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.