Friday, 18 January 2013

Making the world WEIRDer

(Education; Industrialisation; Riches; Democracy; Conclusion)

This is a topic that's been doing the rounds for a couple of years now, starting with this paper by Joe Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan. The WEIRD paper (as I'll be calling it henceforth) is originally about the predominant use of American undergraduates as a sample in psychological studies. It turns out that a vast majority of psychological studies are carried out on the people that psychology academics have to hand - to whit, their students.

The WEIRD paper claims that the assumption made by all this research, that undergraduates form a representative sample - that is, that things which are generally true of undergraduates can be expected to be generally true of everyone else - is misguided, and that in fact undergraduates are a very poor sample, due to being from a quite peculiar background - a background of being Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (hence, WEIRD, which may be set to become this generation's YUPpy or WASP).

Now, there are some legitimate questions over the psychological science involved in this paper; not so much the claim that undergrads make up too much of our psychological sample, but whether or not the WEIRD diagnosis is correct and whether it is as much (or as little) of a problem as the WEIRD team think. Those complaints are for psychologists and anthropologists, though, and I'm neither (this article is a good starting point - I particularly enjoy its suggestion that we replace WEIRDs with MYOPICS: Materialist, Young, self-Obsessed, Pleasure-seeking, Isolated, Consumerist, and Sedentary).

I'm more interested in a broader issue which has appeared in some commentary on the WEIRD paper, an issue which falls more squarely within my remit as a philosopher. Roughly put, some people have made an argument a bit like this:

- The WEIRD paper can be taken as alleging that the most powerful nations in the world (at least, pre-2008) share an unusual mindset, the WEIRD mindset.
- These nations have imposed their values, the values which come from the WEIRD mindset, on other nations.
- The cultures and values of other nations have been suppressed or otherwise damaged as a result.

The first of these claims by itself could be quite controversial even in the wake of the original WEIRD paper, but I have seen references to other research which has pointed in this direction (though the only thing I can lay hands on at short notice is a reference to this book by Ethan Watters), and I'm happy to accept the claim.

What we're talking about, of course, is cultural imperialism, and there is much more to the debate about cultural imperialism than the WEIRD paper. Certainly, the Western tradition of cultural imperialism (and it does seem to be a primarily Western tradition) has a great many evils to its name, both directly and indirectly - it goes back at least as far as the slave trade, encompasses the partitioning and statification of the third world, and remains an issue today in our handling of post-war Afghanistan and Iraq, to say nothing of the growing question of how we should deal with China's essentially non-democratic power system (and, indeed, whether we should take the nation's hierarchy into account at all in our dealings with them).

There is definitely, therefore, a worry here, one that Watters and anyone else like him is entirely right to examine. But there's also a possibility of overstating the danger and going too far in the opposite direction. If we try too strenuously to avoid cultural imperialism, we will end up with unrestricted cultural relativism - the doctrine that outsiders to a culture can pass no judgement at all on the values of that culture.

Stated as such, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with cultural relativism. It's certainly more palatable than some of the more condescending and clumsy acts of imperialism in the 21st century. But the philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas pointed out that relativism is incompatible with the doctrine of human rights. Basically, a 'human right' is, by definition, a universal value (at least, to all humans and human-like sentients). So if you want to say there are human rights, you must accept the principle of censuring cultures whose values conflict with what you identify as 'human rights'.

This is where we find perhaps the most serious danger of cultural imperialism - who, after all, should decide what is and isn't a human right? The deeply anglocentric UN? If the WEIRD research is right, these decisions have been made, from the first, by people not necessarily qualified to speak on such matters.

I posed this question to a philosophy seminar group I was teaching last term, and most of them expressed a preference for relativism over human rights, at least in terms of us being the ones to pick rights to prescribe for all of mankind.

However, when I re-phrased the question as "Is there a universal human right to life?" that preference more or less disappeared. Put more strongly, we could ask "Is respect for a cultural value ever so important that one should allow that value to lead to the death of a human being?" If you answer no (and, though this is a debate for another time, I believe one should), then you accept Habermas' point.

You may have realised by now (no kidding) that I'm no relativist. In fact, I am quite stringently against relativism, for a whole wealth of reasons. However, relating this specifically to the WEIRD research, what I want to present, over the course of the next few weeks, is an argument that the values identified by the WEIRD team - education, industrialisation, richness and democracy ('western' isn't a value in and of itself) - are actually, properly construed, very good things to be promoting in all circumstances.

I'm not saying that these values as currently practiced in Western society should be exported - I think we actually do a pretty shoddy job of some of them, especially democracy - but the essence of each value remains important, and, I will argue, universal. I do not intend to be a cultural imperialist speaking purely to cultures other than my own - I would rather regard myself as a cultural absolutist speaking to all cultures (and indeed, my claim to be just this will figure in several of my arguments).

The question of whether I am fit to make pronouncements of this kind is a legitimate one, but one I will deal with separately. I also intend to offer some arguments as to why being WEIRD may have had a part to play in creating the dominance of western culture to date.

All of that will have to wait for other posts, though, because this one has gone on long enough.

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