Saturday, May 14, 2005

Multiculturalism vs. Individual Rights

One of the trickier problems in liberal thought is how to reconcile individual rights with multiculturalism, given that many other cultures do not share our conception of individual rights. Suppose some other culture heavily restricts the freedom of women, forcing girl-children into arranged marriages, and barring them access to education, etc. Can we say that what they're doing is wrong? It certainly conflicts with our values, but as the relativist is wont to say, "who are we to judge?" On what basis are we to say that our cultural values are objectively superior to those of other cultures?

Before I answer that, I should highlight a related issue from my old post on multiplicity:
Some of my fellow lefties are fond of diversity, but they only see it at the macro level - they espouse "cultural diversity", yet ignore the diversity within cultures.

But let us suppose that the women are so well indoctrinated that they do not object to the patriarchal cultural practices. Even then, I think, we have the basis for saying that they are worse-off than they could have been. How? Well, it's a question of well-being, so perhaps one of my recent posts on the topic can be put to use here. I think that counterfactual considerations in particular (with a dash of global preferences) ought to do the trick.

That is, we compare Oppressed Mary with her counterpart in that possible world where she was raised in a more liberal society, and had the educational opportunities which allowed her to become a philosopher, or doctor, or whatever. We then compare the strength of their global preferences. If Mary's counterpart would be more strongly satisfied that she had lived a liberated rather than oppressed life (compared to the strength of Oppressed Mary's submissive preferences), then that gives us objective grounds for saying that Mary would have been better-off with that life. By raising her in an oppressive environment and stunting her individual growth, her backward culture has harmed Mary. That's not the judgment of some uppity white male - it's the judgment of Mary herself, across the possible worlds.

(I should note that this might just as well end up criticizing Western culture instead. Perhaps, for at least some of us, if we were raised in less materialistic cultures, we would have more strongly prefered that life to our actual one. Who knows?)


  1. Comparing your preference in two alternate worlds is rather like comparing the benefit to you or to me of eating a chocolate bar - its next to impossible to measure.

    However -unfortunatly, I think you would find the person in the opressed society would have the greater "happiness" position as long as they were not particularly cognisant of that opression. (I know many poepel will disagree but I think the major factor there is that they find the implications distasteful - but that is no evidence at all that they are not indeed true, actually it has some similarities to a flawed pascal's wager but maybe I will explain that later)

    Anyway It works in the same way that religious poeple tend to be happier than non religious people. If hte world is simpler and more logical peopel can be happier and maximise their own utility better.

    Of course this is where maybe we need to look at the whole system because the opression will create the potential for other problems.

  2. I agree with a lot of your premises, but am unconvinced by a model of theorised happiness as a valuation and validation of principles. Descriptively, it is possible that it carries some weight, but as a proscriptive system for choosing values, I feel that it falls short:
    A person existing within system A may not comprehend the worth of a very alien value system B. Likewise, a person in system B could not comprehend existence within A.
    Development of a self is nearly irreducibly complex (nature vs. nurture?). In order to say whether one would be happier in A or B, one must have experential knowledge of both - really, such a model posits the person making a decision in value system C, having experienced both A and B, and being able to compare them on equal terms.

    The question boils down to, I guess, can Liberated Mary ever feel how Oppressed Mary feels, and thereby make a decision as to whether Liberation or Oppression is superior? Can we, Doctor C, look at Mary A and Mary B and know whether A or B is more fulfilled?

    Sorry to ramble. I think I wound up stating my point incoherently, so it may not really be out there too well... again, I would say: descriptively, this may be how morality should be formed. Proscriptively, this appears weak.

    Also, consider: does Mary A, theoretical Mary B, or even most theoretical Mary C have enough information (or discretion) to really choose which alternative would be best for her? One could argue that it is precisely the fact that a person is constrained by cultural morality that allows them to train a moral sense (either parallel to or divergent from cultural values).

    Just some quick thoughts. Good post, though.

  3. Genius, our preferences need not track crude happiness. Mary might prefer to be informed and autonomous rather than blissfully ignorant.

    Jason, you're probably right about the ideal preference being an informed one. It does make the theory slightly trickier though. Can we imagine separating Mary's "true self" from any particular life/culture she may be embedded in, and give this Ideal Mary full knowledge, and then ask her which life she would prefer? If so, that could solve our problems nicely. But I'm not sure that any such a-cultural "true self" really exists. Which does pose some problems for my analysis, I guess.

  4. first what if you prefer apples to oranges oranges to pears but pears to apples? (I suggest that is surprisingly common)
    How can you convert it into utility?

    And if we define a person by their knowledge then a person with knowledge of two mary's situations would be actually a different person than either of the two marys. It would be a bettr but still not perfect measure. rather like hte government making decisions for hte plebs.

  5. I think that the "If" in bold is the central problem of this argument. If you assume that Mary will prefer what you think would be the better option then your argument becomes circular.

    In practice it is the diversity you refer to within cultures that we work with by supporting those women in Muslim countries, for example, working towards values that we agree with.

    I think that you are attempting to give a logical authority to value choices that is just not possible. At some point we just have to accept that there is no absolute justification for liberal values.

    God (and any other source of moral authority) is dead for everyone, including secular liberals.

  6. What counts as 'more strongly satisfied'? Is this a ratio? In other words, how do you take adaptive preferences into account?

    Also, you seem to be assuming quite a lot to compare Oppressed Mary to Liberal Mary. Liberal Mary is going to have an overwhelming probability of being a factory worker in the third world, remember. What're her chances of becoming a Lawyer? Next to nil. In order to run your test properly, we will need to compare the actual averages. Unless we assume that Mary is particularly gifted and lucky, which seems unjustified.

    With respect, I think your concept of welfare is pretty divorced from reality. Howabout we do some empirical tests of wellbeing? Our society has pretty high suicide rates, you know. Existential dilemma and depression kill many, not to mention the number of people that starve themselves to death and the number of children that get gunned down in their classrooms. Many such 'backward' societies that you refer to don't suffer from these kinds of diseases - at least not to the same degree.

    Also, you should be a bit more specific about the exact kinds of cultures you mean this comparison to compare to, because I don't think it is meaningful at all to compare our culture to the parts of the world that we have actually screwed over ourselves. If we have economic relations with them (i.e. if we put them in factories) then some of the benefit that you might accredit to 'liberal' society should really be accredited to substantive slavery.

  7. Genius, we'd have to exclude any incoherent desire subsets (e.g. the anti-transitive ones you describe).

    Sock Thief, see the comments in the linked post on 'counterfactual considerations'. Basically, I'm providing an account of what could make it true (or not) that imposing liberal values would be in an individual's best interests. Whether we can know this is another question entirely. My "big if" is purely hypothetical -- perhaps Mary would actually be better off sticking with her culture's values. That's no problem for my argument, which aims to provide a method for balancing cross-cultural values. I make no claims about what concrete results this method would yield.

    Patrick - as above, I'm happy to grant that Factory Mary could be worse off.

    (H.E. Baber [.pdf] argues that adaptive preferences don't really exist in a dispositional sense. The fox suppresses his desire for the grapes by telling himself that they're "sour". But if the grapes came within his reach, he'd want them again. So the preference is still there.)

    But yeah, to answer your first question, I just mean to compare the relative strengths of their preferences. (Taking structural position into account - see the post on global preferences.)

  8. The phemonenon of learned helplessness seems to suggest that it is possible to adapt your preferences, at least in some cases (learned helplessness mostly happens when you beat a dog for a few hours or in other such horrific cases, so I'm not totally sure that you could apply it to less extreme situations)

  9. Isn't that just an inability to act on (or assert) your preferences? Surely the helpless dog would still prefer not to be beaten!

  10. Do you think that dogs have preferences? :)

    Yea, but its not getting beaten that the dog adapts its preference about. The interesting thing isn't that the dog seeks getting beaten, but that even after the beating stops, it doesn't take the opportunity to get away. It just lies there - not even attempting to exercise the freedom that it had learnt not to value (at least in a dispositional sense). Its not exactly analogous - for one thing, getting beaten is pretty extreme and learned helplessness may not be a phenomenon that applies to milder cases - but it does give some reason to reconsider.

    Also, I'm not sure that Baber is really arguing against adaptive preferences. The fact that I could come to change my preferences in another situation doesnt change the fact that my preferences are adaptive. It reinforces that fact. Who knows, maybe you could argue that modern consumerism is a form of adaptive preferences. If all people can get is material wealth, then I guess they will take that rather than nothing. :)


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