The Self-Aggrandizing Myth of Universal Unconditional Love

At odds in U.S. political debate these days are two extreme moral codes: 

1. It’s every family for itself. Our duty is to our own lineage. We‘re entitled to what our ancestors gained and our duty is to pass on to our children what we, in turn, gained. We owe nothing to other lineages. 

2. We are a global community now, the inheritors of what our collective ancestors gained. Our duty is to future generations collectively. 

In both codes we are indebted to ancestors, a debt we pay off to future generations. The difference is one of scale—one local, the other global. 

Organisms have no moral code but if they had one it would be the first—every lineage for itself. That‘s the moral code of the right-wing, Koch brother, prosperity gospel libertarianism that has fueled a radical minority to stage a political coup against the majority. 

The first code has the backing of Darwinian natural selection. Non-human life is every lineage for itself. By that standard, Trump and his kind are highly evolved. In the wild, such critters would prevail. The second code doesn’t come naturally to any of us. Humans can extend loyalty easily enough to the tribe, clan, culture, or nation, but not, in practice, to all of humanity. People make most bequests locally, not globally. Most inheritances still go to one’s own offspring. 

Humans have language and with it a capacity to empathize broadly—to imagine, learn, and understand how others feel. We don‘t just act by instinct on behalf of our own lineage. 

Language frees us to declare codes at any scale. With words, we can declare that our debt is only to ourselves, our lineage, our culture or nation, to all of humanity, or to all of life. We can also declare that our debt is to some imagined higher authority—to Allah, Jesus, God, or the great spirit. 

Appealing to an imagined higher supernatural authority can settle debate so long as everyone is on the same supernatural page. With human technology, also made possible by our capacity for language, we can move around and communicate over long distances. The tower of babble has come true, people talking different moral languages and insisting on different last words. Our imagined Gods are at odds with each other. It’s not clear what we owe to whom. 

Our capacity for language unleashes technology that allows for greater mobility and communication, but not just. It also makes the consequences of our behavior more mobile. Driving a gas guzzler for convenience causes hardships across the globe. Bargain goods here create sweatshop conditions elsewhere. What humans do locally has global consequences we can‘t and often would rather not track. Language helps us ignore these consequences. 

With words we rationalize locally by ignoring our consequences globally, rationalizing our way into a state akin to that of other organisms, ignorant of their consequences but with a difference, since our consequences have a much more extended range than that of other organisms.

There’s talk of universal love, but talk is cheap. Some cultures recognize this. The Chinese and Japanese rarely declare love: Don’t tell, show. Real love is demonstrated, not declared.

We each can demonstrate only so much love because we have limited energy and attention. We can declare abstract regard for the global collective but we can’t demonstrate love to all. We have to prioritize. 

Spiritualists often speak of radiating loving energy, an imagined spiritual substance metaphorically parallel to a physical energy. If it were a physical energy, it would dissipate with distance in accord with the inverse square law. As with light, the farther from the source, the weaker the energy will be. 

Therefore, there’s something to the parallel, but it’s not what the spiritualists embrace. In practice, we each have our radiated spheres of loving attention, effort, care, and influence. Unfocused love is like unfocused light, radiating out in all directions, dissipating with distance. That’s why in practice we focus our loving energy. We care where we point our care. We try to focus it right since for each of us it’s a limited resource. 

Political science is the study of the allocation of finite power. Economics is the study of the allocation of finite resources. Behavioral economics recognizes that there are other currencies besides money. Attentionomics has become a hot topic these days, the allocation of our finite attention in a world of potentially infinite options. 

Love-onomics or care-onomics should be a hot topic, the allocation of our finite love as demonstrated through attention and care in a world of near-infinite demand. In love-onomics and care-onomics, love and care aren’t the answer but the question. Where to focus and allocate them?

In politics, there are those who think as biology acts: Take care of you and yours, never mind people outside your sphere. Let them take care of themselves and theirs. If everyone does that, there should be enough to go round, but even if there’s not, tough luck as in biology. 

There are others who counter that we should love and care for everyone, often implying that we have an infinite quantity of love and care, as though abstract regard for all is enough. 

The sacred texts are ambiguous on the right scale of care. As Robert Wright illustrates with a careful scriptural analysis in The Evolution of God, parts of them read as though the sacred secret is universal love but other parts read as though love and care should be focused on members of the faith. “Love thy neighbor” can be interpreted as love everyone or love thy most likely neighbor, a member of the family or clan. Wright suggests that the sacred texts, all products of their time in history, gestured love to potential allies, often in sacred battle against outside enemies. 

Is Jesus revered because he was universally loving or because he focused his love well? It’s not clear from the gospels and it’s surprising how rarely Christians wonder. He shows plenty of disdain for people who don’t believe him. He often reads as disdaining people for not being more universally loving. 

That’s a common theme across religious and spiritual faiths: “We are the ones who believe in universal love. We have the big inclusive picture, and if you don’t agree with us, you don’t deserve our love.” 

Be intolerant of intolerance. Hate hate. These are inconveniently self-contradictory pronouncements. People rarely notice the troublesome hypocrisy, the ambiguity in their spiritual commitments.

Today’s spiritualism doesn’t escape this hypocrisy. It treats spirit, love, care, and attention as infinite resources. 

Is mindfulness a practice that affords you infinite care or a practice that enables you to better focus your finite care? Like Christians, mindfulness practitioners often ignore the question. They  talk as though mindfulness is not an occasional practice like physical exercise but a state of mind one should be in always, a state that affords you infinite loving attention and therefore frees you from wondering where to focus it. 

Even the Tao Te Ching is ambiguous on the question, though with a teasing self-awareness of the ambiguity. “Tao” means the way things are all together but also the way to be with the way things are, in other words, how to focus your care. The Tao dances back and forth between these two very different meanings with a paradoxically inclusive exclusivity: The Tao includes absolutely everything, but don’t be out of step with absolutely everything or you’re not included in the tao. 

Whatever we declare as our moral code, our walk counts for more than our talk. Whether we admit it or not, we do allocate our finite love and care. To the extent that we want to claim that we’re exceptionally loving and caring, we employ confirmation bias to make our case. We point to what we love and care about and ignore that we don’t love and care for other things. 

I’m exceptionally loving, as is evident in how much I love my family.

Falling so in love with you proves that I’m exceptionally loving.

I care more than most. It’s obvious because I love Jesus and the unborn. It’s why I hate Muslims and abortion. 

You outsiders may think I’m not generous but you’re wrong. I’m not selfish. I also believe that my fellow insiders deserve my generosity more than you outsiders do. 

We rely on a token, trinket care or two to demonstrate that we’re universally caring. 

Will Rogers said, “We’re all ignorant about something.” The same goes for our loving, caring attention. We are all unloving and uncaring about something.

We must do better about admitting to our limited love and the imperative we all face in choosing how to focus it. We must, if we are to survive. With human technology, we no longer inherit just from our family line but from global culture. Our children won’t just inherit what we pass on to them but the world we pass on collectively. Billionaires can bequeath an island refuge to their offspring but that island won’t exist if the climate crisis remains unaddressed. 

So is the right moral code universal collective love and care? No. It’s impossible. One way or another, we have to focus and prioritize. Our highest priority will always be local, but it can no longer be just local if we are to survive. With language, humans have the foresight to admit, if we’re brave enough, that you can’t optimize locally and pessimize globally for long. 

Whatever the right moral code, we should finally admit to what we all do in practice. We allocate our finite love and care. Love isn’t the answer but the question: How should we allocate our finite love for the best local and collective effect? How can we pay out our debt to our collective ancestors by leaving an intact world to our offspring? 

Option one, the lineage-only moral code, while natural, won’t work anymore. Human consequences spill too far and wide for that. With our technology, what goes around comes around over too great a distance. We will destroy our children’s chances if we don‘t think more globally. 

But we can‘t just declare ourselves to be universal lovers, either. It’s a self-aggrandizing lie. No one loves everything. It can’t be done.

In politics, the mantra is, “It’s the economy, stupid,” the allocation and focus of finite resources. For each of us, the same goes for love. It’s the love-onomy, stupid. Where should we focus our loving effort for greatest effect in the service of not just local but collective, sustainable well-being?

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