are on the Mohist-Legalist side. The Confucian tradition condemned rationality as low-class and greedy, and familialism (and culturalism)led to old-boy networks, favoritism and high levels of graft. China now is ruled by "connections" (the Beijing banquet industry, a major form of bribery, is a billion-dollar-plus industry) and even in Taiwan you can't get away from that stuff. (I'm very curious about what Singapore is like; Pres. Lee impresses me as a classic Legalist in Confucian clothing).

In this respect Islam is like Confucianism, I think, dominated by connections and personal relationships. (The "universality" of Mohism was more like strict impartiality than overflowing emotion; as far as that goes, the love was more like "watching out for" -- one meaning of "to love" is "to want for oneself, to begrudge, etc.)

So anyway, one reason why modern corporations work is that they are NOT family businesses. People think about their families all right, but at work they think about the job and follow the rules, and the company cares scarcely at all for the worker's family (and the more free-market it is, the less it does). The paycheck is really the whole relationship (cash nexus, Marx).

There's a lot more. Just one other point -- didn't the Roman Empire last right up until 1917, or were the Hapsburgs fooling me?

Posted by: zizka at June 5, 2003 11:30 AM


Neat article. Good work.

Posted by: Aaron at June 5, 2003 05:06 PM


"To rage against nature is futile, but to tame it is possible."

Razib-great piece-will comment in depth later-but the above line struck me. I think taming nature is a metaphor that leads to bad consequences if taken literally- I prefer Bacon's formulation:

"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."

Posted by: martin at June 6, 2003 08:20 AM


A good article. Burke vs. Bentham but on a larger canvas. The last four paragraphs lose the thread a bit though.

By the way, is this part of your slow movement from Liberal (Bentham) to Tory (Burke)? You're a bit young, I think. Aren't we supposed to become Tories in our old age. Muttering about tradition and the natural order. Having difficulty urinating.

And I think there's a bit of a value judgement in footnote [1]

"biological predispositions as opposed to our cognitive pretensions."

Pretensions eh?

Posted by: Ikram Saeed at June 10, 2003 03:11 PM