Can love be a language of bio-ethics?

- Ole Doering, Ph.D.
Institute for Asian Affairs, Hamburg, GERMANY
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 46-47.

1. The challenge of 'Love'

When Darryl Macer asked me to deliver a paper about 'Love as a language of bio-ethics', my first thought was, 'What a lovely idea!'. Love is, indeed, a very valuable attitude, and, not at least, it is a brief and handy four-letter-word. However, while pondering the question of how to come to terms with this paper, it turned out that my first reaction had been too optimistic.

Among the approaches to 'What bio-ethics really is?', this one by Darryl Macer is exploring the impact of the ancient and ever new theme of 'Love'. The title of recent book, 'Bio-ethics is Love of Life' is formulated as an affirmative statement. (I would not argue against this assertion, however, because a straightforward praise would be boring and would not do justice to the author anyway), I am now trying to explore the normative capacity of 'Love as a language of bio-ethics'.

Darryl Macer explicitly acknowledges the merits of 'Love' for an integrated theory of bio-ethics. He even calls it the 'missing element' in such a theory (p.4). What makes it difficult for me in the first place to discuss this theory is that it begins with a somewhat apologetic tune, aiming against mere 'academic' approaches which put an unbalanced emphasis on reason instead of including emotions in their theories. This defensive argument is immediately added by an attempt to highlight the universal value of 'Love of Life', in the statement that 'Love of Life is seen in the bacteria' (p.1). While I completely agree with the critical remarks against principlism and speciesm, and, I should add, also with the call for an ethical fundamental universalism beyond cultural-hegemonistic uniformity, I do not believe that these apologetic and descriptive approaches serve the purpose of this book well. Both are very clearly overexaggerating, because, firstly, descriptive arguments never prove prescriptive judgments (that is to say, no 'is'-statement implies an 'ought'-judgment, which is also addresses as the 'natural fallacy), and secondly, the anti-speciesm displayed here, without any need jeopardizes the acknowledgment of the importance of the notion of a human free will. (As to the latter, I would admit that we can a should discuss inter-species ethics, but in terms of systematic and epistemological accuracy we ought to acknowledge our own perspectivity, with its modes of apperception, its capacities and limitations, as the first task and starting point).

Accordingly, it is a delight to follow as the focus of the book shifts from the initial talk about a 'Love of Life' towards the much more telling concept of 'Love as an Ideal' in the end. This shift of the focus allows me to leave the issues of descriptive judgments, principlism and speciesm for what they may be, and concentrate my view on Love as an Ideal in the Language of bio-ethics.

2. With 'Love' and utility towards autoritarianism: The Mo Di model

'Love' is not exactly a new concept in ethical and practical thinking. This is not overlooked by Darryl Macer, as he quotes an overwhelming number and variety of statements concerning the meaning of 'Love' from a wide range of human perspectives, and from many cultures and times in history.

In order to illustrate my own standpoint in this debate, I shall refer to one of the examples given in the book. Darryl Macer quotes a saying by Mahatma Gandhi, 'To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love (...). (...) The path of self-purification is hard and steep. To attain perfect purity one has to (...) rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred (...).' (p.12). Thus, love is understood as a part of the ambiguous and suffering world. It derives meaningfulness and ethical value only if it is seen from a perspective of an undisturbed Spirit of Truth (Dharma?) - whatever this may be again. (It would have been better if the original terms of foreign languages referred to in translation as 'love' or 'truth', were always mentioned with their original (transcribed) spelling. In cases of 'love' for both Chinese terms, ai and ren, the difference is very significant, as well as with 'truth', which would in its supposed original term 'dharma', be as rich and difficult in content as the Hellenic 'logos' or the Chinese 'dao'. This makes it difficult to understand what we are actually talking about.).

Another reference quoted in this book is the Chinese philosopher Mo Di (480-397) whose teachings of social politics and morals are circulating around the notion of 'Universal Love' (or 'All-embracing Love', or 'All-including Love', or 'Co-Love') (Jian ai), which includes patterns of astonishing familiarity to the present state of the bioethics discussion, namely in combining 'Love' with utilitarianism (for this and other Chinese terms mentioned below, see Heiner Roetz, and see Shun Kwong-Loi).

Mo Di has not received acknowledgment among the classical canon of the Chinese orthodox scholarly tradition. However, his works and arguments do not only play an important role as a frequently quoted 'Confucian' negative example, but especially they can be regarded as a largely conclusive ethical theory from a systematically interested view. Mo Di has been admired and criticized for his rational arguments and his vigorous attempt to challenge the family-centered ethics of his contemporary philosophers, on the one hand. On the other hand, however, his critics argue that his theories are both, flawed and unethical. Some of these arguments refer to the ambiguities of the terms jian (inclusiveness) and ai (love). This seems to be a minor point, as 'Love', also according to Darryl Macer, is commonly understood as ambiguous, though sometimes also as universal.

A further objection has been put forward against Mo Di's teachings: Lacking an idealistic or transcendental normative foundation, Mo Di explains what is ethical in terms of mere utility, and bases the normative power of his arguments on the motivation by fear of 'ghosts', that is on the psychological impact of superstition. According to Master Mo, doing good to others is recommended as the most profitable strategy for one's own selfish interests. While the positive side is the promise that good deeds will come back as rewards, the negative side of this 'Universal Love' is punishment - not only by law (which may be an easy match if one is sure not to be caught red-handed), but also by ever-present ghosts and spirits, who will not fail to enforce the principle of 'an eye for an eye'.

However, Mo Di's trust in the capability of ghosts and spirits to ascertain ethical behaviour, though being more substantial than his trust in the persuasiveness of his 'All-embracing Love', is weak enough to make him look for another instance to oversee that right remains right. Thus, he maintains, 'If a ruler took pleasure in (co-love), encouraged it with rewards and condemnations, and provided it with authority to punishments, then, I think, men would tend towards 'co-love' and exchange of mutual benefit just as fire goes upwards and water flows downwards'. (Heiner Roetz: 238). Thus, Mo Di's utilitarianism, which starts with the ever-good Sage and Love, ends up in the idea of an authoritarian state.

I am discussing this ancient Chinese philosopher not as a matter of the remote past, or for the sake of academic entertainment. His ethical teachings largely appear to be attractive for ideologists of an authoritarian state in our days. The problem for bio-ethics, as far as I can see it, is that Mo Di's theory is inherently consistent, as soon as we take prosperity and stability of society as ultimate values (this does not imply that stability, prosperity and utility are incompatible with an ethical theory. In fact they are, but only as long as they are regarded as subordinated functions of an underlying understanding of what they are good for, and of what is meant by 'good' beyond quantitative deliberations). This approach is rational in the sense of smart efficiency and utility. It is significant for our debate that both problematic patterns in the Mozi, authoritarianism and utilitarianism, have an important function, namely to fill structural gaps in the theory of ethics, which need to be filled by any bio-ethical theory. This is, firstly, the function of the origin of ethical insight, and secondly, the function of moral motivation, and its connection with the insight. In Mo Di, the common maxim 'If everyone loves and cares for everybody, disregarding her/his status in relationship', the underlying assumption of equality and universality is contradicted by the effects of the very means of motivation.

What makes this approach seem so rude and provocative for my moral intuition is its complete lack of trust in the good nature of human free will, or if you prefer, in the power of love, in the name of some 'all-embracing love'. This lack of trust in a free will is, in contrary to the opinions of many of my distinguished colleagues, the essential difference between the Mozi and Confucian writings, (at least of the traditional line from Meng Zi over Lu Xiangshan to Wang Yangming,) all of whom taught that the ultimate ethical sense and understanding does not stem from an external authority, but from each person's Xin (heart-and-mind), or his Liang zhi (inborn knowledge), given with our 'good nature' all humans are endowed with.

I will not further discuss the details of Mo Di's and his opponent's arguments. But I would like to emphasize that the impact of these structural gaps goes naturally along with any ultimate, substantial ethical principle, be it called Love or Compassion, or even Justice.

3. Misguided love

Coming back to Darryl Macer's view, I hold that 'Love' in a certain understanding indeed may be suitable to become one of the most moving foundations and motivations in bio-ethics. This can happen, and it does happen, in our daily lives. However, if it happens, it not regularly does so out of deliberations and a balance of judgments, but according to habitualized morality, and, hopefully, as a manifestation of the overall will to do good, or, if you will, to love.

Its richness and power is, at the same time, its limiting factor as it comes to the concepts and the language of bio-ethics. The underlying will to love can virtually not be securely translated into any normative concept or language. Because, if we acknowledge the potential and likely instrumentalization of a normative language by the powerful, including the ill-intending, the normative language of bio-ethics requires that its key terms are communicable, intelligible, clearly defined, and subject to common observation and criticism.

'Love', as a normative concept is not only vague, but it can be misleading, can be abused, and is regularly misunderstood, which, in effect, makes it an unreliable and even dangerous principle. This is evident from the case of Mo Di's shift from 'Love' to authority, and further illustrated by our everyday's experiences. (Incidentally, the last statement of Erich Mielke in his position as head of the infamous Security Service of the German Democratic Republic, in the Fall of 1989, directed to critics was, 'How, but I love you all!'. This example once more illustrates the gross misconceptions of themselves as moral agents humans are capable of, and that it is 'Love' in particular, which invites this ill-guided self-esteem.).

In order to accomplish at least a reasonable degree of reliability of a bioethical theory, I suggest that we take the further criteria for granted, which Darryl Macer lays down in the final chapter of his book. As he says, 'The balancing of principles, self-love (autonomy), love of others (justice), loving life (do no harm) and loving good (beneficence) can provide us with a vehicle to express our values according to the desire of love' (p.144). Here, at last, 'loving life' is just one among other major principles, clearly distinguished from their driving, but nameless motive, the 'desire of love'. Additional hints, as to how to achieve this balance of principles are delivered through occasional references throughout the book, to concepts such as 'fairness' (p.146), responsibility (p.2), 'maturity' and 'rationality' (p.145). This systematic construction, in its intrinsic structure, is obviously based on an ideal referential meta-norm which the whole book is struggling to come to terms with. So, what apparently has begun as an approach of material virtue ethics (cf. Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann) in the end turns out to be an idealistic quest for the most appropriate procedural norms for an orientation of the bio-ethical debate, which, as Darryl Macer admits, is 'still at the synthesis stage' (p.146).

4. Conclusion

We are in desperate need of a common language in bio-ethics, as the field of vital relevance for mankind. The fast development of economies, biotechnologies and the related policies does not allow ethicists to paralyze themselves either in lofty speculations, in dogmatic struggles or in the misconceptions of the past. We need a significant progress in the joint process of making a language of bioethics. My paradox conclusion is that, exactly from an attitude of 'Love', we should reject 'Love', not as the highest good, but as a normative principle in the language of bioethics.

Macer, Darryl: Bioethics is Love of Life An alternative textbook on cross-cultural ethics , Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch 1998.
Heiner Roetz: Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age, Suny Press, New York 1993.
Shun Kwong-Loi: Mencius and Early Chinese Thought, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1997.

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