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Thursday, May 01, 2008

 

Are some cultures better than others?

The discussion in P&P about Iraq and what would bring greater success there got me thinking about a very basic question that many people don't consider when forming the foundation for a logical and sensical analysis--namely, can you say that some cultures are inferior?

I believe that unlike most of the major controversies or conflicts that dominate the agenda of our society today, the question of whether or not some cultures or nations are morally "better" than others is one with a very clear answer, so long as one strips it of its political correctness.  The notion sounds piggish and arrogant, simply something that an uneducated, overzealous right-wing American might say when the subject of, say, Africa or any other place in the world that is in relative shambles comes up.  Being the quasi-liberal that I am, I am by default tempted to dismiss any such notion as utter nonsense, because in the perspective of humanity taken from an anthropological standpoint, "morality" itself is merely an artificial, abstract construct that we as American society like to apply as some kind of universal to every other society by which to judge it.  I am tempted to say that no, it is not ever acceptable to assert that some cultures are morally better than others.  However, after much consideration, I have come to the conclusion that indeed yes, it is all right to make such an assertion, sparing all the other racial and other such ramifications for a separate set of controversies and discussions.

I guess the basis for my belief that it is acceptable to deem one culture morally better than others eventually works its way down to the definition of morality itself.  One needs an operational definition before one can even think about what is right nor not.  Is morality only an artificial construct?  On the surface, sure.  Things such as monogamous marriage (arguably) or not using "swear words" are indeed artificial constructs of Western society's morality.  Things such as exposed lower legs on girls, which are morally reprehensible in the Middle East, are morally acceptable here.  Many Moslems believe that we Americans are morally depraved because of such things.  If an American finds such an assertion to be ridiculous, than what would, say, an African tribesman think of an American accusing a practice of, say, female circumcision to be morally depraved?  Under this train of thought, the conclusion that might follow is obvious.

But are there some things about morality that are universal?  And is morality only abstract?  I believe it is neither of these.  I believe that the framework for any concept of morality must be based in something real.  Morality's intent as a set of concepts is to facilitate the maximization of relative pleasure and joy for the maximum number of people.  Think about it: take some of the things that pretty much no person would object to as not being morally wrong, like murder.  Having a code that demonizes murder as a "mortal sin" works to the greater good of everyone in a society.  I guess it is sort of like Locke's "Social Contract."  But what about something that is a little more shady, such as the unacceptability of, say, a swear word?  Well, in a sense, this is different.  Why should anyone think that what amounts to only a combination of letters and sounds is morally wrong?  My response to this would be, that it is not the letters and sounds that make the word morally wrong, obviously.  It is the ideas and attitude that such a word has come to be associated with.  Someone who chooses to use such a word frequently is someone who is choosing to express the meaning that we society have placed on the word consciously.   Because that meaning involves a negative attitude towards others and such, then the lack of morality in the world becomes valid.

My ultimate point is that regardless of the societal and cultural ramifications of "morality," I believe that there is at least a foundation of morality that is universal.  So long as this is true, then one can use the universality as an objective measure with which to assess societies.  Taking that as a tool, then I think the answer to the initial question becomes much more obvious.  A quick look at the world today will show that some countries are more successful than others, just from such objective measures of success as the UN Human Development Index, GDP, political freedom, etc.  Now I understand that these are not the only measures of success.  Bhutan, for instance, has declared that "GDH," or Gross National Happiness, is more important than GDP.  However, they are probably the most valid, most objective macro measures out there.  Countries with high GDP's, low infant death rates, low illiteracy, etc. seem to be the ones with the largest majority of people who are the happiest.  If that is true, then a strong correlation can be made: countries with Westernized cultures which believe in (and enforce) such concepts as freedom of speech, religion, property rights, contracts, etc. are the ones that are the most successful in the world.

With few exceptions all other countries, or the ones who fail to achieve those goals for one reason or another, are not as successful.  My conclusion, aside from any Christian or religions shade of context, is that some cultures are better than others, morally or otherwise.  And Western culture is one of the better ones, if not the best.  

Comments:
You don't need to make a moral or unscientific judgment when asking the question.

The question can be phrased, "What culture produces prosperity or wealth?"

If one was to overlay a map of wealth over a map of the world it would be unsurprising that these nations have roots in a specific culture.

As an anarcho-capitalist I say that African socialism is wrong. As an economist I would say that African socialism produces a poor society.
 
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