Saturday, January 12, 2008

Another Form of Cultural Relativism

Are we a slave to our culture? Is our culture fixed? Are our cultural virtues and values right for us and only us? Is there no objective right and wrong inherent in human nature?

These questions were debated in Athens during the 4th century BC. The Greeks were aware that other cultures had different values. They asked what is true by nature and what is true by convention? The Sophists argued it is all relative and there are no objective truths. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle disagreed. Except for the last two centuries, the absolutist version of truth has dominated Western history.

Ethical truths, however, aren’t adopted by simple acts. Character is a lifetime achievement. One can’t jettison one’s character and be another person by a simple act of will. Character has to be cultivated. Culture – a character of a society – is also fixed at any given moment. It often takes generations to change a culture. Today, this truth is often forgotten.

John Kenneth Press, in his book Culturism, does an excellent job of describing the significance and intransigence of culture. Not everyone wants to be free as our President claims; indeed, many will fight against it with every fiber in their body. Others might find the idea appealing but they will readily give up the fight and submit. Facing the fact that culture limits the actions of those in another society is just facing the fact that the ability to act contrary to character is severely limited.

Press is right descriptively but what does he do with this knowledge? For Press, it is all convention. This is how people are and this is how people have to be, given their character and culture, therefore this is what is right for them. Good does not stem from human nature; it comes from cultural conventions and it is for the people of that culture. Each culture has a right to preserve their cultural identity.

I couldn’t’ disagree more. The human mind is man’s tool of survival. Cultivating the habits of character to grasp and understand reality – i.e. reason – is required for survival and flourishing. Reason, therefore, isn’t good by convention but required by our nature. Close you eyes, turn your mind off, and wish for the best; and you’ll die. Diminish your ability to understand the world around you and you’ll be engaging in a spiritually unhealthy practice that endangers your physical well being.

It is true that other cultures don’t hold reason in high regard. To the extent that they reject reason, implicitly or explicitly, they diminish their ability to deal with the challenges of life and in the long run suffer because of it. Just as physical health requires the achievement of certain values so does mental/spiritual health. The mind isn’t superfluous to one’s well being. Neither is one’s character.

Ironically, Press is advocating that we go against our core cultural values. Absolute truth, based on reality and knowable by human reason, is an idea that goes back to the Hellenic philosophers. But merely rejecting “our way” isn’t my complaint with this gentleman’s work. As he notes, we have an evolving culture. However, the question of how we should evolve should be answered with objective reality-based evidence. Our health, wealth, and survival depend on it.

We should be proud of the strengths of our culture but proud because they are objectively better and demonstrably so.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ali vs. Harris

Ayaan Hirsi Ali takes on Lee Harris and wins in the first round. In a new book Harris examines the West and declares that its main problem is its reliance on reason. Harris gives his reasons in a recent article on the conservative website, TCS Daily. Harris’ final paragraph sums it up:

“In a world that absurdly overrates the advantage of sheer brain power, no one wants to be seen as a member in good standing of the stupid party [as John Stuart Mill once called the British Conservative Party]. Yet stupidity has been and will always remain the best defense mechanism against the ordinary conman and the intellectual dreamer.”

Harris’ bizarre mental gymnastics leads to the above conclusion. Perhaps he’s strangling in his own rationalistic sophistry. Ayaan, flaws and all, still gets to the essence of reason: it is a process of grasping reality that is iterative, testable, and self-correcting.

“Enlightenment thinkers, preoccupied with both individual freedom and secular and limited government, argued that human reason is fallible. They understood that reason is more than just rational thought; it is also a process of trial and error, the ability to learn from past mistakes. The Enlightenment cannot be fully appreciated without a strong awareness of just how frail human reason is. That is why concepts like doubt and reflection are central to any form of decision-making based on reason. “

It is individualistic in both process and purpose.

“But what makes America unique, especially in contrast to Europe, is its resistance to the philosophy of Hegel with its concept of a unifying world spirit. It is the individual that matters most in the United States. And more generally, it is individuals who make cultures and who break them.” …

“Harris also fails to address the enemies of reason within the West: religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt against reason.”

“Both the Romantic movement and organized religion have contributed a great deal to the arts and to the spirituality of the Western mind, but they share a hostility to modernity. Moral and cultural relativism (and their popular manifestation, multiculturalism) are the hallmarks of the Romantics.”

Perfect? Perhaps not but she goes for the jugular. You have got to love her.

Update1: Ayaan is under constant threat from Islamists. Support her protection. (Hat Tip Jeff Perren)

Friday, January 04, 2008

The New Religion

Socialism is often described as a religion that replaces God with society. Socialism is passé; in concentrated form it has led to the deaths of over 150 million. Besides, socialism, as the word suggests, is too people-focused for the adherents of the newest form of transcendental experience. John Baden explains it here:

“All religions have a litany and the Greens have theirs. We are sinners who sully creation. Our materialism wrecks our planet. Things are bad and getting worse for (other) people want the wrong things. Damnation awaits and darkness is nigh. Repent and renounce now else the end is near. Global warming will ruin our lives and destroy creation.

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, told of his desire to go to the 'high temples' to 'worship with nature.' Joseph Sax, author of Mountains Without Handrails, wrote that he and his enlightened consorts are 'secular prophets, preaching a new message of salvation.' ...

Genesis tells us Noah built his ark for God would soon send a giant flood to cover the earth. This was deserved punishment for sinful ways. And Al Gore received a Nobel Prize for telling us a similar fate is coming via warmth rather than water. …

… modern secular environmentalism has become a religion; it's Calvinistic asceticism minus God.”