Do Ideas Matter in Religion?
(Immigration and Religion, pt. 2)
(Immigration and Religion, pt. 4)

Universalism and Particularism

(Immigration and Religion, pt. 3 of 4)

Peter A. Taylor
December, 2016

What children need to aquire is a better sense of who should be treated as a likely cooperator and who should not. Such information is not that easy to pick up because it is entirely context-dependent. You cannot adjust your behavior unless you have lived through enough different situations. We blame children for refusing to share their toys with a visiting cousin. But children also observe that we do not offer all our possessions to perfect strangers. So children must learn to recognize and classify different situations of social interaction in their particular social milieu.

— Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

It's a vice to trust all, and equally a vice to trust none.

— Seneca

I'm still struggling to make sense of the discussions I've seen of "universalism" (see here) vs. "particularism". There are many different uses of the word, "universalism". The usage I'm concerned with here is a sort of vague claim that people should treat strangers as if they were close kin. It's an extreme form of "Christian charity". It's sometimes derided as "telescopic altruism" or "excessive unconditional altruism" (see here). "Particularism" is the opposite, which is more or less the idea that you need to dance with them that brung you. An extreme form of particularism might be that you should almost never trust or make significant sacrifices for anyone who is not a fairly close blood relative.

What do universalism and particularism mean in practice?

Suppose that I'm Jewish and I live on a street with a mixture of Jews and Samaritans. Suppose further that I expect that, if I were to get into a fight with one of the Samaritans, many if not most of the nearby Samaritans would rush to his aid without worrying about who was right and who was wrong. Does this expectation make me a "bigot", a "racist", or a "xenophobe"? Does it matter whether or not I can produce statistics that support my expectation?

What would a universalist and a particularist do differently in this situation? Is there an actual qualitative philosophical difference between universalism and particularism, or is there just a quantitative difference in Bayesian prior probabilities regarding various other people's behavior?

  1. Consider Richard Dawkins' discussion of the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma in ch. 12 of The Selfish Gene. One way to try to interpret universalism vs. particularism is to divide people into two groups, say, Jews and Samaritans, and treat each group as being monolithic, i.e. perfectly cohesive, having perfect asabiyah. The game then reduces to a two-player game. Maybe it's the Prisoners' Dilemma, maybe the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma, maybe something else. How far should the Jews and Samaritans trust each other? The Prisoners' Dilemma has a well-known solution: defect. The successful strategies in the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma tend to be variations on "tit for tat": start off by cooperating, and then mostly respond in kind to the other player's previous move. The way the game is typically set up, universalist moves call for universalist counter-moves, and particularist moves call for particularist counter-moves, but the details of the game matter.

    How open are we to cooperation with strangers who might cheat us? It depends on our perceptions of the various contingent payoffs and of how long the game is likely to go on. If my team loses a round, does that mean a modest financial loss, or genocide? In this view, universalism and particularism are not different philosophies, but merely slightly different styles of play, slightly different biases or Bayesian priors on the likelihood of injury by strangers.

  2. A second way to try to interpret universalism is to assume that there is, or that things could be arranged such that there is, no cohesion, no asabiyah, on either team; that all bargains are made on an ad hoc basis; that strangers are no more likely to cheat us than our neighbors are; and that being cheated by one person is no worse than being cheated by another. Contrary evidence may regarded as a rare or temporary aberration that can be ignored in our economic models or corrected through religious teachings. Carter van Carter and Nick Rowe have described this set of assumptions as "autistic". Many of the problems with these assumptions are obvious, but note in particular that some people are in a position to do more damage than others. My friends and neighbors are potentially more dangerous to me because they have more information about me and more opportunity to make mischief. But also, I have institutions such as governments that I depend on for protection. People who can influence my government from the inside are more dangerous than those who can't. In a democracy, anyone who gets the right to vote has the potential to harm me in a way that he would not otherwise have. This point seems to have been lost on a great number of libertarians.

    Socialists expect people to be more altruistic than libertarians typically do, but the problem isn't the overall level of altruism. The problem is that human groupings are "lumpy". Ethnic groups will stick together in ways that confound the libertarians' models (e.g. Public Choice economics), and the altruism that socialists rely on will usually fail to reach much beyond close kin.

    I can think of several ways I could try to make sense of "universalism" in the light of the above assumptions:

    1. Universalism is a mental state, not a strategy or a philosophy. Maybe I meditate and bliss out, and have a pleasant daydream about lions and leopards laying down with lambs and goats. There is no sane philosophical conclusion to be drawn from this daydream. (Or maybe "universalism" is a procedure for bringing about this mental state, rather than the mental state itself. In that case, universalism is the intellectual equivalent of a recreational drug.)

    2. Universalism is eschatology, a religious belief about some distant future where some supernatural power will cause leopards and lambs to lay down together without anyone getting eaten. This could be taken literally or figuratively. A figurative interpretation might be that I want and expect institutions that work on the level of the nuclear family to also work on the planetary level. Also, I don't necessarily have to believe in a supernatural power in order to have strange beliefs about the distant future. (We can argue some other time about what counts as "religion".)

    The key question here is whether I'm going to try to "immanentize the eschaton", try to create Heaven on Earth in the here and now. If I want to try to immanentize the eschaton, there may be some conclusions I can draw from this eschatology, but they'll be stupid because they're based on false anthropology. If I have sense enough not to try to immanentize the eschaton, again there is no sane philosophical conclusion to be drawn from it.

  3. A third way to try to interpret universalism is to accept that human interaction is often a team sport, but there are conflicts of interest between members of the same team; and to try to figure out the best strategy. If I'm a Jew, and a Samaritan offers me a deal that's good for me but bad for some other Jew, should I accept his offer? Here we're back to game theory, but it's a multiplayer game, and I have relationships with my teammates that I depend on and want to protect (unless I commit to switching teams). Even if I switch teams, I still have a reputation to consider.

    How much do I have to compromise in order to keep my teammates from getting mad at me? How much weight do I put on preserving my relationships with my teammates relative to my personal material gain?

    This is complicated. I am probably on multiple, overlapping, context-dependent teams, which have soft boundaries, multiple levels, or concentric circles.

    Does universalism mean that I don't feel the need to put much weight on protecting my relationships? Maybe I think they are very robust and I can take them for granted. Maybe I am independent enough that I don't think I need my teammates' help. Or maybe I already feel ostracized. And how much weight is a lot?

    Again, there are several ways to try to make sense of "universalism" following this reasoning:

    1. As with my discussion of the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma, there are delicate trade-offs to make. We could label the decision to accept the Samaritan's offer as a "universalist" move, and the decision to reject it a "particularist" move, but I still have to look at the trade-offs. How much do I gain in the short term, and how much does my fellow Jew lose? It would be idiotic to make a decision without looking at the numbers. So again, universalism and particularism are not different philosophies. At most, they are merely slightly different styles of play, with slightly different biases.

    2. No, universalism is a philosophy. It's a reflection of decision-making under uncertainty. I resolve the uncertainty in the price of social cohesion by ignoring it entirely. Maybe what I'm really taking for granted is that no matter how pissed off my fellow Jew is at me, there's nothing much he can do about it. In a sense, I could say that universalism is actually the lack of a philosophy: I have no idea how to calculate the price of social cohesion or "goodwill", so I'm going to guess that it's zero.

    3. Universalism is a set of psychological techniques for coping with an evolutionary maladaptation. The maladaptation is that we evolved to cooperate in tribes of maybe 150, in an environment where contact with strangers was likely to be deadly, but now we are living in a modern civilization that requires a lot more cooperation than that. According to this theory, it is natural to put a very high weight on my fellow Jew's interest, and estimate a high probability that the Samaritan will try to cheat me. I need psychological techniques to overcome these biases and make better estimates. I happen to think this theory is wrong, but my point is that, if we say that universalism is a set of psychological techniques, this is not the same thing as saying that it is a strategy or a coherent philosophical viewpoint.

      Alternately, we could say that there are psychological tools for drumming up team spirit for fighting the Samaritans, and that there are corresponding psychological tools for turning off the martial zeal when the war is over. We could call the former tools "particularism" and the latter tools "universalism". But the point remains that a special-purpose psychological tool isn't really a philosophy.

    4. Universalism is recruiting. I'm trying to be nice to non-team members in order to convince them to join my team. But why would a particularist not also want to recruit new teammates? This may be a strategic decision, but again, it's a decision that one can't make without looking at the specific circumstances. We're back to different people making different judgments about the likelihood of an outsider being a good cooperator vs. making mischief, and how much mischief he is in a position to make. So again, I see no real philosophical differences here, just different probability estimates.

  4. A fourth interpretation is to say that non-kin altruism is a virtue, at least under the right circumstances (e.g. recruiting, making an opening move in an Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma game). Where there is virtue, there will certainly be virtue signaling. Universalism could be merely a style of virtue signaling, but it could also be a style of propaganda to draw attention to one's genuine virtue. (There may also be a "commitment strategy" angle, but I don't see why it would help me to impress a potential business partner by commiting myself to helping strangers.) Particularism can similarly be interpreted as loyalty signaling.

    Again, propaganda is not legitimate philosophy.

  5. A fifth interpretation of universalism is that it is a fraudulent cover for an alliance with "far" against "near". My team is divided into "ingroup" and "outgroup" factions, and I am actively trying to harm my outgroup, out of some combination of venality and jealousy, even though they are my nominal teammates. I demand that my outgroup sacrifice themselves for the benefit of strangers, but I have little interest in making more than symbolic sacrifices for strangers, and no interest in doing so for my outgroup.

    As mentioned earlier, an example of this is people in Democratic-majority states voting to accept refugees with questionable backgrounds, but to settle them in Republican-majority states. (See John Derbyshire.) More generally, US immigration policy consists largely of the Democratic Party importing ethnic groups that historically have voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party.

    Another "tell" is having double standards: "Particularism for me, universalism for thee." My political allies are allowed to practice "identity politics". They are certainly allowed to recognize moral obligations towards fellow members of formal organizations (e.g. fellow citizens). This is legitimate and noble. But if your political allies do the exact same thing, that's "racism" or "fascism".

In short, I don't see two "universalist" and "particularist" camps with meaningful philosophical differences. I see some different probability estimates (maybe), and a lot of posturing. I don't see much philosophy.

Do Ideas Matter in Religion?
(Immigration and Religion, pt. 2)
(Immigration and Religion, pt. 4)