From Sun Oct 24 20:33:12 2004
Newsgroups: soc.culture.german,soc.culture.europe,soc.culture.african,soc.culture.china,soc.culture.usa
Subject: Re: How Should we Define Western Civilization?
From: Haines Brown <>
Date: 24 Oct 2004 20:33:05 -0400
Posted-To: soc.culture.german,soc.culture.europe,soc.culture.african,soc.culture.china,soc.culture.usa

Trying to evaluate civilizations

By Haines Brown, contribution to a dialog, 24 October 2004

Karl S <> writes:

> On 23 Oct 2004 22:26:43 -0700, (CCDarwin) wrote:
> >For me there is no ‘Western Civilization’,
> You are living in a fantasy world.
> >so I would not use that term in discussions at all. ‘Civilization’
> >is an elitist term and maybe even racist, really implying or
> >claiming superiority.
> Welcome to the real world where some cultures are superior.

I'm glad the discussion has shifted from the phrase “Western Civilization” to one of the meanings often given to civilization—a distinctive culture. At least culture is something real that can be meaningfully discussed.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, let me employ a conventional (but not uncontested) definition for the word “culture”: socially transmitted patterns of behavior.

So everyone (except a newborn) has a culture, and everyone's culture is distinctive. However, in cultural comparison, we probably have no concern for personal differences, but the culture of some social whole. While in a broad sense, the world undoubtedly has a variety of such cultures, to speak of one as being superior to another raises difficult questions. I'd like to suggest what some of them may be.

One problem that immediately arises is that the comparative evaluation of cultures necessarily implies a yardstick by which to measure them. However, any such yardstick is itself an expression of culture, so in effect a comparison is a judgement of another culture in terms of one's own. The result is not an objective evaluation and is often only a manifestation of arrogance.

The only escape from this solipsism is to propose some objective and universal standard of measurement. While this issue has been discussed often enough, I believe it is fair to say there is no consensus over any such overall standard, but only a collection of particular values that are universal only in that they are perhaps shared by most societies today.

So the task becomes complicated by having to use a variety of measurements rather than a single measurement that we might apply to a society as a whole. For example, we strive for an effective system of public health and perhaps most societies today would embrace that goal as well. So we can fairly state that one society does well in that regard, and another does not. However, this is a comparison of behaviors, not of social wholes.

In today's globalized world it has become possible to propose universal standards by which to assess behavior, but it brings into play, I believe, two troubling considerations.

First, the failure of a particular society to do well in some respect is not a judgement of the worth of that society as a whole, but merely an observation that the society has not realized a goal. We can evaluate its particular behaviors, but that is not an evaluation of a people. A student may fail an exam, but we cannot without any other consideration extend that to become a judgement of the student as a person. Our judgements are always anchored to particular behaviors in a particular circumstance and employ some socially constructed standard by which to assess those particular behaviors.

Second, our adoption of a universal standard of measure implies that, should a particular society fall short, we are obliged to help them overcome their handicaps. That is, if we claim that our standard of measure is universal, then its universality means that we are part of that society and have an obligation to the wellbeing of societies that fare less well. The success of the universal whole is not independent of the success of its parts, and so failure in one place becomes a failure everywhere. If we fail to address the failure of others in terms of the universal standard, it signifies a shortcoming in our own culture. One can’t claim universality and maintain independence at the same time.

Beyond these broad considerations, there are particular problems in making any cultural assessment. For example, today we might think of economic progress as a useful measurement of social success, but there have been societies in the past and groups today in which spiritual progress or social values are more important than material ones. How can we censure them for not achieving what is important to us? By their standards, we might very well also fall short.

Another difficulty is that patterns of behavior may be contradictory. For example, if a society achieves rapid economic growth, that might represent progress in one sense, but we know that in today's world, such growth is destructive of the environment, which ultimately spells the end of growth. So short term achievement creates conditions that eventually destroy the possibility for that achievement. Should we adopt a short term view or a long one? The choice is arbitrary.

Yet another stumbling block is that cultural achievement in one aspect of life may be accompanied by, or even dependent upon failure in another. Ancient Athens, for example, in our judgement had a highly refined public culture, but a wretched private one, and not just for the majority of the population who were either slaves or metics. The public success depended on private misery. How do we reconcile the good and the bad? Simply ignore the bad? Somehow perform a magical algebraic sum?

Finally, all too often, probably always, we think of the culture of a society in terms of some elite, not in terms of the culture of the majority of people. We naturally admire the culture of a handful of creative geniuses in a society, but how can we extend that to the great mass of peasants, slaves, or workers, who have their own and quite different culture appropriate to their own situation? It seems that always a culture of a society as a whole arises from social contradictions and therefore escapes our assessment.

I can't help but come to the conclusion that cultural comparison is impossible and that cultural shortcomings of one society represent the cultural failure of everyone. If so, cultural assessment becomes really a judgement of ourselves.

Haines Brown