Our disintegrating cultural traditions

The moral centre travels. I was taken by a series of interesting comments by Roger on this post on culture bound is culture blind. I find the world looking ever darker because many of the cultural traditions which have held us together until now are disintegrating. This was the first of his comments.

There are two basic philosophical arguments against the cultural relativism you appear to be espousing:

1. It practically denies the existence of truth and the possibility of knowing what is true, yet it presents itself as a truth. Therefore it is an internally incoherent and self-defeating proposition.

2. Despite cultural differences, there is enough empirical evidence for universal moral truths being known across cultures and the religions that inform them to posit a basic common moral ground between different cultures. That is why Christians, for example, find echoes of their moral law in other religions.

One could go on, but, in short, if the oppression of women is morally wrong in Australia it is morally wrong in Iran. What we need to define, though, is what constitutes oppression? It may not necessarily be what hard-line Western feminists conceive as oppression, for example (e.g. a marriage freely entered into).

Conservatism doesn’t ask me to figure out for myself the long-term truths of the answers my society has provided for me before I was born and will live on after me when I am gone. I do not even begin to believe that there is or even could be “empirical evidence for universal moral truths being known across cultures”. I don’t even think there are such moral truths that now exist in our own society between generations. You ask yourself if the same answers to lots of these issues would be given by a representative sample of Australian citizens born in 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990. Now try the same years with migrants. There will be some mash that will be the overall result, but I wouldn’t count on it being coherent nor will it reach any kind of consensus. Sure oppression of women is wrong everywhere, just what counts as “oppression” is also different everywhere. Try arranged marriages for a start and see how much consensus we can find across the world. Let me continue with his additional arguments – which I might add I largely agree with – to see whether there are any cultural factors involved in what he says:

Historically capitalism didn’t arise in a cultural vacuum. There were certain cultural pre-conditions for it to come into being and flourish; to name just a few: property rights, rule of law, freedom of association and free markets, what Hayek referred to as “spontaneous order”, though in truth there was nothing spontaneous about it. These pre-conditions first began to develop in a medieval Europe whose culture was Christian.

How did Christianity inform their development? Deep theological truths which formed the basis of the culture, such as that man is created in the image of God and thus bears certain inalienable rights, that the creation was ontologically distinct from its Creator and was thus a proper subject for study and later manipulation in the service of man’s needs, that time is linear and not cyclical and thus progress is possible and that man’s destiny is not constricted by the fatalism of the gods or the stars but he has a certain measure of free will at least in earthly matters. Eastern cultures certainly achieved some remarkable advances in science and technology, but lacking the order these pre-conditions created they could never give rise to the remarkable boon to humankind that is the capitalist movement of the last 700 years.

For the life of me I cannot see how the cultural bindings of our civilisation have not been crucial. Not everyone will have that same cultural inheritance that we have had as well as other inheritances that might make a difference in why we have achieved our economic success (which is obviously not the only form of success a culture can have). And then there is this:

I should have added that it is a very interesting question as to whether the modern adoption of elements of capitalism by Eastern cultures will lead to profound cultural changes in those cultures. I think we are indeed seeing evidence of such changes in some places. For example, the ability of the newly prosperous Chinese middle class to travel to Western countries as tourists or be educated here must inevitably have some negative impact upon the pact the Chinese Communist Party has made with its people to supply increasingly abundant material goods in exchange for the supine acceptance of their politically oppressive regime.

Another question, this time for the West, is whether once capitalism is completely severed from its ethical roots in Christianity it can continue to be a positive social force or instead becomes an agent of social disorder leading to the moral collapse of society. Democracy and capitalism are historically and culturally yoked together, but democracy can only thrive when the people are virtuous. In short, the very prosperity which capitalism has gifted us with may prove to be our downfall – the welfare culture is an example of this as is the related instability of the family unit.

If Christian ethics matter to our economic success, there is a fantastic amount of cultural inheritance we should recognise. But the world moves on. We are not our parents’ generation, nor that of our grandparents’ nor any other generation going back. A hundred years from now the ethic that will prevail where we happen to be right now is unknown to any of us. But this I can say with certainty, it will be profoundly different from what is found here today in the world in which we live.

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