Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Cultural Superiority

I was once in an argument (let's not insult anyone by calling it a debate) about multiculturalism. I took the position that no culture was really any better than any other, whereas my opponent insisted that there were still barbaric cultures in the world.

I've almost changed my mind.

But let me clarify. I still think that human cultures are flawed - all of them. There are social norms in every culture which are defective and loathsome, no doubt. Do some cultures have more of them than others? Or, more accurately, is the sum total of barbarity greater in some cultures than others? From the perspective of a kind of moral accounting, in which evils are quantified on a cosmic scale, we could actually create such a score card. It would be a kind of anti-utilitarianism. Rather than trying to quantify maximum happiness or satisfaction of preferences, it would be quantifying barbarity or unhappiness or prevention of preferences. Immediately we're left wondering how to quantify various acts or attitudes. Should we rate them on a 1-10 scale? Multiply them by population sizes? The task would have the same troubles as survey research, and then some. It's not impossible, but it has flaws and perspective problems.

Another way of looking at it is (no surprise here) Kierkegaardian. For Kierkegaard, every effort of humanity to build something is always met by a divine "No!" No matter the intent, every human system is flawed and, to paraphrase Romans, "falls short of the glory of God." Whether it's the Danish state church, the Soviet State or the capitalist free market, each and every instance is another attempt by humanity to create a system. Systems always produce hierarchies and these hierarchies mediate access between people and from people to God. Kierkegaard's solution is to insist on the subjectivity of the individual who encounters God without the mediation of systems or hierarchies.

In Kierkegaard's view, it doesn't matter if we can create a moral score card of cultures. What matters is that we recognise that no matter how good those cultures are, they are always an impediment to salvation, as well as the very thing that we need to be saved from.
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