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.