Should solidarity for a particular person be superseded by a love of humanity in general?
Damon Linker has a new piece at The Week in which he castigates liberals, like Zach Beauchamp at Vox, for their “outright contempt for particularistic instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale.”
Put aside the electoral context in which Beuchamp and his allies, on one side, and Linker, on the other, are making their arguments, and note that Linker’s case applies to contemporary philanthropy as well as it does anything. For contemporary philanthropy, at least in its most sophisticated, “elite” institutional forms, is very much grounded in what Linker calls the “universalistic cosmopolitanism of humanitarian liberalism.”
Universalistic cosmopolitan humanitarian liberals—let’s just call them UCHLs for short—“desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic,” Linker writes. They “presume that all particularistic forms of solidarity must be superseded by a love of humanity in general, and indeed that these particularistic attachments will be superseded by humanitarianism before long, as part of the inevitable unfolding of human progress.”
Ring any bells? What do effective altruists preach, if not that we must transcend our particular attachments to, in Linker’s words, “this people, in this place, with this distinctive history and these specific norms, habits, and traditions” in order that our voluntary giving might truly be ethical? What did the philanthropists and philanthropic institutions that funded the early-twentieth-century eugenics movement believe, if not that our attachment to protecting this particular person’s dignity and freedom must give way to the universalist goal of improving the human race? What did the earlier critics of soup kitchens and “outdoor” relief and “unfit” parents believe, if not that our attachment to loving and serving this particular person in need must be superseded by the universalist goal of ending poverty itself?
If you do not like the ideology of progressive, globalist anti-nationalism, then the history and underlying logic of philanthropy—much of it anyway—ought to make you deeply uneasy.
Linker bases his case on the observation—quite true, I believe, as far as it goes—that people do not give up “their particular attachments easily,” and therefore the UCHL project is doomed to fail. The utopianism at UCHL’s core is largely responsible for the right-wing nationalist backlash we see around the world today, he argues.
But the fact that a project is hard, perhaps even too idealistic, is not going to cut much ice with those who believe in it. It is more likely to inflate their sense of self-righteousness. “What we propose to do, comrades, is not easy. Perhaps, at the end of the day, it will even prove impossible. But it is right, and noble, and we must therefore not tire in the advancement of our cause.” The pep talk writes itself.
No, the real problem isn’t that getting people to reject particularism is difficult or even impossible. I’m afraid that it may be more possible than Linker thinks. It is that it is a bad, ignoble, inhuman aim in and of itself.
Particularism is constitutive of our humanity. We learn to love the world by loving particular places and particular people. We learn to tolerate the unknown Other by learning to tolerate the spouses and friends whom we know all too well. We learn to reason, morally, with respect to the particular traditions and practices of a given moral community. We learn to desire and work for the common good of the globe by desiring and working for the common good of the communities—including but not limited to the nations—in which we find ourselves.
Lord knows that particularism has its dangers. How to overcome them? By cultivating the virtue of charity, which is particularist by its very nature. Here is one realm in which the universalist logic of philanthropy offers no help at all.