Ungraded Love or Double Standards? Stanley Fish, Stephen Asma, and Confucius

Stanley Fish, no stranger to controversy, has a piece on the New York Times online blog, Opinionator, Favoritism Is Good (January 9, 2013). Fish is known for such books as There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech: And a Good Thing Too,  He vigorously responds to the critics of his March 2012 Two Cheers for Double Standards, published during the early phases of the presidential campaign when Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher both made colorful and offensive remarks. Many said that we had to condemn both the right and the left in order to be fair.

“Enlightenment liberalism!”  cried Fish, and proceeded to explain why even-handed treatment of friend and foe was wrong.  The classic liberal stance was “the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.” That is, “fairness is the great liberal virtue.” Dangerous, says Fish: “Limbaugh is the bad guy… why should he get an even break?” If you treat the good guys and the bad guys the same way, you are withdrawing from moral judgment.

That argument outraged more readers than any column he had written. An avalanche of comments asserted that merit and a single standard should rule. Fish responds by defending the double standard: “it’s not only O.K. but positively good to favor those on your side, members of your tribe. These are the people who look out for you, who have your back, who share your history, who stand for the same things you do. Why would you not prefer them to strangers?”

Giving preference is not prejudice but morally grounded, he continued. The classic liberal sees the individual as “what remains after race, gender, ethnicity and filial relationships have been discounted.” This is wrong:  “personhood is the sum of all these, and it makes no sense to disregard everything that connects you to someone and to treat him or her as if the two of you had never met.”

Pop quiz: Does this remind you of anyone? Confucius called for “graded love.” You don’t treat your family the same way you treat a stranger.

The Sage, like Fish, took a lot of flak. On the one side, the tattooed  and militant Mozi (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), seeing the predatory aristocracy of the Warring States period, made the sensible but ineffective observation that “If men were to regard the families of others as they regard their own, then who would raise his family to overthrow that of another?” Mozi called for what is often translated as “universal love,” though Sam Crane at Useless Tree endorsed translating it as  “inclusive care.” (February 7, 2009) On the other hand, the obscure Yang Zhu declared that he would “not pluck out even one hair to save the whole world.”

Fish has allies. Only a few days earlier, Steven Asma’s The Myth of Universal Love,” also at Opinionator (January 5, 2013), took on leading liberal social theorists for thinking  we can “overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.” This abstract “ethical point of view,” says Asma, is “not wrong so much as irrelevant.” Our actual lives are punctuated by “moral gravity,” which makes some people much more central and forceful in our “daily orbit of values.”

In this column Asma talks only of the Western tradition, but his recent book  gives a prominent place to the famous passage from the Analects in which a fellow brags that the people of his province are so upright that if a father steals a sheep, the son will rat him out (my translation). Confucius replies,  “Our people’s uprightness is not like that. The father shields his son, the son shields his father. There is uprightness in this.”  (Against Fairness (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013)).

Sam Crane at Useless Tree struck back against Asma’s column two days later in  “Anti-Mohism in the New York Times” (January 7, 2013)  Crane pursues the argument with rich  quotes and his accustomed sharp analysis.

Daniel Bell’s “Reconciling Confucianism and Socialism: Reviving Tradition in China” at the much missed China Beat a few years ago also defended the Confucian stance of “graded love.”  The idea, he explained,  “is that ties should be extended from the family to the state and ultimately to the whole world. But the end is not a universal solidarity, where everyone treats everyone else as an equal. Rather, ties are extended with diminishing intensity, so that strangers will be treated well but without the degree of love shared among family members.”

Altogether, this exchange shows once more that certain threads of thought in the so-called East and the so-called West have more in common with each other than they do with their domestic critics.





  1. Asma also got an interview at IHE to which I responded, in part,

    This is an incoherent mess, starting from straw-man opponents and ending with self-serving absurdities.

    This is the same argument Confucius and Mozi had. They both lost to Han feizi, in the short-run, but obviously Confucius had a long-term advantage. Which is to say, authoritarianism and aristocratic privilege work well together, and can be leavened with enough noblesse oblige to keep everyone looking elsewhere for a long time.

  2. I’m not sure I like Bell’s way of looking at it, or at least I don’t see it as very Confucian “ties are extended with diminishing intensity, so that strangers will be treated well but without the degree of love shared among family members” Yes, relations are different, but it’s not just differing intensity, the relationships are different. I care more about Americans killed by a hurricane in Florida than I do those killed in Bangladesh, in part because the people in Bangladesh are further away, and I have never been there. It seems more remote. Same feeling just less. On the other hand, I also feel different about people in Florida because they are My Fellow Americans, and thus my relationship to them is different from that of people in Taiwan, who I have met and like, but am not a fellow-citizen with.

    Fish seems primarily motivated by the desire to annoy liberals, but to the extent he does have a point is it is that you should have the back of people who have your back. This is actually anti-Confucian. “The small man likes partiality, the gentleman likes justice.” (LY 4.11) The small man clubs together, but not for a valid reason.

    Confucians talked about five relationships, but they were not all the same only less intense. A teacher is not the same as a friend, and you don’t relate to them in the same way. Yes, a husband-wife relationship is probably more intense than an elder brother younger brother one, but they are also -different-, and I think that this is something we can use. Duara had an an article where he talked about hard and soft bonds, i.e. one may be a Beijing person, a Chinese, and an Asian, but these are not all the same intensity of relationship nor the same type.

    This is how ideas of graded concern can help us. Some concerns are non-graded. As an American, I think all people should be protected from crime by the police, and to the extent that that is not true that is an injustice. Education is a universal good till you are 18 and then it is a graded good. When I was a kid getting your undergraduate degree was pretty cheap. Getting a graduate degree was only subsidized if you did something useful to the state like learning Chinese. Right now it is getting more graded, i.e. we (society) are less and less willing to pay for undergrads to go to school. Is this good? If you assume that universal education is a universal good you can’t really debate this in a way that has much relevance to our society. If you look at society as a set of different groups you belong to and links that you care about then you can have a debate about which links should matter more, and how we prioritize our links to others. Fish’s point, which seems to be that others matter only to the extent that they help me, i.e. there is no us, only me, may be the perfect expression of Fish-ism but it is not much help to the rest of us.

  3. There was some interesting research that came out last year, in the swirl of election/culture coverage, suggesting that the most important difference between the ethical positions of liberals and conservatives was Loyalty: conservatives consider it as important as, and often more than, other principles; liberals rarely consider it. It’s a bit simplistic, but it also explains a great deal.

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