By MEGHAN CLYNE
If the U.S. Treasury received a dollar every time President Obama demanded that the rich pay their "fair share" to eliminate our deficits, the problem might take care of itself. After incessant use on the campaign trail, the line is again getting a workout in negotiations over the fiscal cliff. It is a surefire rhetorical tactic: Who could possibly argue against fairness?
Stephen Asma is willing to try. Contemporary society, he argues in "Against Fairness," is obsessed with fairness, which he takes to mean a universal egalitarianism and its attendant ideologies and practices, including meritocracy, redistribution and utilitarian ethics. Our "hunger for equality" prohibits favoritism, Mr. Asma says, but this great leveling also razes the virtues that arise from favoritism—duty, honor, loyalty, compassion—leaving us with a shallow notion of the good.
Mr. Asma's breezy book reads as a series of episodic reflections on the fairness question, each from a different perspective—scientific, anthropological, cultural and political. The author, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago, believes that we should ditch our fairness-based morality in favor of an ethics based on "tribes," which he defines as any "us in a milieu of thems," the most obvious bonds being those of blood and friendship. Mr. Asma thus cheerfully defends nepotism, preferential hiring and patronage politics, our resistance to which, he says, "encourages the civic success of a whole population of detached, expedient eunuchs."
Many of Mr. Asma's claims rest on evolutionary biology. We are biologically wired for favoritism, he says. It begins with our "first circle of favorites": the nuclear family, to whom we are bonded by processes like imprinting and hormones like oxytocin. Darwinian kin selection, meanwhile, has shaped social animals to prize the well-being of their clans above their own safety, as when prairie dogs chirp to warn relatives of nearby predators.
By Stephen T. Asma
(Chicago, 208 pages, $22.50)
Over several centuries, though, Western cultural developments have driven us to resist our natural favoritism. Where medieval art allowed "favorites"—saints, patrons—to be portrayed larger than life, the introduction of perspective standardized dimensions. After Galileo and Newton, the Earth was no longer the center of the universe but simply one of many celestial bodies all governed by the same laws of motion. And the revolution wasn't just limited to science. Adam Smith called for an "impartial spectator" perspective in ethics; Jeremy Bentham tried to mathematize pleasure and pain. Today, Mr. Asma says, "well-educated liberal secular Westerners see morality exclusively as the respecting of individual rights," which requires every individual to be treated the same.
Our contemporary egalitarianism, the author argues, is reinforced by some unhappy conditions of modern life. The digital world offers networks of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of "friends," but these are hollow imitations of real tribes, forged through shared histories and mutual sacrifices. False advertising helps, too. Children's entertainment, like "Sesame Street," erroneously labels basic good behavior—don't be racist, share—as "fairness" when in fact it is "tolerance" or "generosity," both of which are fully compatible with favoritism. Mr. Asma makes a powerful case that egalitarianism is driven principally by envy, and in our materialistic, post-religious age, emotions like envy "find new secular outlets."
Fairness has become a collective faith, especially on the left. Sometimes the consequences are comical, as when schools try to legislate equal "valentine outcomes" for every student on Feb. 14. But often it carries a heavier price.
Take charity. The decline of favoritism, Mr. Asma argues, has enabled the ascent of "world savers" whose radically egalitarian views privilege foreign strangers over kith and kin. "Certain Hollywood celebrities," Mr. Asma writes, "have adopted a veritable United Nations of children from around the world, championed every noble humanitarian cause, but somehow can't find compassion enough to reconcile with their own estranged parents or siblings." This behavior would be ludicrous under Confucian teaching, which identifies the "perverse virtue" of "he who does not love his parents but loves others."
Asian thought features prominently in Mr. Asma's book, which is in many ways a work of comparative philosophy. The author would have us look to the East, particularly China, where filiopietism—privileging family, particularly parents and elders, above all others—reigns.
But while there is much to recommend about Confucius and Chinese culture more broadly, China's clan-based moral framework isn't transferable to America, for reasons Mr. Asma should understand. Cultures, like tribes, aren't interchangeable. They emerge from particular shared histories and bonds. America does have its own cultural resources to deploy in restoring the values that have been eroded by our fairness culture: "Honor thy father and mother" is a powerful injunction to filial devotion. The problem is that Mr. Asma—who takes great pains to establish that he is a liberal in good standing—doesn't want to draw on them. He is "not suggesting a conservative return to religious values." Instead, he offers a new moral prescription: a favorites-based ethics built on purely emotional ties.
But even if tribes first develop as "affective communities," as Mr. Asma claims, those emotional bonds often unravel without the disciplining forces of religion and tradition. These offer both reason and support for fulfilling one's duty, even when doing so isn't emotionally pleasing. Contemporary marriage offers a useful example: Now defined as simply a higher-level emotional bond, largely stripped of its religious significance and its role in child-rearing and community formation, marriage disintegrates easily when passion dissipates or one partner feels that she isn't getting her "fair share" of emotional fulfillment.
Mr. Asma offers a rightly critical diagnosis of our obsession with egalitarianism. But his prescription—an alternative morality rooted in stable, duty-bound relationships of "favorites"—will fail unless he gives religion and tradition a second look.
Miss Clyne is the managing editor of National Affairs.
A version of this article appeared December 28, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Secular Faith.