Thursday, 14 March 2013

The WEIRD story so far...

Before I move on with the WEIRD theme, I want to do a bit of summing up and pulling-together of threads.

I started out with a discussion of cultural relativism, imperialism and human rights. There, I highlighted the unsatisfactory clash between relativism and human rights - that is, that if we want to say there are universal human rights, then we must be prepared to condemn the cultures whose values disagree - but also the danger of imperialism, the danger of forcing values on a culture (or individual) which are grounded in our own assumptions rather than any kind of universal principle.

We can think of this second danger as a risk of oppression. The risk is that, for some definition of 'legitimate', we may prevent other people making legitimate choices simply because those choices make us uncomfortable and we find ourselves in positions of power. For example, a favourite question of moral philosophers is whether it's ever OK to stop someone doing, for pleasure, something that harms theirself and no-one else (my A-level teacher's example of this was a group of men who used to get together to nail their scrotums to things for masochistic pleasure, and I still cringe every time I type that sentence...). Do people have a right to seek pleasure at their own expense? What limits should we put on this, if any? This is too big and complicated a question for this post, though.

What I've been asking, throughout the series, is whether there are some values which can be upheld as human rights, or as universal in some other way - that is, are there any values which we can always say it's better to have, or at least worse to lack? One test (perhaps even the only test) that any such value must pass, then, is the test of oppression; we can think of this as the question 'Will this value, if universalised, restrict the choices of those on whom it is imposed in any unacceptable way?'

And I've gone on to argue that the quartet of WEIRD values (Education, Industrialisation, Richness/wealth and Democracy) pass this test, despite what we might otherwise think. Specifically, I showed that, properly construed, they could only increase freedom. It's not necessarily trivially true that an increase in actual freedom involves no oppression, but that's a question that I'll return to in another post. Here, in summary, are the arguments I've presented:

Education. I defined the essence of education as the ability to perceive the existence of multiple conflicting value systems (eg. political ideologies, religions etc.), combined with the ability to analyse these systems relative to one's own character. My claim, ultimately, is that without these two abilities, one cannot truly hold any value at all, since one's choice can only have come from chance, or indoctrination. A value-choice must be autonomous to count, and without taking a critical, multidimensional approach to such a choice, autonomy is blindfolded.

Industrialisation. I definied industrialisation as a kind of efficiency - the ability to do more with less effort. As such it cannot be other than a lifting of limits on choice. Efficiency is not always a major factor in value choices, but it always helps, and sometimes it is essential to a desirable outcome (as, for example, if you must choose which of two different charities, one for cancer research and the other for child poverty, to give a portion of your limited disposable income to - if you could earn and/or live more efficiently, you'd have a greater disposable income and be able to support both causes).

Richness. I defined wealth as means. That is, the means to implement some or all of one's value decisions. A value decision without action is empty and meaningless - it is action which forms the content of the decision. If you lack the means to act on a given value (for example, I am not in a position to afford any of the procedures which would give meaning to my assertion of extropian values), then you can hold that value in only the most attenuated way. To put it another way, poverty - the lack of means - is an oppressor (a theme to which I'll return). Greater personal means can never be a bad thing, though of course one can do more bad things with greater means, which brings us to...

Democracy. In many ways, the tricky one. Democracy does limit choices, by definition; it is about people reaching compromises between each other's desires, each giving up part of what they want. On the other hand, what they get in exchange, in theory, is freedom from having the choices of others imposed on them. Think of it like this: in true democracy, one freely agrees to limit one's own choices in exchange for everyone else doing the same, so that no-one actually forces a choice on anyone else (obviously, this is a highly idealised picture of human affairs, but this is a debate about principle, not practice).

Perhaps I've used these terms in slightly revisionary ways, though I hope I've justified my revisions in the individual posts; at least, I don't think my definitions are any worse than the conventional understandings. Going forward, I'll be looking at why this unifying theme of freedom and wider choice is important. I'll start by looking at what 'freedom' might actually mean.

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