Sunday, November 18, 2007

Critical Values

It is sometimes assumed, at least in popular discourse, that if different groups have different ways of doing things, they must all be equally good ("valid"). Consequently, if some way of doing things can be associated with one group in particular -- if it's categorizable as "Western", say, or "male" -- then there is no reason for anybody else to care about it. Each community has its own values and practices, immune from criticism or improvement. The only universal principle is that one must not judge others.

This is silly, though of course there are reasonable sentiments in the vicinity. One should not pre-judge others. (But that needn't disqualify considered judgment.) A practice should not be dismissed because it is non-Western, or whatever. That is no reason. (But that doesn't preclude there being other, legitimate reasons to criticize a practice that happens to be common among some minority group.) We should not force our views on others. (But such tolerance is perfectly consistent with vocal, reasoned disagreement / criticism.)

Note that it is not a priori that everyone is living equally well. It's entirely possible that some ways of life are better -- more conducive to human flourishing, "meaningfulness", and other important values -- than others. So it's worth trying to discern which are which. (Though of course we must go about this with the humility appropriate to fallible agents seeking facts that lie beyond our mere subjective opinions. And, epistemic virtues aside, there's no need to be a jerk about it.) As with anything else, the way to pursue this inquiry is through rational thought, and reasoned discussions with those who believe differently from us.

It is possible for us to learn from one other, if we are not afraid to voice our disagreements and discuss them reasonably. It would be a better world, I think, if this was more widely accepted. But if you disagree, do feel free to criticize and tell me why.


  1. I say, "It's better to wear wool sweaters." I go on to explain why I believe it to be better, how I came to believe this, why I continue to believe this, and why I think you should change your mind. But you still disagree, you still prefer cotton; what then? Is the world as a whole better, even if the other won't submit to what I believe is a condition for its betterment? Or do you expect someone's mind to change? If the answer to that last is yes, then I still think there is some prejudice involved that somehow alters 'considered judgment'. The question is what prejudice?

  2. It may be slightly muddled point I'm trying to make, but it seems to me that there's a unifying stance behind your position on the relevance of science for philosophy and your position on the relevance of "cultural perspective" for rational thinking.

    In both cases you seem to suggest that a weakness of our imagination may at most hinder us slightly, but never truly make for insurmountable walls. In the case of science this applies to our supposed inability to properly consider the philosophical implications of the conceivability of certain possibilities before we encounter them as actual, and in the case of "multiculturalism" it applies to our supposed inability to detach ourselves from antecedent beliefs and norms passed on to us through our culture and consider them as if encountered for the first time.

    My question is, emmm, isn't this an empirical matter? Or, more precisely, a historical matter? There seems to be overwhelmingly strong evidence that persons of great rational powers repeatedly failed on both counts throughout human history. This might be taken to be good evidence that we should be at least slightly suspicious of our own chances for transcending those limitations unaided by empirical discoveries or by an intentionally extra-critical stance towards the intellectual and normative heritage of our culture.

  3. When people say such things what they often intend to do is not dismiss the Western or male way but to remind the interlocutor that the custom or value in question is not the only way of doing things. So people often speak of customs/values as if they’re the only right (possible) way to do things, that they’re the absolute standard, when it’s often just a cultural tradition of the West, for example. In my experience the person who calls people out on such views does not intend to put down the dominant way (Western or male value) or custom in question, but only to put it into perspective. And if the point needs to be made, it is important to point out that sometimes the dominant way is not dominant because the practice is intrinsically superior to the alternatives, but because of historical pressures.

  4. Isa - if the dominant practice is not actually superior then it's important to recognize this, I couldn't agree more. After this has been determined (by considering the issues on their merits), we may be left wondering how society could have gone so wrong -- at which point "historical pressures" may provide the needed explanation. But it would be a genetic fallacy to assume from the start that a practice is not intrinsically superior just because it's historically Western/male/whatever.

    I'm worried about your conflation of "right" and "possible", though. The traditionalist is well aware that there are other possible "ways of doing things", but they think those other ways are worse. So there's no need to remind them that other views exist. They know that already. The relevant question is instead whether the alternatives are any good.

    To illustrate everything I'm complaining about, consider the ambiguity of your phrase "just a cultural tradition of the West". One begins with the purely empirical (value-neutral) claim that it is a tradition originating "just" in the West. And then one slips to the normative conclusion that the practice is "just" of cultural significance, not objectively justified. But this is a total non-sequitur. It's possible that a tradition that is found only in the West ought to be followed universally (because Westerners were lucky enough to happen upon an objectively superior practice). These are two very different claims!

  5. Jared - I don't get it, why is it prejudicial to expect that when two people disagree over some matter of (normative) fact, argument may lead one or other (hopefully, whoever's belief was the least justified) to change their mind?

    (Not every dispute is immediately resolved so successfully, of course. But arguments - the marketplace of ideas - can make a difference. It's how we as a society make progress in the long run.)

    Peli - thanks, that's really interesting. There's definitely unity in my views here, but I'd put it slightly differently. I'm actually quite willing to grant you the empirical claims. Maybe we should, for pragmatic reasons, pay more attention to science and to other cultures. Cognitive flaws may hinder humans greatly -- as you say, it's an empirical matter. But, you know, I'm not much interested in empirical matters. I'm addressing the questions of principle: whether a rational agent could possibly discern philosophical truths a priori; or whether local cultural products could have universal import.

    I have nothing against pragmatists in either case. My complaints are against those who make more sweeping (extra-epistemic) claims.

  6. "But it would be a genetic fallacy to assume from the start that a practice is not intrinsically superior just because it's historically Western/male/whatever."


    I think we can agree that ultimately which practice is superior is not the point, but that we shouldn't assume a practice is or is not superior on the basis of arbitrary or irrelevant factors. The difficult question is whether people are making the genetic fallacy there by saying "it's just the American/male/Western way" or rather that they mean by it simply that it being the X way doesn't make it better. Maybe it varies case by case. Here's an example where the person is not committing the fallacy by making the type of statement in question. This will also explain why I added "only possible way". It's an American custom to move out of your parents' house once you graduate from college, but I know that this is not so in many other cultures. First of all a lot of Americans don't know that it's not a universal thing, so if you said "that's just the way we Americans do it" you could simply mean "such a practice is not the only possible norm" in which case you're not committing the fallacy. You could also mean "just because WE do it that way it doesn't mean that's the best way (or the "ideal" way)". Those are the "possible / right" interpretations. Anyway the person is surely not implying that there's no objective justification for such a practice, and in fact here the objective justification is a matter of common knowledge.

    The other side of the story (your side, namely) is that there are those cases when statements of the type do commit the fallacy. It's hard for me to think of a concrete example but I think I have an idea what you're talking about. It's an interesting intellectual point to make that such fallacies occur, since they are unusual (as compared to the opposite kind of mistake, that is assuming that dominant means better).

  7. Hi Richard,

    Just continuing on the commentary made here. Frankly, I was a little reluctant in pushing that case I made because, as you've pointed out, it contained very few detail. But I thought it would tease a response from you none the less.

    Now, I reckon the claim "one must not judge others" needs a little clarification. Perhaps it should be: one must not judge others with respect to ... .

    To me there seem to be two different issues here:

    1. Measuring values, i.e., whether one way of life is better than another,

    2. and the question of substantive needs, i.e., what human beings need to flourish.

    I certainly think that we can reach some elementary consensus with respect to (2). We can judge governments -- I see it as a public policy related issue here -- in terms of guaranteeing some substantive freedoms. Re freedom, I like
    Amartya Sen's
    list of what he calls "instrumental" freedoms. But I have to say that with respect to (1) I'm pessimistic.

    With (2) the aim is to evaluate whether policies/practices are "conducive" to human flourishing, that is, whether citizens are allowed to pursue what they deem valuable; whether the facilities with which they can pursue their ends are available. But with (1) our aim is a little bit more specific, that is, to determine which kind of flourishing is the better sort. I'm just not sure that this is direction we ought to take. But of course you can ask, don't you need to know what constitutes flourishing before designing the policies? My answer is, not necessarily. I believe that we can provide some general means (political and economic leverage perhaps) that will allow people to develop and gain the specific means to further their specific causes.

    I hope I'm making sense here. I feel as if I'm going a bit vague. But really, all in all I think your answer to my comment is fair enough.


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