Saturday, December 31, 2011

Western Values?

[Originally published by me on another blog in March 2008]
In 2006-2007 there was considerable debate in the EU about whether Turkey belonged in this ever-expanding union. One frequently heard objection was that they didn't have Western values.

Anti-muslim. Lacking Western values is most certainly a code word for saying that they were Muslims, and Muslims are not welcome. The churches immediately grasped this opportunity to say that they represented Western values (ie, were anti-Muslim), but it's only by rejecting the Church's values during the Enlightenment that the West came into its own, so enthusiasm for their offer was short-lived.

Impossible task. But I found myself pondering what these so-called Western values might be. And in no time I was tied up in the contradictions of Utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest number), Social Contract Theory (what makes for the best society), Kantianism (a variation of do unto others), Cultural Relativism (I'm OK, you're OK), Social Justice vs Capitalism, ... Let me out of here!

Seven Pillars of Western Wisdom. A year later a review of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani in the 9 Feb 2008 Economist caught my eye. The author resents Western power, but nonetheless recommends the East build upon the "seven pillars of Western wisdom", which he gives as the following:
  • Free-market economics
  • Science and technology
  • Meritocracy
  • Pragmatism
  • A culture of peace
  • The rule of law
  • Education

View from the East. Having lived and traveled in decidedly non-Western cultures where values are really different, my first reaction was that this list captured many of the ideals of Western culture. But what's "culture of peace" doing there? This list is really about what a South-Asian admires. Perhaps the endless India-Pakistan Kashmir war/tensions and Sri Lankan rebellion are the source of the peace value. And maybe "pragmatism" is a reaction to the religious and Marxist ideology that have stifled India's growth, "meritocracy" the reaction to the caste system, etc. The inverse of this list provides an unintended, but fascinating, look at problems in the East. And it's also revealing for what's not there. It would be interesting to pursue this line, but let's get back to Western values.

What about... Some things are obviously missing, or perhaps they are subsumed in his existing categories. Here are some that come to mind immediately:
  • Democracy
  • Equality (gender, race, class, ...)
  • Social justice.
  • Personal freedom.
  • Promoting individual excellence.
  • Environment
The contradiction of tolerance. A wishy-washy, culturally-relativistic tolerance has become popular, but it is in fact the antithesis of having values. For example, it should be permissible to say that Islam, Judaism, or even Catholicism are bad when they don't grant equality to women. This is politically incorrect, and consequently prevents any really serious discussion of cultural values.

Lower your expectations. Many of the above categories have inherent conflicts, so a consistent list is impossible. For example, "Do not kill" sounds good, but then there are all those exceptions (self defense, war, euthanasia, ...). Nonetheless, I found his list to be a good, thought provoking, starting point.

Dawning of a new Dark Age?

The title and inspiration for this end of 2011 post is taken directly from an editorial by Stephen Dick, Dawning of a new Dark Age.   It seemed like a nice beginning for writing down various dystopic topics I've been mulling over for some time.

My view, and apparently his too, is that civilization doesn't seem to be progressing "forward" as most people would interpret it.  How much my view is influenced by living in the US, a nation that seems to be slipping, is unclear.   Perhaps if I were living in China or Brazil, countries on the upswing, my thinking would be much more upbeat.

What are these signs of a new Dark Age?

  • Move toward law of God instead of government.
  • Loss of rights in the name of security.
  • Dysfunctional government.
  • Government corruption.
  • Rights of the rich over the poor.
  • Belief over facts.
  • Us vs them.
  • Sound bites instead of substance.
  • Opinion instead of facts.
  • Lower educational performance.
  • Wider access to fire arms.
  • Environmental issues.
  • Etc.
These and a not of other issues are bothering me, and I'm hoping to write about them.   Why?  So that I can be more clear about them myself, and perhaps to even see that things are improving despite the appearances.