A Comparative Ecofeminist Perspective of Care for Planetary Family

Jea Sophia Oh

West Chester University, Pennsylvania, USA

Oh, Jea Sophia. 2020. "A Comparative Ecofeminist Perspective of Care for Planetary Family." Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2, no. 2: 31-37.

Abstract: As a comparative ecofeminist philosopher, I would like to specify two comments on Stephen T. Asma and Rami Gabriel’s book, The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (2019). First, an emotional mind is not only had by human beings, but also shared by all primates and probably other creatures. Thus I discovered in this work an expansive understanding of “emotion” as a field of study. From my ecofeminist perspective, I suggest that a deep ecological expansive thinking through cultures always involves more than mere human artifice, and that having deep evolutionary roots for care which are shaped by natural forces doesn’t belong exclusively to primates. Secondly, from my comparative philosophical perspective, I suggest that the authors be more careful in dealing with Asian concepts in comparative philosophy--such as the Buddhist concept sunyata, the Hindu concept Atman/Brahmann, and the Chinese concept Tiānmìng, which require deeper explanations compared to Western theological concepts--in order to not fall into a simple parallelism.

Keywords: extension of culture, planetary expansion of care, compassion, eco-family, Zhang Zai, Mengzi, Tiānmìng

As already clearly articulated in the title of the book, The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition, emotion cannot be separated from mind as the supposedly lower half of a conventional dualistic hierarchy of mind versus body, in which emotion is more closely tied to the body and, therefore, conceived as being all the more suspicious and unreliable. Asma and Gabriel call the inseparability of emotion and mind “emotional mind/embodied mind.” The term “emotional mind” sounds similar to ‘heart-mind’ of the Chinese character 心xin/shim in terms of the non-duality of body and mind. The Chinese character 心xin/shim refers to the physical heart in regard to the site of cognitive and affective activities. Heart-mind (心xin/shim) often

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combines with emotions (情 qing/jeong) as one word: feelings (心情 xinquing/shimjeong). The term 情 (qing/jeong) is not necessarily an affective or irrational inner subjective state. 情 (qing/jeong) is more than a subjective feeling as an embodied, extended, and shared experience of the human existence and the foundation of the moral mind (Seok 2013, 124). Culturally, jeong (情, emotions/feeling) has been characterized in Korean as ‘caring heart-mind’ and ‘familial care.’ In this aspect, I would like to think of the extensive meaning of culture and the expansion of care toward a planetary organism as one eco-family.



In the introduction of The Emotional Mind, Asma and Gabriel classify seven foundational affective systems of mammals according to Jaak Panksepp’s categorization of emotions (i.e., fear, lust, care, play, rage, seeking, and panic/grief) (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 7). These primal emotions are recognized as innate feelings both in Panksepp’s The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (2012) and the Book of Rites (禮記 Yegi/Liji) in Zhou dynasty (1046~771 BCE). Comparing these with the seven emotions (七情 chiljeong/qiqing) in the Book of Rites (i.e., joy, anger, grief, fear, love, hate, and desire), fear and grief are in both of the frameworks, and parallels can be made between lust/seeking and desire, play and joy, rage and anger/hate, and care and love. Asma and Gabriel categorize grief, play, and care as social emotions (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 9), and while the seven emotions in The Book of Rites are designated as innate human feelings, Asma and Gabriel identify the similar emotions as the seven foundational affective systems of ‘mammals,’ including humans. In other words, the primal-level affects, like rage, lust, care, etc., are not exclusively human feelings.

Chapter 4 starts with a provocative question, “Do nonhuman primates have culture?” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 91), and it shows how mammalian affective systems (e.g., SEEKING, LUSTING, and CARING) are channeled by ecological demands into sophisticated social traditions (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 93). Furthermore, Asma and Gabriel broaden the meaning of culture by saying that culture is the learned forces which shape a community by transmissible learning, which has also been practiced by nonhuman primates:

We will be using “culture” in this broader sense of the learned forces that shape animal communities—forces that are transmissible (via emotional contagion, conditioning, imitation, or simulation) and develop before the evolution of language. These traditions or folkways are “inherited” in the sense that an individual is born into them, but they are not innate or genetic. In this broader definition, nonhuman primates do indeed have culture. (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 93)

Culture is co-created and linked to shared identities, which have been transmitted and learned intergenerationally. Cultural learning and transmission of socially learned information has been influenced by how adults socialize with each other and with their young. Yet when Asma and Gabriel conclude that nonhuman primates have culture, the authors mostly focus on their statistical observation of primate behaviors.

Can this extension of a broad sense of culture beyond humankind be extended to more than primates: other mammals, birds, bees, etc.? Culture is not just in primate communities. We can also find cultural processes beyond primate and human communities. Cats communicate with one another by diverse meowing, and teach

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kittens how to hunt and to protect themselves. Whales not only learn how to sing from other individuals in their communities, whole populations also shift songs at once in precise, structured, and patterned ways. Birds sing/communicate back and forth, and flock together to warmer places by making (learned) patterns. Ants have been around for more than a hundred million years and, like birds, fish, and bees, have learned to maneuver their way from place to place while in large groups by swarming.

Furthermore, human beings have evolved together with other species and vice versa. So how expansive is the conception of “learning” and “culture” Asma and Gabriel are working with? Obviously, a primatologist need not know everything about ants or bees, but the kind of expansive sense of an emotional mind on offer here does raise interesting questions about the applicability of this concept to other domains of evolutionary sociobiology. For example, when we observe bees closely as they gently curl and uncoil their tapered mouths toward food, we can sense that they are not just eating, but enjoying.

In terms of care, it is obvious that animals display empathy toward humans and other animals in multiple ways such as comforting, grieving, and even rescuing each other from harm at their own expense. Care is more than a social emotion; rather it is a relational ethic when care becomes an action that results in healing, empowering, and bonding. The American feminist philosopher Nel Noddings recognizes caring as “the foundation of morality” (Noddings 1984). The term “care” was introduced by Carol Gilligan (1982) as a form of feminist ethics in the 1980s. Gilligan writes, “In the different voice of women lies the truth of an ethic of care, the tie between relationship and responsibility, and the origins of aggression in the failure of connection” (Gilligan 1982, 131). Gilligan suggested the ethics of care allowed us to do ethical theory in a “different voice”—a voice that joined self with relationships and reason with emotion. An ethics of care starts from the premise that humans are inherently relational, responsive beings, and the human condition is one of connectedness or interdependence. Care then is an act that results from realizing this fundamental relatedness/relationality.

Asma and Gabriel point out that psychologists and philosophers who study moral emotions usually ignore their development, and leap to create a taxonomy of such emotions or to discuss the interaction between emotion and rationality (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 222). Thus, Asma and Gabriel emphasize the missing developmental element of moral emotions (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 223). In the chart (Table 4.1) of neural correlates for the seven prototype emotions, Asma and Gabriel identify nurturance as maternal care in relation to the hormone oxytocin. They recognize the major structure for maternal care as the circuit extending from the anterior cingulate to the BNST, and then to the preoptic area in the hypothalamus to the VTA, and then to the more ventral PAG (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 96). The authors state that oxytocin is more than a lever or switch for turning on motherhood. For mammals, oxytocin was one of the first neuropeptides to be isolated and sequenced: “Oxytocin calms down aggression and dramatically reduces irritability—important mood alterations for new mammal parents” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 111). However, “care” is more like an ethical term of a relational value rather than simply, located in a neurological system. Care is a learned emotion: it is the ethical action learned through the realization of interconnectedness and interdependency, and the taking of responsibility in relationships. Care as a neurological system of oxytocin is partially true, but its value is reduced in (human) biology. For example, if we inject a ton of oxytocin into a selfish, greedy human person who doesn’t care about their family—such as an extended eco-family, immigrants, LGBTQAI+, more than human others, the earth as a living extension of our bodies—it is still difficult to expect that they will care about others

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including non-human others all of sudden without the realization of an eco-ethics. In short, while I recognize the authors' consistent methodological endeavor to get beyond neurological reductionism in thinking about the emotional mind in experience, I see here a liability in possibly conflating caring practice and oxytocin levels.

The authors also highlight the expansion of care beyond motherhood in the human species: for instance, Homo erectus children were raised and provisioned by caregivers beyond their mothers. Grandmothers, aunts, uncles, siblings, and fathers contributed to childrearing and constituted an expanded circle of empathic familial feelings. Is this only limited to (human) families? Humans and other animals care about their babies. We are also given numerous examples of non-biological/inter-species relational cares of humans and other animals (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 111). In fact, unlike in a patriarchal human society, in which women are burdened with much of the care work, biparental care is particularly prevalent and predominant in mammals and birds. Sharing the labor of caring can be found in bees and wolves. Bees feed and raise their own queen all together. All the wolves in a pack help take care of the pups, bringing them food, playing with them and baby-sitting. What could/should we human beings learn from bees and wolves? Due to the social and economic lockdowns during the pandemic of COVID-19, women are doubly suffering from the enforced exclusivity of the binary gender roles. Such global shifts in political economy make women endure more resentment, feelings of pain, and suffering, given the fact that the burden placed upon women has significantly increased. It seems that nature’s way (道 Dao) knows how to live symbiotically by caring and sharing when we observe lives of more than human beings.

For humans, a family can be understood as a caring organism. In the Neo/Confucian societies in East Asia, the family is considered to be a model for all human social organization, yet the family as a social structure has been extremely patrilineal and highly oppressive to the female gender. Asma and Gabriel also point out that such a system might be easily exploited, but it reveals the inchoate accommodations of later forms of resource disparity (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 217). There is an urgent ethical need to critically expand the caring heart-mind to not only cover an expanded community as an extension of family, but also to and from all genders as differently embodied caregivers. By relying on Confucian and Neo-Confucian works, I suggest a planetary expansion of family toward an interconnected ecosystem for making a cosmopolitan harmony with the ‘eco-family’ via ‘eco-caring’ activities. The term ecofamilism was first offered by a Taiwanese ecofamilist Wan-Li Ho as a theoretical platform for thinking through environmental movements. Instead of using the western theoretical models of ecofeminism, Ho uses traditional Confucian family values as her conceptual framework to construct her new theoretical framework of ecofamilism. Ho emphasizes filial piety (孝 xiao) and benevolence (仁, ren) as virtues of ecofamilism that should be extended to familial care to strangers and even enemies.

Ho writes, “This family-oriented approach of ecofamilism can certainly help us to engage more productively with traditions of social activism and ecofeminism, increasing the richness of ideas and broadening the appeal of environmental movements worldwide” (Ho 2016, 184). I suggest that the extension of family should go beyond the human family by recognizing humans as a part of the web of life and the entirety of humanity as an integrated body, drawing upon Zhang Zai’s cosmology:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I find an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which fills the universe I regard as my body and

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that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters and all things are my companions. —張載, Zhang Zai. (Chan 1963, 467)

The neo-Confucian scholar Zhang Zai (1022-1077) identified himself with the whole cosmos. Zhang Zai expanded the category of family beyond a set of biological ties that may restrict and limit the process of expansion of our love and compassion to the myriad things in the cosmos. Zhang Zai’s horizontal expansion of family, as the whole cosmos beyond both a biological family and an exclusive anthropocentrism, deconstructs the pseudo-biological boundaries and patriarchal obstacles of “family” conceived of as an ecological model of sustainable living that overcomes the pitfalls and limitations of a narrowly humanistic orientation of a certain brand of environmental ethics.

Confucianism emphasizes ren (仁, humanheartedness) and confirms that every individual would feel sympathetic care when others are suffering (惻隱之心 cè yǐn zhī xīn)—such spontaneous and immediate empathic feelings are one of four sprouts, according to Mengzi. For Mengzi, the heart-mind’s endorsement of all virtues is based on sympathetic caring. When a child is about to fall into a well, regardless of familial relationality, as a human person one should immediately rescue the child due to their care for this life. Mengzi asks us to suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: anyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—and not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among one’s neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries (Mengzi 2A6; Van Norden 2008). Given Mengzi’s notion of compassion, all humans feel compassion for the suffering of other humans and animals, at least on some occasions, and this is a manifestation of ren (仁). In order to become genuinely virtuous, a person must extend one’s nascent virtuous inclinations. Care should go beyond biological ties and profitable relations.


Asma and Gabriel point out that religious experiences of the transcendent have some emotional content, as William James (1982, 380-381) suggests, four characteristics of mystical experiences: ineffability, wisdom, mystery, and transience. The authors argue that these spiritual emotions are real, that they are not reducible to simpler states, and that they deserve better attention in future evolutionary studies (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 307). In chapter 9, “Religion, Mythology, and Art,” the authors talk about fear and transcendent forces. The authors categorize art and religion under cultivated, unique, spiritual emotions like awe, wonder, and transcendence. This exciting chapter moves onto a comparative analysis by mentioning Buddhist teachings of emptiness (sunyata) and nothingness, talking about the oceanic experience of Atman/Brahman in Hindu tradition and chaos/void, and comparing the Chinese notion of Tian (heavens) and an Abrahamic monotheistic god. However, the comparisons in some contexts were somewhat too hasty. Buddhist sunyata, Hindu Atman/Brahmann, and Chinese Tiānmìng are rather quickly dealt with. Without any deeper explanation, one worries that the central concepts of those major Asian traditions might be reduced by some readers to a simple parallelism with Western theological concepts, as evolutionarily equivalent concepts.

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For instance, Asma and Gabriel quote Robert Bellah: “The unitive event, then, is a kind of ground zero with respect to religious representations. Christian negative theology and the Buddhist teaching of emptiness (sunyata) attempt to express this paradoxically by speaking of nothingness, the void, silence, or emptiness” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 305). It is surprising that the authors lack references to one of the most important concepts in Buddhism and to non-Western thought for this comparison. They only rely upon a few lines of quotes from an American sociologist’s work on religions, without any explanation of the term sunyata, and why Christian negative theology and sunyata are comparable.

Much earlier than Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011), Masao Abe in his essay, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” in Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (Cobb and Ives 1990), compares Christ’s kenosis (emptying) and sunyata (openness/emptying in Buddhism) as a ground/great zero event. Zero is not nothing; it is an idea pregnant with meaning and utility in mathematical convention. Yet zero as an idea is relational, and therefore has no cause. If God is an emptying and the trinity is zero, then both are empty without cause and are conventionally real, not absolutely real. Abe makes a connection between love and pain/suffering of God in his soteriology, which harmonizes well with the Whiteheadian God of feelings who suffers with the world as the poet of the world: “God is God, not because God had the Son of God take a human form and be sacrificed while God remained God, but because God is a suffering God, a self-sacrificial God through total kenosis” (Abe 1990, 16; italics added for emphasis). For Abe, kenosis is God’s will and that the original nature of God is love. Through kenosis, God exemplifies the emptiness of emptiness itself. Abe expresses this by saying, “Accordingly, concerning faith in God, it must be said: God is not God [. . .]; precisely because God is not a self-affirmative God, God is truly a God of love [. . .]” (Abe 1990, 16). Abe seeks to communicate the “validity and significance of religion” (Abe 1990, 4).

Furthermore, Asma and Gabriel state that, “Before modern law, God was the ultimate insurance against the unchecked tyrant—and the Chinese notion of the Mandate of Heaven (tiānmìng) did the same normative work in the Warring States period” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 308; italics added for emphasis). It is problematic to make this simple comparison between the Western monotheistic God and Chinese notions of Tian for a number of reasons. The concept of Tian is a pluralistic, and even radically democratic, concept in a way that the idea of God in mainstream, Western monotheism cannot accommodate. For example, the Confucian scholar Mengzi justifies replacement of inhumane rulers. Mengzi encourages the king to extend his compassion to his own subjects who suffer due to the ruler’s wars of conquest and exorbitant taxation. When a feudal lord endangers the altars of the gods of earth and grain, they should be replaced in accordance with the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (天命 Tian Ming). For Mengzi, given his humanistic politics, the people (民 min) are of supreme importance; the altars of the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. So, at least as a religious signifier, Tian is not monarchical but requires a more participatory co-creative understanding. And this sense of the Confucian heavens (nature naturing) might actually offer many insights for the authors, going forward, in thinking about how emotions are canalized in experience via evolutionary strategies for achieving optimal symbiosis and cultural harmony.

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Abe, Masao. 1990. "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata." In The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversion, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. and Christopher Ives, 3-68. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Asma, Stephen T., and Rami Gabriel. 2019. The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard University Press.

Chan, Wingtsit. 1963. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cobb, John B., Jr., and Christopher Ives, eds. 1990. The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publications.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In A Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ho, Wan-Li. 2016. Ecofamilism: Women, Religion, and Environmental Protection in Taiwan. St. Petersburg, FL: Three Pines Press.

James, William. 1982. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. Edited by Martin E. Marty. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

Noddings, Nel. 1984. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Seok, Bongrae. 2013. Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy. Plymouth, MA: Lexington Books.

Van Norden, Bryan, trans. 2008. Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

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Jea Sophia Oh© 2019.

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