Against Fairness

October 25, 2012

Against Fairness is presented as a cheerful, chatty look at contemporary ethics. The intimation is that the author is going to defend dreadful vices in the manner of an agent provocateur ("Bias, nepotism and tribal ethics have taken it on the chin for too long"), while actually taking a thoughtful look at some pretty big issues.

Sure enough, the book opens with Stephen Asma promising to "strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son's life" - a claim that many might offer as a rhetorical flourish, but which he seems to mean literally (uncles and nieces too?). However, Asma's arguments come very little from philosophy, as might be expected, but rather from science. Charles Darwin is the intellect he returns to again and again to guide him through the ethical maze, emerging eventually into the bright light shed by recent advances in neuroscience in the US.

The book's message is that human beings are locked in a struggle for survival (or perhaps it is our genes) and so apparently tricky ethical dilemmas involving near and dear ones (especially ourselves) and large numbers of random strangers dissolve very speedily into calculations of self-interest. Out with all those airy theories about virtue and categorical imperatives, down with the grand edifice of utilitarianism! All that matters are the random promptings of evolutionary biochemistry.

Social life itself is governed by "opioid activity" in our brains. Low opioid levels "goad us into seeking out other people". We are "literally addicted to other people". Ethics doesn't come into it. As to nepotism, Asma gives the example of a club owner allowing his brother's band preferential slots. He has no problem with that. But then - who does? However, what about airline pilots or doctors who allow their brothers to "take a turn" landing the plane or seeing a patient?

Speaking of medicine, scientists have discovered that although sheep usually have only a very short window to bond with their offspring, ewes can be persuaded, or perhaps here we should say "tricked", into bonding with lambs if injected with a chemical called oxytocin. Similarly, according to Asma: "It turns out that, just as in the case of sheep imprinting, humans have an oxytocin-based bonding window of opportunity." So even that apparently precious human bond between parent and child is at root merely a matter of biochemistry. Wait, that's not all! Asma takes on world religions and ethicists alike with their constant urgings to overcome "bias" and "favouritism". Abraham was wrong to prefer obedience to God to oxytocin-driven biological promptings to save his only son.

Does Asma miss the point of the philosophical debates? Surely the famous "trolley dilemmas" (whether one person should take an action that would benefit many people but unfairly harm another) already highlight the weaknesses of utilitarian calculations - and are unreliable inputs for simple-minded experiments involving brain scans. Likewise, the challenge of the story of Abraham is that the kind of ethics it teaches violates not only recent philosophical dogmas but many of the Bible's own principles. (Theologians normally get around this by saying that God did not actually intend Abraham to kill his son, but merely wanted to "test" his faith - a bit like a circus performer telling an assistant to take an absurd risk.)

Asma says he is a sceptical agnostic and uses religious examples only "for dramatic effect". God often gets jealous, has "chosen people" and generally plays favourites, he points out, yet these days religious leaders say we should fight our discriminatory tendencies. Now there's a simplification. Take just the Pope: both black and white Catholics are allowed communion, but divorced people? Protestants? Sceptical agnostics? I'm not so sure.

David Hume, and indeed Plato's character Thrasymachus, make plausible philosophical cases for partiality. Asma makes an unconvincing, neuromaniacal one.

Against Fairness

By Stephen T. Asma

University of Chicago Press

224pp, £14.50

ISBN 9780226029863

Published 5 November 2012

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