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January 02, 2009


Hi Namit,

That liberalism is a legitimate goal for public policy is without doubt. The keyword is "a legitimate goal"-- whether it is "the legitimate goal" is quite another matter. The problem with Crowder is that he is arguing for the universal application of his own tradition (Western liberalism), basing his arguments firmly in the philosophical principles of the tradition itself. So, it is not surprising to me that he he comes to the conclusion that he does.

Compare Crowder's reasoning, for example, to this article from Foreign Affairs by Kim Dae Jung who bases his conclusions on reasoning that is derived from outside the tradition of liberalism.

This is really to say that in my opinion, the Australian philosopher has taken what to me is the ultimately least interesting path: he is arguing for the superiority of his own tradition based on reasons inherent to that same tradition. So, in that way, his conclusions are logical and yet very un-interesting.... does that make sense? It remains interesting to me how few thinkers ever posit aspects of other traditions as being universal or worthy of emulation. The Japanese tradition (cultural practices, traditional philosophy) has so much in it that I think could serve as an exemplary model... but again this is based on practical concerns not necessarily to say that they are universal truths....

Did you notice Chris Panza's latest post Embracing your inner elitist I left a comment there with regard to my experiences in Japan...

Another related point of concern is that Crowder's conclusions are strongly dependent on a Western-style emphasis on deriving universal principles from rational truths as well as on a stress on a kind of Kantian autonomy.... compare to animal fingens etc.

Hi Peony,

A couple of clarifications first (did you read Crowder's essay, or just my post?):

1. I hear Crowder arguing that certain basic elements (like personal autonomy) emphasized by liberalism are not only "a legitimate goal" of public policy, but also "a legitimate universal goal" of public policy. He derives this from the empirical fact of value pluralism. Of course, there are additional legitimate goals too, which can be particular and they all need to be balanced with each other.

2. I don't hear Crowder arguing for democracy or specific human rights or his "own tradition" (as, say, the US state department might, or Daniel A. Bell's willfully obtuse American, Demo, might). His philosophical point appears to me that personal autonomy, or human agency, is required to make sense of the value conflicts built into life everywhere, and that policies that see merit in personal autonomy/agency are universally better — whether in the life of a peasant woman in India, or a factory worker in Peru. Personal autonomy embedded in other cultural attitudes may well lead to entirely divergent choices, and that's fine. This is not a suggestion that civilizations can, or need to, converge; it's saying that organic cultural flowering springs from and requires personal autonomy (and other variables). Everywhere.

I really want to challenge your assumptions on another front: that all arguments about universalism are condemned to remain relevant only to the particular tradition of the thinker. Effectively, what you are saying is that you do not believe in any universal human values (because such candidates are invariably identified by a thinker from a particular tradition). Is this true? If so, this sounds rather indistinguishable from John Gray's cultural relativism. (Crowder addresses this quite well — cultures and traditions are not incomprehensible to outsiders, or wholly disconnected entities; we all share a common humanity; there are many values in competition even within a culture; etc.).

On "the Australian philosopher" taking the "least interesting path": It may not be interesting to you, but it can still be true. Are you not indulging here in a bit of reflexive anti-Westernism? Nor are Kim Dae Jung's words truer just because they allegedly come from outside the tradition of liberalism (this too can be questioned — is his intellectual tradition as distinct/separate from liberalism as you imagine? After all, he is writing in Foreign Affairs magazine and using historical research, cross-cultural comparisons, and analytical arguments, as do so many western liberals). Again, is it not risky to undervalue or overvalue any argument based on the nationality of the thinker?

On your final para, it is one thing to say that reason has limits and that reason can be misused — I agree with that. It is a whole different thing to distrust reason entirely. Would you not say that it is the best tool we have? Not perfect, but still the best? I would also not associate rational argumentation and personal autonomy just with the West. As an avid reader of history and globe trotter, I have seen them expressed in all human civilizations, past and present, to varying degrees. That western liberalism has emphasized and relied on them more heavily should not take away from those basic elements of liberalism that have universal validity. No?

Hi Namit,

1) Epistemology: a) That humans share a vast (incalculable) number of shared traits (human instincts, human emotions, various values in common) to the extent that I am quite sure-- as an avid reader of history and globe trotter myself-- that our shared humanity is quite simply undeniable. If our genetics are 99% identical-- our **shared** human traits are probably pretty close to that.... However, b) I do not hold to the concept of universal values or philosophical principles as Truth. These (a & b) are very different statements .

I am just finishing up a post on Plato and Mencius and my take on Mencius is very close to my own views on human knowledge-- so if you have time check my place later, ok?

2) Western tradition: The philosophical tradition of the West has historically placed a tremendous emphasis on rationality (to posit truths derived from reason) as well as autonomy (Kant). To say that the West has placed a huge emphasis on this (compared to other philosophical traditions) does not mean that other philosophical traditions are devoid of these strains, nor does it mean that Western philosophy is composed solely of these characteristics--it is only to say that they have been primary.

Like if I said strawberries are very sweet, this does not imply that all other fruit is not sweet; just that strawberries have as their main characteristic sweetness. In the same way, if I say strawberries are sweet, this does not mean that strawberries are nothing but sweet.

If you notice the Australian philosopher and Kim base their arguments on very different epistemological foundations (Crowder= universal a priori truths; Kim= cultural context and historical reality)

3) And as you are well aware I am sure-- I hardly distrust reason. My last paragraph was not about reason per se-- I say there are no limits to reason.

see: http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/oso/public/content/philosophy/9780198239222/toc.html

> "I do not hold to the concept of universal values ... as Truth."

Very interesting. You agree that there are some universal human values, but you do not regard them as "Truth". Let me understand this better. I'm sure you'll agree that any rational system for devising a human rights regime, national or international, should pay attention to at least our universal human values. I think your point about "Truth" is that the weight given to one universal value vs. another varies a lot across regional cultures, right? So we can't justifiably claim that a single value is similarly prized everywhere, and consequently, we cannot justifiably insist on any single right to be similarly respected across all regional cultures. Correct me if this interpretation is off track.

If so, we are then back to your question: on what authority can we say that some universal values are more fundamental everywhere? If my interpretation above is correct, you obviously don't think the voice of humanity offers any clues worth pursuing (since how that voice is heard is invariably influenced by the listener's ears), and attempts like Crowder's are doomed before they even start. I would accord your view more rational consistency if the "listener's ears" were not identified with cultures alone but more atomically, down to each individual. After all, our ears are conditioned also by other human divisions: race, class, gender, economics, education, age, religion, experiences, etc. Your privileging of a regional "culture"—as if it were a harmonious, hermetically sealed entity that outsiders cannot relate to—over these other categories is just another ideological/political bias, no? Why stop at cultural relativism? Why not go all the way down to the individual?

Shifting gears, do you really think Crowder relies on "universal a priori truths"? His account looks at everyday experiences of people around the world and asks: what can we say about the values of people? The answer: people have many legitimate values and there are often no solid grounds for ranking their choices. What public policy safeguards should we consider in light of this truth? Maybe those that further/do not impair people's ability to choose? In reaching here, how has Crowder relied on universal a priori truths? In fact, what struck me about his essay is that it relies on empirical facts and reasoning, not a priori truths, and that it is so free of the kind of abstractions one finds in, say, one of your favorite philosophers, Heidegger. In fact, so abstract was he that he completely failed to see the cultural context and local reality of the Nazis all around him. Is there a more dubious exemplary model of a thinking person, my friend?

I look forward to reading your Mencius post. Btw, like you, I too was unable to get through Gray's Straw Dogs. I liked this review by Eagleton.

Briefly-- and at last we are moving forward!!

1) I never said that I think the ethnicity of utterer is significant. Their particular and individual world view is what I find significant-- so that for me (and I think for Parag Khanna as well) is perhaps why Bell stands as an interesting thinker as he seems to be able to get outside of several worldviews and languages. I think more than anything, it comes down to the potentiality of linguistic ability perhaps?

2) I think you are right about Crowder-- I will re-read and email you.

3) Regarding Heidegger, you have it wrong (Heidegger was a die-hard phenomenlogist and was not abstract in the way you are hinting). At the same time, his Nazi associations and his entire lifestyle was one reason I decided not to study philosophy in grad school (and thereby switched to something else). This is an age-old issue but is Mozart's personal failings any reflection of his art? Is Picasso's? Is Heidegger's personal failings a reflection of his work? Are mine?

Philosophy is not religion.

But different cultures would answer to this question very, very differently and it is a question that I do not feel neutral about either.

Peony, take your time but I hope you will respond to my question about why you so strongly privilege regional cultures over other sub-cultures/groupings for your apparent relativism. Why not proceed down to individuals, as a good Heideggerean ought to?

For instance, does a young female peasant in Xinjiang have much less in common with her counterpart in Orissa than a balding university professor of classics in Beijing? Does a steel mill worker in Mumbai have much less in common with his counterpart in Jakarta than the chairman of Infosys? Does a Muslim tailor in Hyderabad have much less in common with his counterpart in Kuala Lumpur than a Hindu software developer in Chennai? And so on.

Hi Namit,

Actually, I am not sure I ever said that I prioritize regional culture over other influences when it comes to an individual's ethical orientation. I mean, just look at me and you. Both you and I go back and forth between cultures (both in terms of language and understandings of being)... and I think there are as many variations to the interplay of individual personality, cultural, familial, sub-group influences etc. We weren't really talking about that, were we? We were talking about normative ethics in terms of international standardizations-- those are really different topics. My hunch regarding the tailor in Hyrdabad, by the way is that the impact of language and local culture probably outweighs a lot... but who he has more in common with depends on so many factors, I wonder if anyone could say-- though I understand exactly what you are getting out-- and agree with you too.

PS: Regarding Heidegger, I am not sure he would necessary proceed down to individuals (in the same way as Camus or Sartre??) Particularly in terms of human intentionality, Heidegger "locates the norms governing intentionality not in the individual subject's representations but in social practices".... social practices are huge in Heidegger. but again, this is for individual Selfs and we weren't really talking about that but were talking about the possibility of objective, universal truths in ethics (specifically human rights).

Yes, we are indeed talking about normative ethics in terms of international standardizations. Your position tends to be that a western liberal cannot legitimately regard any part of his own wholly culturally derived ethics/values as normative for the rest, say, for the Chinese. Only "the Chinese" can choose what is right for them and "outsiders" to Chinese culture are not qualified enough to make pronouncements on their choices. Stop me here if this is not what you broadly argue, here and on other blogs.

This is what I'm questioning. Why is the boundary at the level of West-China and not more granular and more atomic down to the individual? Why do you not say that no single set of objective-universal truths work for all people, so China too cannot legitimately have a single set of human rights for itself? Why are you holding a regional cultural boundary as sacrosanct in terms of interference from outsiders? Who are "the Chinese", who are "the outsiders", and how (im)permeable is the boundary between them? It will help a lot if you offered your views on this.

And heeeere's a delightful one from Heidegger:
"those in the crossing must in the end know what is mistaken by all urging for intelligibility: that every thinking of being, all philosophy, can never be confirmed by 'facts,' i.e., by beings. Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy."

No Namit, that is not my position! I couldn't care less what "a Western liberal" thinks. Rather, my point is about 1) productive methods of collectively thinking about such things and 2) the ultimate validity of universal principles as truth in terms of ethics. And you are right China or India or the US could never have a blanket understanding to which everyone agrees about anything. But then we may as well take your beloved autonomous individual and ask, how can one person come to a concrete conclusion about anything given their various moods and inclinations?? I flip back and forth all the time (except about our friendship, of course!)

And who are the Chinese? The Chinese are composed of all the people who consider themselves Chinese (for whatever reason). I personally would make a strong claim for language and internalization of local social practices and norms. However-- that is merely personal opinion. And again, just like in any other country, China's domestic laws and policies will be just that: laws and governmental policies (never objective Truth).

PS: Namit, this conversation would have been so much easier if you had at least read Bell's book, you know! As punishment, I recommend nothing but Heidegger quotes for a week :)

We could read his new book on Confucianism later in the spring if you have time?

And one of the few quotes from the Hungtington book I ever agreed with:
(and this is only about the practical issues not even the ethical issues)

* Hypocrisy, double standards, and "but nots" are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle —— The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

I think I understand your position better than I summarized above. Don't punish me with Heidegger quotes, please! :-)

You brushed aside my central point by saying "China's domestic laws will be just that ..." Who is making these laws? As you know, I've raised this point before. "Is it reasonable to think of Chinese culture as a single entity and resisting all judgment in the name of a pluralism of world cultures? Aren't there many contending forces within Chinese society—struggles and sufferings and countless interplays of power and domination? Is there any reason to think that the present Chinese government is an organic expression of its people?" Well, enough said.

Some time ago, I was involved with a friend who is a central figure in championing the Right To Information Act (RTI) in India, which exists in some other countries too (Freedom of Information Act in the US). As part of a fundraising drive, I wrote this (extract from letter):

Taking on corruption in India requires vision, courage, and a bit of madness, all of which my friend AK has in ample measure. I especially admire his work on the Right to Information (RTI) Act. As you know, RTI is an elegant tool that gives to every citizen the power to fight public corruption. It is a major step towards making central, state, and local governance in India transparent and accountable. RTI combats the willful and cynical abuse of authority, power, and public trust, a human desire beyond all controversial ideologies. Few will disagree that such corruption feels like a slap on the face, even more so for the poor and the powerless.

The primary role of universal human rights is similar and more profound: deter abuse of power, create bulwarks, build checks and balances against the fickleness of local governments. It's easy to deconstruct "universalist pretensions" that strive for minimal common standards of international law. Yes, hypocrisy and self-serving behavior is part of the challenge (as that Huntington quote suggests), but it doesn't make the effort unworthy. That the UN does not always step up to act against genocide is not to diminish the importance of the resolutions and international consensus against it. Geneva conventions have tempered the conduct of war. A small nation can now use an enshrined principle to challenge even the US (even though sometimes nothing gets done). What universal Truth can we call on to oppose human trafficking, yet it is today illegal everywhere. How much "local knowledge" is needed to oppose unlawful detention in peacetime? Peony, the alternative of not trying to arrive at standards is very much worse. It turns out that owing to our common humanity, more than a few people do not want to be on the side of "the executioner", or be his victim. Showing solidarity with the victim is clearly a political act, but so is the concern with "the ultimate validity of universal principles as truth in terms of ethics" (this has its own costs). Here's value pluralism in action!

I'll consider reading Bell's new book. I read 65 pages of East Meets West. Didn't dazzle me but I agree with this quote by him (via your blog):

"If the ultimate aim of human rights diplomacy is to persuade others of the value of human rights, then in my view the struggle is more likely to be won if it is fought in ways that build on, rather than challenge, local cultural traditions."

Here Bell too is saying that (a) we should struggle to persuade others of the value of certain human rights we believe in, and (b) we should be smart about it and use the most effective persuasion tactics. Peony, if this is representative of Bell's beliefs, I must say that I find your stance more extreme than his (does he insist on establishing universal objectivity first?).

Hey Namit,

I didn't mean to brush over your central point-- I think Chinese laws are made in the same way that any other country's laws are made. Enough said. You will note that no where did I ever say I am against the United Nations or any EU-based conventions or laws. I think Bell is not saying your a) above in the book I am reading and neither am I. Again, it is more about styles of dicourse and what we should _not_ be saying. When our friend Phil says that he thinks the liberal agenda is "objectively good" this is what I find I dislike. That it may indeed be good in many cases I could get on board with but to come from a position of objective right can so easily lead to the types of practical problems described by Hungtington and the philosophical issues seen in Bell.

I cannot repeat enough that I think you are failing to understand what I am saying. So, I will repeat it again, I applaud your friend for working on his cause and I wih for his great success. If, however, there are other countries (for example Japan) who feel (for example) that collective welfare (social safety nets, including food, clean water and inrastructure) come above and beyond civil liberties (like freedom of information)-- to me this makes sense. These issues of clean water and nutritious food are very high on my own personal list. But to say that does not mean that I am not for working to stop human trafficking etc. (The same goes for Bell of course. If he stresses the need for local knowledge in this type of discourse that does not state he agrees with Chinese executions-- it is not (neither logically nor practically) either/or in the way you are suggesting)

It is sad in one sense that any questioning of styles of discourse leads to the accusation that someone is not against human trafficking. Really.

Personally, to me freedom of information is certainly a fight worth taking up-- but when so many do not have access to clean water.... I can see why not all people would have the same priorities... most people (!!) would be against human trafficking, however. I would think so at least....But to say that clean water comes over information does NOT mean someone is not for working against these things. And also sometimes when people are too focused on objective principles they don't see the suffering that occurs right down the street (hence the hypocrisy critiques we hear a lot).

These are all finer details and to discuss finer details does not mean one dismisses human rights-- outright (quite the contrary I'd say).

I am still learning from our exchange, Peony. As you are well aware, some of these ideas are not easy to get across easily, so I appreciate your patience and apologize for misunderstanding some things. I'm trying ... And Peony dear, you really think I'll accuse you of not being against human trafficking? You're funny! I won't say more.

If it was only about styles of discourse in HR debates, I think we would have both gone home by now. I began this post with your question, "under what authority ...?" There is more than style involved. You've cited sound practical concerns (Huntington quote) and ethical concerns, the latter showing up in your demand for "objective" justification whenever a vocal call for a universal value/right is made (let's say by Phil). Further, I see that you (and Bell?) are NOT saying that "we should struggle to persuade others of the value of certain human rights we believe in". On the other hand, I think we absolutely should struggle to persuade others of our beliefs about the most crucial HR as we see them. That's one difference between us that you astutely pointed out on your blog.

I think the demand for objectivity ("under what authority") is misplaced on two counts. First, there is no way to show any human value/right is "objectively good" for all. Second, this is how anyone ever arrives at their own values about some fundamental matters—they think those values are right for all. You say that you worry about "what we should _not_ be saying." When you target this against every voice of change that advocates universalistic ideals, you target the human voice that creates both Evangelicals and Nobel peace laureates. I would be more supportive of your attempts to question specific values, rather than people's very attempts to think their values have universal merit. Does that make sense?

Finally, as I wrote on your blog today:

If the goal is to persuade others to value something, it will first help to establish clearly in our own minds that when it comes to values (such as those that inform human rights), we are in the realm of metaphysics, that the very demand for "universal objectivity" is mistaken outside areas not amenable to scientific verification. Second, that since this is metaphysics, all we can do is persuade someone of our subjective values, which we presumably think are better values for the kind of world we want to live in. That's all we have -- one language game vs. another, but with real human consequences.

Third, we need to figure out what the best way to convince the other is. Pay attention to "the other" we are dealing with. As an ancient Chinese sage said, "know thy adversary." It may require some combination of pleading, arguing, requesting, reasoning, cajoling, praising, threatening, illustrating, sharing facts, bribing, appeasing, challenging, inviting for dinner, and many other ordinary human techniques. Alongside, I have to remain flexible to revise my faith in my values, given new discoveries. But that's all there is -- my faith in values that I believe will lead to a better world, and trying to get others to see it my way on at least some issues. A sense of humor helps too.

Please email me offline if you prefer. Keep the conversation going...

A greatly revised and expanded version of this essay now appears as the second article in my monthly column on 3QuarksDaily. Because it supersedes my analysis here, I am closing comments on this thread.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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