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March 24, 2003

Moral relativism & the white man's burden

Note: I am posting the first paragraph of this piece and have a link to the whole thing (it is long). Thanks to Jason M for the editing help. There were some technical difficulties with adding the whole entry.*

It is in vogue today on the multiculturalist Left to speak up for 'indigenous' people-giving voice to the voiceless [1]. There are those on the Right who take an expansive view of conservatism who also harbor such sentiments, but they are a distinct minority in their camp [2]. In my experience, the question is less 'is it good for the indigenes?' and more 'how did whitey screw up now?' This explains part of the focus on white on non-white oppression (and yes, I know there are many examples) as opposed to inter-non-white conflicts (the body count is probably far higher in
the past few years in this category-and yes, part of it is that the same appeals to humanitarianism do not seem to work on such 'authentic' peoples as the Indonesians in Irian Jaya-in fact, where is the Indonesian equivalent of the Democrats in apartheid South Africa, who argued for one-man-one-vote against the Nationalists? I know Amien Rais has made some sounds toward federalism, but his party has also flirted with Lakshar Jihad).

Click here to read the whole thing....

Update: Interesting perspective on the schism between Western and Eastern Chalcedonian Christianity.

*I tried to post the whole thing, but MOVABLE TYPE causes an "Internal Server Error" when I try to build it. I seems that this doesn't happen when I attempt to put about half of it in, but beyond a certain size, I can't get it to post. My initial liberalism posts were pretty long, so I don't know what's going on. I thought perhaps it was the hyperlink tags, but when I removed them, the same problem occurred. Anyone encountered this? I switched to MySQL and I double checked the data type for the entry is TEXT so it shouldn't matter-and it wouldn't give that error anyhow if it was a MySQL problem from what I know. Email me at razib -at- gnxp.com if you have any ideas or have had the same problem.

Posted by razib at 12:44 AM

Interesting view of Christianity as a vehicle of broader cultural transmission. I think that most Christians would view this as a secondary outcome of missionary activity, the primary one being the apostolic one.

As to whether Christianity being a necessary ingredient of liberal democracies, I think that this is not the case. In reality, I don't even think that most European-influenced countries (esp. Protestant ones) can even be called Christian any more in a meaningful sense. While politicians and political theorists may have drawn on religious ideas, Christianity cannot be said to be better-adapted to "liberal democracy" than other political systems. Indeed, Christianity is probably mildly antithetical to "liberal democracy".

And, of course, Christianity is such a broad category...

Posted by: Dienekes at March 24, 2003 06:44 PM

if you haven't, read "liberalism I" & "II" (linked on the left at the bottom of the list) to get a sample of my ideas. i go back and forth, but for me, the biggest problem is that christianity after 600 AD was so connected with europe, that we have a hard time figuring out if the progress of the west was caused by christianity or christianity became what it is because of the west...if you know what i mean.

the impact of christianity on some third world countries-and its transmutation from a post-englightenment faith back toward sectarianism and violence indicates to me that the culture in which it resides is crucial to its mode of expression.

Posted by: razib at March 24, 2003 09:14 PM

Religion is for the most part meaningless if you don't believe that some future version of your present individual self will exist after death and go to hell or heaven or reincarnate or whatever. The notion of spiritual salvation is meaningless in the absence of such a belief because it is sometimes possible to achieve happiness throughout life without practicing what many religions consider to be virtue (e.g. avoiding the seven deadly sins or following the buddha's eightfold path.). Spiritual people achieve happiness in life too, but there happiness is not observedly greater than that of material people, and often only comes after a lengthy interval of suffering analagous to walking through a wall of fire to get to some peaceful region beyond, so again if you don't believe in the Buddha's wheel of life or something like that, then it may make no sense to tread the spiritual path, but if you are a believer (in this vague sense) then choosing to lead the spiritual life is a logical choice akin to making a wise long term investment.

Any philosophy of action not focused on the selfish achievement of happiness or the selfish reduction of suffering will leave people looking for a philosophy that does. I'll go out on a limb here and horrify a lot of people by saying that rational egotism is at the centre of any religion with survival capability. When someone tells you about their newly found religion its normal to ask them "What's in it for you? What are you getting out of it?" Some people may evade the question by claiming that they don't think in egotistical terms but assuming they're not in some exalted mystical state at the time then that's *impossible*, and some others will be made deeply uncomfortable, having never thought it through.

Christianity always strikes me as a bit weird, because of its Jewish parentage. There is a conflict between Old Testament Judaism and Christianity. In the Old testament Yahweh offers the Jews material riches in exchange for obeying him and *that* is "what's in it for them". Christianity then has the same God offering spiritual salvation achieved through Hellenic virtue. There is no way that this gap can be bridged.

This was supposed to be a response to Razib's blog but I got sidetracked.

Posted by: Sporon at March 24, 2003 09:28 PM

Razib wrote:
"we have a hard time figuring out if the progress of the west was caused by christianity or christianity became what it is because of the west"

The progress of the west was the result of the rediscovery of ancient thought, the ties to which had been severed in the western empire and its successor states. This reinvigorated the intellectual life which had stagnated during the medieval period. The second reason was the maritime colonization and the wealth it created. The third reason was the French Revolution which transferred power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. IMO, Christianity had very little to do with the progress of the west.

Also, as to whether Christianity became what it is because of the west, I think that Protestantism certainly did. Protestantism is a classical case of what I call cultural dissonance. Namely, Christianity had definite cultural roots in the world of the Roman Empire and in the intellectual climate of the Eastern Empire. Its transmission in toto to an alien culture could not be effected, hence the inevitable reaction that led to Protestantism (Christianity-lite).

"and its transmutation from a post-englightenment faith back toward sectarianism and violence indicates to me that the culture in which it resides is crucial to its mode of expression."

I agree. In general, at the doctrinal or geographical periphery of Christianity (e.g., among the "born-again Christians" in the U.S., the third world, the various Protestant sects, etc.) Christianity is something alien, undigested so to speak. It is like a foreign body in the culture, rather than an organic part. Hence, the instability it causes, again because of the cultural dissonance effect.

Posted by: Dienekes at March 24, 2003 10:06 PM

Dienekes -
interesting choice of 'top three' influences that made the west what it was. I agree with the importance of maritime dominance, but I think that the existence of a phonetic alphabet well-suited to movable type was more important than the French Revolution (which strikes me more as an effect than a cause, somehow). I am not surprised that you rate the influence of the ancients highly, but in the end the realization that they were fallible and that their knowledge could be superseded was more important than their contributions. The question, I suppose, is whether exposure to their works was somehow a precondition to surpassing them.

Posted by: bbartlog at March 26, 2003 10:54 AM

The influence of the ancients was not in their various explanations, e.g., for natural phenomena, that were superseded by better ones, but rather in the principles which they invented. For example, the role of the rediscovery of Platonism in sparking the Renaissance is well-known.

Certainly, the realization that the ancients could be superseded was important in the progress that followed, but that realization was itself affected via the ancients as well. For example, the authority of Aristotle which had dominated Western medieval thought was first questioned via the rediscovery of Plato. The Franco-Latin tradition in itself simply did not have the raw materials necessary for intellectual progress past the medieval stage. Intellectual progress was sparked by the rediscovery of Greek thought, and the re-affirmation of classical modes of being in contrast to medieval Catholic-Christian modes of being.

As for the French revolution, it was doubtlessly an outcome of the intellectual climate of 18th c. France, but it also sparked the most dramatic political change in the political situation in Europe since the Germanic tribes overrun the Western Empire. All modern democracies (with the exception of the US and Britain) are fundamentally intellectual children of the French Revolution.

Posted by: Dienekes at March 27, 2003 05:40 AM