Are Values Universal?
Tibor R. Machan
A frequent claim by erudite people is that the values on which America was founded--individual rights, rule of law, due process--are obsolete. They have been superseded by more recent ways of seeing things, of understanding people and their world.
This point is made especially concerning America’s roughly free enterprise, capitalist economic system. Some refer to them as “voodoo economics,” suggesting that they are old fashioned, outmoded, in need of being discarded by now. The right to private property, a basic principle the American Founders referred to in their writings and the framers included in the Fifth Amendment, is also dismissed along these lines, sometimes by very prominent thinkers in prestigious academic institutions.
At other times the point is pressed that although some of the ideas or principles of the American Founders had merit, they were in serious need of being updated, improved upon--so, for example, whereas the Founders believed in the right to life and liberty, Franklin D. Roosevelt wisely updated these with his idea of Four Freedoms, including the freedom to obtain support from others whether or not they wish to provide it--the entitlement doctrine that’s become the basis of the welfare state--which unambiguously overrules the right to liberty.
Yet, all the while some of the very same people who urge upon us this view also offer fierce criticism of early practices, laws, and customs. They will condemn slavery and the subjugation of women unhesitatingly and not accept the idea of, well, those were okay back then but not now. Favoring the upper classes, for example, is condemned, as is keeping the poor in their wretched conditions. Torture, which was routine in the Middle Ages, often comes in for chiding, never mind that back then it was widely accepted, as was corporeal punishment, child labor, and similar practices widely disapproved of.
Is it possible to have it both ways? Are some principles universal, so we can invoke them to judge the conduct of people in any age, while others are not, so that while back then it was OK to act that way but now it isn’t? If so, how do we tell the difference?
To put it differently, when is invoking the idea that is was a different era and thus OK to do some things we now know to be wrong merely an excuse? How can we avoid cherry picking the conduct we want to disapprove of in any and all eras versus the conduct we are going to condemn only for certain times and places?
The idea is not merely academic by any means. It is of considerable practical importance. There are many people who claim that various ideas and ideals advocated should not be applied to certain countries, such as Cuba, North Korea, or Venezuela. They are different places and thus what is proper in the West or the U.S.A. may not be proper there at all. Yes, freedom of speech is a good idea here in America, some will say, but in the Venezuela being ruled by Hugo Chavez it is inapplicable. How women are treated in Iran is fine there but not here.
Examples can be heaped upon examples of such cultural, ethical, and political relativism which is proclaimed side by side some very earnest absolutism. Democracy is good for every society--or is it? But if it is, does that also mean that driving on the right side of the road is the right way or can that vary from country to country--or continent to continent?
Most of us confront these issues only in our college philosophy or ethics courses and once that’s done, we rarely give the matter much thought. Yet it is really the very stuff of international diplomacy, of globalization, of how the World Court should decide cases and so forth. Maybe the issue is directly relevant even to how we deal with our next door neighbors. Should we judge their conduct as we judge our own? Do our principles of decency, justice, and such reach beyond our front doors? And if so, why not farther away, to the other side of the globe?
I am only raising the matter here because despite the abstract nature of the concern, it will certainly come up in our lives, including in the coming presidential elections. Is mandatory universal health care something right for us in America, in Canada, anywhere, or quite wrong however much other countries experiment with it? Should social security become voluntary, as it has in certain countries? Should religion be central our political system as it is in various places around the globe, or should we stick to separation of church and state and maybe even advocate it for others?
Now and then it bears reflecting on these matters; so however troubling it may be, it is worth admitting that the issue is actually quite central to human life anywhere.