How Far Can We Extend Our Concern?

How Far Can We Extend Our Concern? January 10, 2013

There is no greater tension for a Humanistic Jew than the deep-rooted dichotomy of Jewish particularism and humanistic universalism.

While this is not a uniquely Humanistic Jewish issue – the Reform movement has famously struggled with it since its inception – I do believe that we experience it in a unique manner. At least according to some, secular humanism works for a time when we will eliminate the barriers between and among us. It’s a one-world vision.

At the first Humanistic Jewish gathering I attended I wore my little Israel-America flag pin. I was unsure whether I would find fellow Israel-lovers there. Zionism is a salient form of tribalism. When I asked about the support of Zionism among Humanistic Jews, one colleague remarked that he was all for Israel as long as people actually needed to have states. This was hardly the full-throated advocacy of Israel that I generally espouse.

No one should be surprised that balancing sectarianism and inclusivity is difficult for Humanistic Jews.  It’s difficult for secular humanists in general.  Just how much universalism is humanly possible?

Writing in the New York Times, Stephen T. Asma takes on what he sees as the lack of realism inherent in the quest to “envelop the whole species within our ethical regard.” He specifically address two new books, Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Empathic Civilization” and Peter Singer’s “The Expanding Circle”:

Like mathematics, which can continue its recursive operations infinitely upward, ethical reasoning can spiral out (should spiral out, according to Singer) to larger and larger sets of equal moral subjects. “Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.”

All this sounds nice at first — indeed, I would like it to be true — but let me throw a little cold water on the idea. Singer seems to be suggesting that I arrive at perfect egalitarian ethics by first accepting perfect egalitarian metaphysics. But I, for one, do not accept it. Nor, I venture to guess, do many others. 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.

He is more generous with Rifkin:

…Rifkin warns us that we must reach “biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse.” The way to do this, he argues, is to start feeling as if the entire human race is our extended family.

I have to concede that I want cosmic love to work. I want Rifkin to be right. And in some abstract sense, I agree with the idea of an evolutionary shared descent that makes us all “family.” But feelings of care and empathy are very different from evolutionary taxonomy. Empathy is actually a biological emotion (centered in the limbic brain) that comes in degrees, because it has a specific physiological chemical progression. Empathy is not a concept, but a natural biological event —an activity, a process.

Asma believes that because empathy is an emotion tied to our biology, it cannot be overextended:

The feeling of care is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time — duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted. The limbic system can’t handle the kind of constant stimulation that Rifkin and the cosmic love proponents expect of it. And that’s because they don’t take into account the biology of empathy, and imagine instead that care is more like a thought.

Like my post-nationalist colleague, I long for a world where we all get along and everything’s always groovy and peaceful. I embrace John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  I wish that the planet we live on more closely resembled the earth that Gene Roddenberry imagined for “Star Trek.”

But when I look at my own life and convictions – the fact that I’m more committed to the Jewish community and Israel than I am to the Irish or Ireland – I think that Asma may be correct.  (Though I lack the competence in neuroscience to judge his assertions about its biological inevitability.)

None of this should discourage us from working for a world where our empathy is extended and stretched as far as we are capable.  Our kinship commitments must not paralyze our forward momentum as a species.

Therein lies the tension between particularism and universalism.  As with so many other internal human contradictions, we have to live with it while doing the best that we possibly can to make the world a better place.


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