Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Values and the Clash of Civilizations

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 05, 2002

This paper describes my approach to the question of whether values should inform a theory of government. In my utopia, values are individual and personal, and the role of the state is not to embody a certain set of values, but to create a means whereby people with different values can live together.

(If you are wondering what this has to do with online learning: the same principles that inform my theory of governance also underlie my theory of learning object repository networks.)

1. The Universal Law

"Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” Kant, Foundation for the Metaphysic of Morals (1838[1961]: 581-82).

In the best Kantian tradition, here is a viable maxim:

"Act in the best interests of Stephen Downes."

Obviously I am in favour of this one. Additionally, it should not place too great a burden on people in general; certainly, it creates no negative consequences, particularly as (having read the goose that laid the golden egg) I would not want the serving of my interests to end prematurely.

Here's another:

"Worship Stephen as God."

Now this principle is even easier than the previous, since all your practises are exactly the same as today, except that in all Bibles, etc., you have to use the word 'Stephen' instead of 'God'.


The thing is: philosophers have been seeking for thousands of years for a simple moral truth. And it's so easy to say, "Of course everyone will accept this one." But there are always exceptions, always ways people will not be able to accept the moral truth proposed.

Morality is about personal conduct. Morality is rarely, if ever, effectively transferred from one person's inner sense of certitude to another (except by means of fiat or force).

I submit that it's time to give up trying. At least, on this list, give up. I've spent too much time studying the arguments surrounding any of these simple principles to be persuaded that any of them will be accepted as a basis for morality. My best and only advice is that list members attend to their own morality and allow other list members attend to their own morality.

2. Shared Agreement

Willian du Bois writes, "Unless we as human beings come together and reach a shared agreement about values, we are perpetually going to be at war."

See, this is false.

All that we need is an agreement with each other to not kill each other. It has nothing to do with morality. I may think you are morally corrupt (and probably going to Hell), but my life is easier if I reach an agreement with you, "You don't attack me, and I won't attack you."

Here's why this is all we get: I am simply not going to agree with you about your principles of morality. I live in a different culture, I have different values, and we are simply not going to agree (except, of course, in the unlikely event that you completely capitulate to my way of seeing the world).

I am not going to take the role of the other and you can't make me. Now what do you do? Surrender to a future of conflict? Of course not. We will reach at least some sort of agreement to, as best we can, ignore each other. To, where we can't ignore each other, conduct transactions on neutral grounds with indifferent arbitrators. Etc.

I am not going to head in the same direction as you. I am not going to work toward your version of utopia, whatever it is. My version of utopia is no doubt very different (for one thing, it doesn't include some sort of moral authority binding all people). If the world comes to me, we will agree to disagree. If the world will not let me live my live in peace, I will defend myself with enough vigor to convince others to leave me alone.

From my perspective, you are the one forcing old world values of obedience and authoritarianism. You are trying to impose some view of morality on my way of thinking. I don't want to get involved in the question of whether my actions are right or wrong from your point of view. You can't make me. Insofar as we enter a dialogue, it is with the intent of establishing the conditions of mutual nonaggression. You don't kill me, I won't kill you. You don't steal my chickens, I won't steal yours.

These are not moral principles and you can't make them moral principles. You want me to say that it is somehow fundamentally wrong to steal chickens. I'm not going to say that.

And now, as part of my side of creating an environment in which we do not flay each other, I am going to ask that you desist in your efforts to Convert me. I do not need a new religion, a new morality. What I have (which, by the way, is none of your business) works well enough for me. Constant prattle to the effect that I must change my moral outlook is (from my reading) usually a prelude to war. So let's avoid that. Let me be, and let's focus on the pragmatic question of where to put the fence-posts between out domains.

3. The Clash of Civilizations

Wendell Bell sent me a paper titled "The Clash of Civilizations and Universal Human Values." It is unfortunately not available online. This section is my reply to him.

This is an interesting and well-argued paper, but in my opinion, fundamentally flawed.

Let me take as a point of departure the following statement: "Human values are not arbitrary or capricious. Their origins and their continued existence are partly found in the facts of human biology and the interaction of human bodies and minds with their physical and social environments."

If this statement is true in any serious way, then the essence of morality lies in all humans, by virtue of their being human, and is thus inescapable.

How, then, is it possible that we must treat the acts of terrorists "as the immoral and criminal acts that they are." From this, it follows that the terrorists are immoral. But if morality is essential to being human, then it follows that the terrorists are not human.

Since it is evident that the terrorists are human, it is evident that either the terrorists were not immoral, or that morality is not an essential part of being human.

In a similar manner, you write, "there are many constraints placed on human behavior, if individuals and groups are to continue to survive and to thrive. These are not matters of choice. They are factual conditions that must be met that derive from the nature of human beings. How they are met involves some-often considerable-leeway of choice, but, obviously, these needs set limits to the possible. Practices of drinking only sea water, eating only rocks, and breathing only carbon monoxide will not sustain human life."

Such an observation argues from an obvious empirical truth - sea water will not sustain life, say - to a much less obvious conclusion - 'drinking sea water is (morally?) wrong." The assumption is that all moral people wish to sustain life (except, of course, when they are sacrificing it, or taking it from others, or threatening to wipe out all life completely in order to preserve an economic system). That the terrorists had a complete disregard for life, their own and others', is obvious. It follows that empirical truths, such as the ones listed, played no role in the terrorists' moral beliefs.

In the abstract you write, "In fact, there are many universal human values, from the respect for life itself to treating others as we wish them to treat us."

Again, when we observe the terrorists, it is clear that neither value was at play. Certainly the terrorists displayed no particular respect for human life. And, working on the assumption that the terrorists would be opposed to unprovoked attacks on their wives and children, clearly they were not operating according to the 'treating others' principle.

If you want to say that the terrorists were immoral, indeed, to make their immorality a principle of public policy, the grounds for military and other actions, then you are forced into a position where the morality you advocate is not a universal shared by all humans. For the terrorists are merely extreme examples of no small number of people who believe that such actions are morally sanctioned, and indeed, will reserve them a special place in their religion.

What you cannot escape is that the terrorists believed that they were acting morally. From your point of view, indeed, from most people's points of view, they were not, in fact, acting morally. But what is important to recognize is that the terrorists did not share your moral views. Moreover, to judge by the cheering that occurred in some quarters, these moral truths are not nearly so widely held as is implied in this paper.

The big danger, it seems to me, stems not from the actions of people acting without morals. No, the big danger stems from people acting from moral certitude, so much so that any act is justified by their piety and devoutness, their deep inner sense of conviction that they are right, not just in a personal sense, but in a universal sense, so much so that it is acceptable to kill and maim those people who do not obviously see these universal truths.

I do not think that a shifting of ground from human physiology to human capacity resolves the issue. A statement such as "...all humans everywhere share the capacity of loyalty to their group and a willingness to sacrifice, sometimes even to kill, for its survival..." allows, by inference, anything that is a human capacity to be listed among the moral goods. Such capacities, as history now shows, include the capacity to fly aircraft into office towers. This, surely, is not a basis for morality. Therefore, human capacity is not a basis for morality.

Finally, I think that by focusing on the existence (or not) of inter-cultural differences there is a danger of glossing over the serious intra-cultural rifts that continue to exist within western societies. The western world is deeply divided (as the discussion on this list shows) between monist and pluralist theories of culture, ethics, morality and political organization.

It is no coincidence that some writers consider the acts of monists to impose a single-minded view of these on the rest of the world (up to and including the consumption of Big Macs) to be at least a contributing cause. The imposition of one set of values over another, whether it occurs within a society or between societies, has fairly predictable consequences, armed conflict and the massacre of innocents being among them.

4. The Golden Rule

William du Bois writes,

But as a matter of empirical record, I think it important that so many religious traditions have choose to testify that from their collective human experience they conclude that the fundatamental wisdom that can be passed on for successful living is: do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.

I do not deny that today and through history may people have felt that some variation of the Golden rule is a sound moral principle (there are interesting semantic differences in the examples listed, but I won't linger on this issue of redactive criticism).

There is also a weight of non-religious and philosophical tradition arguing against this agreement. Pointing out that all the world's religions have something in common merely shifts the issue by creating a cleave between the religious and the non-religious view of morality. This is hardly an improvement.

And indeed, it is not clear that this principle is adopted by all religions, since even in your email, the principle is adopted only by "the great humanitarian religions." Presumably the South Seas cannibals were not consulted (or at least, their particular application of the rule was roundly rejected).

But all of that is of no matter. What is significant for our debate is only this: I do not accept the Golden Rule as a moral principle. I do not accept it because I believe that it is wrong. All I need to show is one instance of disbelief, and it thereby becomes NOT a universal principle. And thus the difference between this principle and others becomes a matter not of kind, but of quantity. But in matters of argument and reason, majority vote does not rule. The fact that most people say that something is a universal principle does not make it so.

5. The Best Laid Values

I would like you to reflect on the tenor of some of the comments I have received:

"You can run away, but the world will come beating down your walls."

"No one is an island anymore -- not for long."

"There is one other option. And that is just to enter into world war."

"There is no way out of a conversation about values. You can retreat, but then you are just fodder for someone else's world view."

Here is my reply:

I have no doubt that your intentions are honourable, but taken collectively these statements signal an intent to engage in violent conflict should I make the choice to not expose myself to your efforts to convert me to your way of thinking. I know you don't mean it that way, but even at these early stages of interaction the threat is not even implicit. There is a clear signal: listen to me while i convince you that my values are right... or else.

Now of course there is no serious intent on your part. You are not intending to hunt me down. You are not saying that you will invade my home and force me to engage. The threat is not that specific. But you are saying that *someone* (probably from your society) will. So even if you have no such intent, you are signalling to me that this sort of behaviour is acceptable within your society.

Is this your utopian society? An interminable struggle over values, where shoudl someone wish to live their life in peace, in their own way, that they will be *forced* to listen to the missionaries? I cannot accept that, not because I think that it is morally wrong (I don't care whether it's right or wrong), but because I am not willing to live in an environment of constant threat from the 'morally superior.'

I fully recognize that, as you say, "Enron was having that conversation. Bush is having the conversation. Bin Laden is having it. Hitler had it. And so did Gandhi and Martin Luther King." This is what troubles me. How many people were needlessly harmed by the actions of those people and institutions you list. Everybody trumpets Gandhi, who with a loss of thousands of lives (and values) managed to obtained independence from the same colonial power that canada did with a loss of no lives? Had Martin Luther King not turned the issues of racism and segregation into a moral battleground, is it possible that the United States could not have moved into a form of peaceful coexistence without the lingering, simmering force of racial tensions that persist to this day?

We need to re-examine this. When your argument for some sort of civil conduct - such as, say, an end to lynchings - requires that I also admit that I have been and continue to be a morally corrupt person, you place a barrier against my acquiescence. You may it ten times harder to comply. You turn what might be a simple agreement for the social good (ok, I won't lynch people any more) to a violent fight to the death about culture, beliefs and ways of life.

We collide, yes, on a small world. How then is it rational to make it harder, rather than easier, to reach accommodation with each other? How rational is it to increase, rather than to decrease, the stakes involved in cooperation? How rational is it to make a small issue, such as, say, the eating of dogs, into one that threatens the beliefs and culture of an entire people?

The truth is, we cannot afford the high-stakes arguments any more. If we are to survive, if I am to survive, then we need to lower the stakes. We need to make it acceptable and legitimate to give each other enough space to pursue their own good in their own way. Trying to substitute for that some overall externally imposed good (no matter how much it is rationalized as ecumenical by religious groups) merely sets the stage for a lifetime of endless, and possibly terminal, struggle.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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