Are Values Universal?

Writing at his blog The Maverick Philosopher, our friend Bill Vallicella gave our “What Now?” post a commendatory link. I thank him for that. Bill is a serious thinker — a highly trained expert in thinking itself, with a professional philosopher’s expertise in detecting and clearing away rubbish — and I’m always glad to have him “sign off” on something I’ve written. (It doesn’t always happen; he and I have had sharp disagreements on other topics over the years, particularly regarding what’s called “philosophy of mind”. But when it comes to political matters, we almost always agree.)

In his prior post, Bill reviews, with approval, Mark Steyn’s published comments on the Paris attacks. Again, he and I (or all three of us, I should say) are in broad agreement, except for one thing: Bill takes exception to Mr. Steyn’s understanding of the phrase “universal values”.

Mr. Steyn had said:

Among his other coy evasions, President Obama described tonight’s events as “an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share”.

But that’s not true, is it? He’s right that it’s an attack not just on Paris or France. What it is is an attack on the west, on the civilization that built the modern world – an attack on one portion of “humanity” by those who claim to speak for another portion of “humanity”. And these are not “universal values” but values that spring from a relatively narrow segment of humanity. They were kinda sorta “universal” when the great powers were willing to enforce them around the world and the colonial subjects of ramshackle backwaters such as Aden, Sudan and the North-West Frontier Province were at least obliged to pay lip service to them. But the European empires retreated from the world, and those “universal values” are utterly alien to large parts of the map today.

In response, Bill said this:

This is very good and needs to be said and endlessly repeated for the sake of self-enstupidated liberals, but I think Mr Steyn stumbles on one important point, and in a way that may give aid and comfort to relativism. The values of the West are universal values. They are not Western values or Caucasian values except per accidens. They are universal, not in that they are recognized by all, but in that they are valid for all. If a proposition is true, it is true for all including those who are unwilling or unable to recognize its truth. If a value is valid or binding or normative it is these things for all including those who are unwilling or unable to recognize its validity.

This is very important. There is no such thing as Western physics; there is just physics. There is no such distinction as that between German physics and Jewish physics any more than there is a distinction between Protestant and Catholic mathematics. There are Muslim mathematicians, but no Islamic mathematics. There are Arabic numerals but no Arabic numbers. If a mathematically competent Arab and a mathematically competent Roman do a sum they will get the same result despite the difference in their notations. When a Palestinian terrorist makes a bomb he relies on the same underlying science as does the Israeli surgeon who re-attaches a severed limb. There is no such thing as Soviet philology or Soviet biology. If Judeo-Christian values are valid and life-enhancing then they are Judeo-Christian only per accidens.

There is no contradiction in saying that salvation came from the Jews and that this salvation is salvation for all. “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” Odd, but possible.

The fact that the science of nature and the discernment of universal values “sprang from a relatively narrow segment of humanity” does not make them any less universal.

(Bill then gives Mr. Steyn some wiggle room: “In fairness to Steyn, however, he may be using using ‘universal values’ to mean ‘universally recognized values.'”)

It seems to me that Bill here does not distinguish sufficiently between truths and values. Truths, if true, are indeed universal, just as they are objective. Even if a truth is only a fact about a particular person or object — even if it is, for example, a truth about a person’s subjective experience — its truth is not subjective. (I may see green where you see red, but “Malcolm sees green” is just as true for you as it is for me.)

Values are different. They are inseparably bound to the entity whose values they are. Values manifest themselves as preferences, dispositions, affinities, and aversions.

Where do values come from? In general values represent some interest of their owner, and such interests range from such hard-wired preferences as biological survival and the survival of our offspring, to whether one roots for the Yankees or the Red Sox. In particular, many of the most important valuations humans make have a social context; in addition to valuing such obvious things as food, pleasure, comfort, sex, and shelter, humans tend to value those things that elevate their status in their group, and that help their group compete with other groups. Indeed, for creatures like us, social values can often trump more personal interests — because if your group is wiped out, you are too. Humans will make tremendous personal sacrifices both for the well-being of the group, and to attain and signal high status in whatever way it is acquired and displayed.

What this means is that different populations, isolated from one another over long periods and subject to different environmental pressures, may develop different strategies for improving their overall fitness, and different forms of social order. This will in turn manifest itself as variation in the valuations different groups assign to different rules and behaviors. According to their different traits and qualities, for example, some human groups may find strength in individual freedom, others in disciplined conformity. Some may fare better under democracy, while others need “strong-man” leadership. Some may value doubt, others belief. And so on.

(What’s the higher value? Liberty, or equality? Each comes, after all, at the expense of the other. You probably have an opinion. Is it universal?)

Let me put this another way: for a fish, a pre-eminent “value” is to be, at all times, fully immersed in water. This is not the case for a cat. Human groups may not differ from each other as much as fishes and cats do — but they differ enough, I think, that one group’s cherished value can be another’s damnable sin.

It is possible, of course, that in some objective sense there is one “optimal” set of human valuations, and that this world is a battle-royal in which all value-systems are to be tested, with the outcome yet to be determined. But is survival our only criterion? The Shakers placed high value on celibacy, and so became extinct. Does that mean their values are less “true” than those of fecund Taliban fundamentalists?

Different values, then, are simply a manifestation of the spectrum of human differences, of their different styles and interests. I prefer traditional Western values, but I think it is an unwarranted generalization — and a dangerous conceit — to imagine that they are universal. (They aren’t even universal any more over here, it seems.) They are simply the way that my people, my civilization, expresses itself and pursues its interests.

I should emphasize in the strongest possible terms that this is no brief for relativism, or multiculturalism: if values are not universal, and there is no absolute criterion by which to rank them (as the choice of such a criterion is itself a matter of valuations that will vary from population to population), then there is no reason that I should not choose the survival and well-being of my own civilization, on its own terms, to be among my highest values — and no reason I shouldn’t keep its values as my own, to cherish, preserve, and defend.

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21 Comments

  1. Epicaric says

    Well stated. Too much effort heretofore has been expended in the effort to justify immigration on economic grounds by its supporters (with a toxic brew of sophistry and calculated torturing of statistics), and to debunk such efforts on the part of its detractors. It is a distraction. A necessary distraction, perhaps, and sometimes welcomed by both supporters and detractors, in so much as contemporary discourse on the subject must navigate the treacherous waters of race. But it remains, nevertheless, a distraction from the question of culture and values. If tomorrow the capital gains tax were to rise or fall I would be indifferent, when faced simultaneously with the question of unassimilable immigration. A staunch defender and practitioner of my Second Ammendment rights, I routinely deny the now almost daily supplications from the NRA for donations, consciously sending these monies instead to organizations that work for reasonable reductions in immigration, and the enforcement and reform of our laws to that end. It is senseless to bicker over the placement of the deck chairs when an all-negating mass of ice is close, and closing, off our bow. I feel no sense of embarrassment in my chauvinism to choose the survival of my culture and civilization. I invite others to freely do the same, and wish them well.
    As a humorous aside, I have often thought of our Libertarian open-borders punters as Shakers. Theirs, perhaps more than any other political philosophy, is a product of our hardly universal values; and it will likely be one of the first to perish as our culture is transformed.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 12:10 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I feel no sense of embarrassment in my chauvinism to choose the survival of my culture and civilization.

    Exactly.

    I invite others to freely do the same, and wish them well.

    Or ill, as the case may be. The point is that they will do so too. It’s only natural.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    You might be very interested in philosopher Nicholas Rescher and his notion of “orientational pluralism,” which is what your post seems to be hinting at or leaning toward. I’ve blogged about Rescher in the context of religious pluralism; his ideas were appropriated by conservative religious thinker S. Mark Heim, who wanted to offer a conservative answer to religiously liberal thinker John Hick’s classic notion of “convergent pluralism” (i.e., all religious traditions are equally legitimate paths up the mountain to the same summit/fulfillment). Heim’s “divergent pluralism” is a deeper pluralism that doesn’t converge on any transcendent One, but Heim also affirms that it’s rational for anyone from a given perspective to view the world through the filter of his religious or philosophical position.

    One theme I harped on, back when I wrote often about religion and religious issues, was the idea that core religious notions and religious truth-claims are hegemonic in nature: what is declared or professed is automatically meant to apply to all. Christ didn’t die only for Christians’ sins: he died for everyone. Buddhist sunyata (emptiness) isn’t a metaphysical truth only for Buddhists: it’s an objective truth about the nature of reality. Shiva doesn’t exist merely for Saivites: he exists for, and is knowable by, us all.

    Heim’s pluralism relies on an analogy that’s similar to your fish/cat image above: he uses a “travel” analogy. Imagine that you’re in DC and you have to go to Alexandria, VA (my hometown), only 14 miles away. What’s the best, most expedient, most sensible/rational way to get there? Now imagine you’re in Bogota, Colombia, but you have to go to Oahu, Hawaii. The two paths are nothing alike in terms of their start and end points; they’re also nothing alike in terms of the means we use to reach each respective destination. True: these are both forms of travel, but to say that these two paths are therefore exactly alike is to ignore the fact that “mere details” cannot be swept aside in our rush to embrace abstract similarities: the details are, in fact, constitutive of each path and cannot be swept aside as if they were beneath consideration.

    Being enveloped in water makes sense for the fish; being surrounded by air makes sense for the cat. Taking a plane to Hawaii makes sense if you’re in Bogota; driving to Alexandria makes sense if you’re in DC. This is a sort of natural incommensurability (you can’t expect the cat to live and flourish under water) that Heim/Rescher’s pluralistic paradigm considers, but Hick’s convergent paradigm does not.

    I’m not saying I totally agree with either Heim or Hick, but there we are. Worldviews are rationally incommensurate and hegemonic by nature.

    All this has implications for Dr. Vallicella’s claims. We can speak of universal values because, from the perspective of anyone with any values at all, that person’s values are seen as universal. But this fails to solve the objective problem of whether one overriding set of values actually takes precedence over all the rest. Hick would say that one set does, in fact, take precedence, and it’s the set toward which we’re all converging (in his own way, Steven Pinker seems to acknowledge the possibility of a Platonic moral realism); Heim would say that it’s rational for everyone to think that his own value set is the one that takes precedence, and the best we can do is to acknowledge that other axiological perspectives are both possible and rational.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Excellent, Kevin. Thanks.

    Yes, I had Pinker (and Harris, et al.) in mind when I said “It is possible, of course, that in some objective sense there is one “optimal” set of human valuations…” One might include Rawls, too, in this.

    Where these ideas go wrong, I think, is that they under-appreciate the extent to which tastes may vary.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  5. Epicaric says

    My point, perhaps poorly expressed, is that we expend great effort in the struggles over the product of our civilization while denying ourselves the defense of that same civilization.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 12:28 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    That’s very concise, and very good.

    I also agree emphatically that economic arguments for immigration are given far too much attention. A nation is more than just a border enclosing an economy.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 12:56 am | Permalink
  7. JK says

    The ecclesiastic canon is not the same as is the canonicus.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 2:55 am | Permalink
  8. Musey says

    Last night the English football fans sang “La Marseillaise”, with fervour, spirit and huge feeling. Nationhood meant less than a shared history, and a huge sympathy for the French in the recent trouble.

    At the same time, a Holland/Turkey game had a minute of silence marred by booing and shouts of Alluah Akbar. Apologies for the spelling which is very likely to be wrong.

    It does illustrate though, that some feel that their barbarity is justified. ISIS is a cause to which they feel sympathy. They may be moderates and undoubtedly thay wouldn’t be about blowing up people but they are mighty slow to condemn this madness. Liberal and tolerant…they are not. Their values are different to ours. The most disturbing thing is that we still listen, but they don’t because they have already found the truth, and we’re the one’s who have to change.

    I don’t think so.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  9. Whitewall says

    “My point, perhaps poorly expressed, is that we expend great effort in the struggles over the product of our civilization while denying ourselves the defense of that same civilization.” Epicaric, that is what is now referred to as “virtue signaling”. It is the new flag of the “we can’t be wrong” western left.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  10. Musey, It seems to me that the West is conflicted about what its “values” even are, with half clinging to a particular set of traditional values and the other half diametrically opposed to those values, determined to redefine them. Our own proclaimed “universal values” aren’t agreed upon, even within Western civilization. The perfect example would be John Kerry’s meandering take on the difference he perceives between the Charlie Hebdo attack and this recent Paris attack. He found a rationale for the attack on Charlie Hebdo – basically asserting the cartoonists brought on the attack by offending Muslims with their cartoons, but in the Paris attack he bumbled around. This is a perfect example of a moral relativist floundering.

    Muslim society, due to strict enforcement of their societal values, allows no deviation and thus you have a society groomed to conform. They have only one clear-cut set of societal values and ruthlessly suppress any opposing views. The western determination to believe in Muslim “moderates” belies this reality completely. Even though most Muslims would not become terrorists, the overwhelming influence of the real powerbrokers – the Ulama, being the Imams and other recognized sharia experts, allow no deviations. The masses follow the dictates of the Ulama, whom are anything but “moderate”. Islamic law possesses no mechanism to alter established law and they use strict rules on abrogation, so any hope of a “reformation seems dangerously naïve. We in the West cheer the few voices of moderation, with El Sisi being the latest, to speak of reform of Islam, but the vast majority of Muslims give him no credence and will follow the Islamic leaders in calling him an apostate.

    The relentless indoctrination permeates every corner of their society, from cradle to grave, so in many ways they have a population much more unified in their value system than Western civilization’s diversity bean soup. Sure, you’ll see social media and social venues gestures like the French flag showing up everywhere, but when it comes to being committed to a purpose – not so much. Ours is the harder group to unify to a common purpose and therefore weaker, despite our overwhelming military superiority.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  11. Troy says

    There is no such thing as Western physics; there is just physics. There is no such distinction as that between German physics and Jewish physics any more than there is a distinction between Protestant and Catholic mathematics.

    Before I went to law school, I got my BS in Philosophy. Philosophy actually made law school hard. I had classes in critical thinking, logic, and how to spot fallacies. Philosophy was about using epistemology finding the truth. Philosophy was about finding the best premises to ground axiological deductions (values) Law school was about winning. One day in evidence class, I stood up and told the instructor that his argument ran afoul of the slippery slope fallacy. He pretty much mocked me and continued right on.

    In law school, you learn about “Legal Reasoning,” There is no more legal reasoning than, to use the argument above, German physics. There is only reasoning.

    And “legal reasoning” is how you get some of the absurd desicions from the Supreme Court. Raich: Intra = Inter. Kelo: Private=public. And in the recent King vs. Burwell where SCOTUS saved Obamacare, again, States=not States.

    And this legal reasoning is what has allowed SCOTUS to undermine, subvert the Constitution, and destroy from the inside this once great republic.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  12. Troy says

    Are Values Universal?

    Yes. For example, burning children as a spectator sport is wrong. It doesn’t matter which culture or time period you are in.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Troy,

    I do agree that most people, in perhaps every culture everywhere and everywhen, would agree that burning children as a spectator sport is wrong.

    I have two questions, though.

    First, if we assert that something is actually universal, does a counterexample refute the assertion? If ISIS holds it as a positive value, say, to torture children to advance their group’s cause, can we still say that not-torturing-children is a “universal” value? (Or must we then say that they are not, in some sense, “true Scotsmen”?)

    Second, even if we do not find any counterexamples to the universality of a particular value, does it follow that we may confidently assert that “values are universal”? Or can we only say, provisionally, that at least one value appears to be universal?

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Bill Keezer writes:

    I think Malcolm conflates the expression of values with the values themselves, just as Hume conflated the discovery or statement of law with the law itself.

    “Values are different. They are inseparably bound to the entity whose values they are. Values manifest themselves as preferences, dispositions, affinities, and aversions.”

    Malcolm then uses an argument from interests of the individual to support his claims. The only problem with that is that the individual is not living in a vacuum. He/she will express the values that provide the best survival whether she/he likes them or not. Thus the individual may have interests that he/she does not support, and values that are contrary to culture around her/him. Additionally, the values a person holds would have been inculcated by upbringing.

    Yes, “the entity whose values they are” might refer to an individual or a group. I’m something of a nominalist when it comes to this sort of thing, though, and tend to see values as something that can ultimately only be instantiated in individual people, with “group” values being the sum or average that one sees when one zooms out to the group, or cultural, level. Different groups will tend to converge upon different values — although, as the anthropologist Donald Brown noted, some values do indeed seem to be what he called “human universals”. (See a list of them here.)

    Bill K. also said:

    I think the values that are truly universal are the ones that improve humankind’s lot. As such the western world has a good hold on some of the values. Within the last few years, it would seem that other values have come into play, and the western world no longer provides improvement.

    Ay, there’s the rub. By what measure do we assess whether our “lot” has been improved? The values of the modern West — which, I must assert again, are a unique and contingent manifestation of the innate qualities of the people of the West who gave expression to them — have given us tremendous material benefits. But as Bill Keezer points out, the blessing is not an unalloyed one, and certain aspects of Western modernity — in particular, radical skepsis, loss of faith, multiculturalism, moral relativism, and the condemnation and rejection of all discriminations, including vitally necessary ones — may yet be our undoing.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  15. Musey says

    Libertybelle, I largely agree but where we part company, I think, is my belief that society can change. When faced with a common enemy we go back to basics, and long abandoned traditional values start to reassert their hold on our lives.

    There has been a startling change in the language that our “leaders” are using, there has been a slow but steady shift in the mindset of the average person that I speak to on a regular basis. Attitudes are hardening, and people are saying things, and articulating thoughts that they wouldn’t have, just a few months ago.

    I don’t think that these ISIS fools know their history. To my mind, they’ve miscalculated and failed to grasp that although our very easy comfortable lives have rendered us complacent: we can wake up.

    France is a wounded bear. It’s people have demanded concrete, decisive action, now. People are frightened but they are also enraged. Appeasement may still be the way of politicians but the ordinary man in the street has stopped believing in moderate Islam.

    Don’t under-estimate, or dismiss as tokenism the iconic buildings around the world which have been bathed in red, white and blue. If the English football fans, working-class, apolitical people in the main, will lustily sing the French anthem that is nearly a miracle. There is usually very little love lost between the two countries.

    In today’s post Malcolm mentions John Kerry’s speech where he compares the Charlie Hebdo attacks to the latest slaughter. I think his words were unfortunate and the comparison was in poor taste but I think what he meant was: the average person was horrified by Charlie Hebdo but they saw the victims as targeted. Journalists sticking their necks out and dying for a cause. The latest attack was indiscriminate and if it was directed at all, it was surely against the young. Now everybody knows that there is no place to hide.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Musey,

    Don’t under-estimate, or dismiss as tokenism the iconic buildings around the world which have been bathed in red, white and blue.

    But not our own damned White House. A big fancy rainbow when the Supreme Court ripped another chunk out of the Constitution, but nothing for this.

    Posted November 18, 2015 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
  17. Asher says

    I dispute that truth is any more universal than values.

    Also, second the recommendation for reading Nicholas Rescher

    Posted November 19, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    I dispute that truth is any more universal than values.

    You sure that’s true? You might have trouble persuading some people.

    Posted November 20, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  19. Bill Vallicella says

    Thanks, Malcolm. Response here: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2015/11/are-values-objective.html

    Posted November 22, 2015 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  20. Erik says

    For example, burning children as a spectator sport is wrong. It doesn’t matter which culture or time period you are in.

    First, if we assert that something is actually universal, does a counterexample refute the assertion? If ISIS holds it as a positive value, say, to torture children to advance their group’s cause

    For the record, the Phoenicians of Carthage burned child sacrifices to Moloch, so there’s your counterexample.

    And perhaps that was one of the reasons why Carthago delenda est.

    (edit: no idea why font is showing so large on this comment, sorry!)

    Posted November 23, 2015 at 3:42 am | Permalink
  21. Exfernal says

    As another counterexample, ancient Spartans were leaving their newborn deemed to be “unfit” to perish from the exposure to the elements. Was that custom one of the reasons for their success, or rather their demise?

    Posted November 23, 2015 at 8:34 am | Permalink