Father Mapple Moab Adzu III, Globatron’s resident journalist interviews William Gairdner, famous author of The Book of Absolutes. You can find out more about the man who calls himself a True Conservative and defends human universals at his website www.williamgairdner.com.
Are there aspects of culture today that you see as a good example of universalism. Are there countries or communities that you believe are ‘raising’ themselves at present. If so, could you talk a little about the particulars, whether it is a cultural form, or political, or literary, etc.?
Almost the entirety of the twentieth century study of cultures was devoted to so-called “cultural and moral relativism.” This term was effectively popularized by Franz Boas and then subsequently by many of his students such as Margaret Mead. Boas was a bright and energetic German Jew who came to America in part to flee the rising totalitarian mood in Europe surrounding the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. He felt very strongly that some political systems oppress others because they believe their culture is superior to all others, and accordingly, they run around oppressing and killing people to prove their point.
Boas became the head of the first Anthropology department in America at Columbia University, and set about teaching that there is no such thing as universal cultural or moral norms. Each culture has its own norms (within which there may be a good-better-best) but no culture has the right to impose its own values on another as “better” than theirs. In this sense, all moral and cultural values were said to be “relative.”
This ideal ruled the anthropological roost for almost an entire century (and according to many today is still true). However, the entire concept was held under suspicion by other social scientists who did not accept the idea that just because a certain culture thought the world was flat, or that slavery or cannibalism, or clitoridectomy was a good thing, this made it so. Clearly, some things were false and bad in fact, or by nature, and in themselves, whether or not some cultures and intellectuals thought they were true or good. Moral and cultural relativism also got caught in some obvious logical traps, too, because to say all values are relative means that this statement, too, is relative; which is to say, it is only true if you believe it is true. But if, five minutes later, you believe it is false, then at that time, it is false. A pretty silly position.
All along, however, and working quietly in the unpopular intellectual background, there were other social scientists – mostly anthropologists – who said that although it is true all cultures seem to have different practices, they also have hundreds of underlying common and universal beliefs, customs, moral values, and practices that they share. One of the first to unveil these between two covers was Professor Donald Brown, now Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who pulled about 300 of these cultural universals together (from studies of about 400 of the world’s cultures) and published a study of them in his book Human Universals (Mcgraw-Hill, 1991). The studies backing all this up are catalogued in something called the Human Relations Area File (HRAF) at Yale University (www.yale.edu/hraf).
The interesting history of and evidence for this entire development may be found in Chapter 4, “The Universals of Human Life and Culture” in my own The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008). This book can be viewed on my website at www.williamgairdner.com. Readers will see there that in fact, many of the anthropologists – such as Mead, Kroeber, Kuckholn, Malinowski, and others – who initially marketed the concept of cultural and moral relativism and denied the influence of biology, and also that any such thing as “human nature” exists, later recanted. However, this is still little known.
What really destroyed the moral relativist ideology, however, was the fact that the most relativistic political organizations of all time were the National Socialists in Germany (Nazis) and Mussolini’s fascists, and the international communists. They all embraced the relativist ideology because they saw right away that it meant they were now free to invent their own oppressive and dominating value systems, and that in this way they could not be judged by universal moral standards. So they did. At the Nurnberg trials, however, when these murderers were put in the stand, the international high court condemned them specifically, and absolutely, in the name of universal natural and moral law.
As for rising and falling cultures? Cultures rise when they are united in a kind of “cosmion” or common belief system that sustains them and guides, shapes, and also limits their behaviors. When they abandon such common belief systems and adopt in its place a system that revitalizes and privatizes morality (when a fact of life is “true for you, but not true for me”, etc – such as we believe now in the Western democracies) they are headed down. A wonderful mind, Harvard Professor Irving Babbitt, warned us of this in the 1930s, when he said “civilization is an act of the will. But if it becomes a question of drifting, the direction is always downward.”
If human universals have been found in almost all cultures regardless of the great variety that exists topically, are you arguing that universals can ever be endangered? Or, rather, are you merely arguing that intellectuals ought to acknowledge their existence, in a way so that we can then deal intelligently with those areas that are debatable aspects of human culture? And how then, if that is your claim, do you bridge the gap between the universal, and how those notions are interpreted within those areas of culture that are more plastic, where it seems your concerns are more centered. I suppose what I am trying to say is that it seems there would be an intermediary structure of thought that would be necessary, if human universals exist, out of which a universalist ethic would arise. Unless of course, you feel there is a true danger to human universals that is unique to our time. (i know, long question)
The answer is that for thousands of years, from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans who basically invented natural law, and international law, and just war concepts, human universals have been an accepted fact of life. No one, until the advent of the Romantic period surrounding the end of the 18th century every doubted the existence of human universals and that there exists a universal human “essence” that enable us to speak of “humanity”, not as an individual, but as an essence or universal reality. I leave aside for the moment the answer to the question whether or not such universals exist, as Plato thought, in some heaven of ideas, as transcendental Forms, of which here on earth we experience only corrupted instances. that idea is accepted even today by such brilliant physicists as Roger Penrose and Paul Dirac, and Einstein himself. In the arts, from the classical to the new-classical period in Europe the argument was that there is best of everything. Certainly there is a best in the arts. And if that is true, then artists ought to strive to imitate the best (why strive to produce anything lesser?, was the thinking). So all artists wanted to be like Michelangelo and Leonardo and Rembrandt, et al. And that was how they were judged.
Back to culture: This does not mean that cultures and other things do not express particulars. Of course they do. But it does mean that if you drill down under the surface of any culture you will find universal moral truths held in common. For example: all cultures ban incest; all cultures have some form of marriage; all cultures believe there is something called justice; all cultures understand the notion of tit for tat; all have common linguistic structures, and so on.
Now, it is only since the Romantic period (in England, approx. 1750 – 1820) that there was a massive shift away from the classical concepts of universals, to particulars. Suddenly, artists started arguing that true art should stop reflecting universals, and should start reflecting particulars of experience: things unique, personal, emotional, and unlike any other. So that was the great watershed in the arts. We are still living through this romantic revolution with our focus on individual artistic expression – especially since the 1960s – so much so that we say art must always be “original” (unlike any other). Of course, the problem with that is that art became such an intense search for diversity that people have become tired of looking at art that is just some individuals angst splattered all over the canvas. The reaction was: if this is just about him or her, why should I be interested? So that is why a lot of modern art, if it is going to sell, has to have a decorative element (which for many takes it out of the realm of true art). that is the modern artists dilemma.
I will ask you to speculate as to how this drama will unfold. With a world fixed on particulars, how do you theorize such a world will reach its transformational crisis. How will that look, how will such people, lost in the particulars experience it? I would assume you have an optimistic scenario, or else why would you continue to work? I would like to hear about that. And a related question: What is the role of someone who believes in the universal human values today?
Will we reach a Transformational crisis? We are in it now. Arguably, a civilization (most Western democracies): that is not replacing itself due to a low fertility rate (averaging about 1.6 children per woman) when a mere replacement rate requires 2.1 children per woman; that is killing around 25% of its prospective citizens in the womb; that as of the year 2000 had more private policemen than public; that has an immigration and illegal alien problem and a drug cartel problem that is unmanageable; whose highest grossing internet and video sites are pornography of the most explicit kind; Need I go on?By any stretch of the imagination, this is a demoralized civilization.
The most glaring “particular” that is the focus of this civilization, in which people are “lost”, as you put it, is “Self’, self-satisfaction, personal pleasure, reluctance to postpone immediate gain or pleasure, for the benefit of others in future, disinterest in the next generation as exemplified by enormous national debt that will have to be paid off by those who are not here now to defend themselves against our appetites; and the background to all this is unconcern for the universal reality called humankind, civilization, the Greater Good of all, etc. As for optimism, I am a fighter at heart, and I feel we all have an obligation to be optimists. But to truly be an optimist you need to have some conception of the good, the true, and the beautiful that is transcendent and can be grasped by the mind. that is where the artist must step in, show the way. I feel that art that does not in some way uplift the human spirit, is a waste of time, it is just personal gushing, and showing off.
As for the role of someone who believes in universal human values? It is not a question of believing; it is a question of realizing and then deciding to live by, the obvious: that there is a universal concept of justice (such as, “might is not right”; a thing cannot be both true and false; love is a universal reality, etc.); that equality and equity are not the same (the first says that all shall get the same; the second that each shall get what is deserved); the most general universal moral law, by which all but the sick and deranged live, is: “seek to do good, and avoid evil.” the simplest definition of the natural law, which is known intuitively by all, is this: “the natural law is a command of right reason that follows nature for the common good.”
So, it calls for right reason, not wrong reason; and says we ought to follow what is natural for the common good, and not what is natural for what is evil. Artists, too, can face these truths and decide to dedicate their work in some way to these ends, or turn against them, and that will be a measure of how they use their freedom.
In your previous answer you point out the low replacement rate of Western democracies. Am I right to read a preferential position toward the Western world, and if so, could you defend that position. What are the virtues particular to the west? And, how can a democracy, with its relationship to personal liberty, avoid a decline toward self-satisfaction and short-sightedness?
I was referring to the Total Fertility Rate, and so (not to be too picky) we cannot really have a “low replacement” rate. The issue is that there is no replacement; there is a negative. A hole that is going to get bigger very fast when the millions now over 65 die off. In the Western democracies we are not replacing ourselves through natural increase, and so this is going to be an unprecedented disaster unless there is a policy change very, very soon: No kids coming into grade school, empty storefronts in malls, office space going begging, a housing crisis of unprecedented magnitude.
What will governments do? When, or rather if, they wake up, here is the scenario I see.
By the way, if you have any readers who like to jump the gun and call people names when they read ideas they don’t like, I want them to know that I am not saying any of this is rational or desirable (though there are good arguments for some of it. I am just saying this is what I think Western governments will do to face the demographic winter that is coming.
- divert resources in order to pay women a lot of money to have more children
- generate charges such as “family-phobia” and “child-phobia” to re-educate women (and men) who do not have enough children (more than 2 per woman). Remember when, not long ago, we were made to feel stigmatized for having more than two children? this stigma will reverse quickly.
- Invent schemes for the tax deduction of all child and child-related home expenses until the last kid to leave home is 18
- The state will reverse its “liberal” position on homosexuality, and will start generating federal and state programs to influence the public via the education system in order to officially discourage homosexuality. Treatment and “recovery” programs will be offered tax free to all current homosexuals as a deductible medical expense. School text books will be re-written (again) to discourage all homosexual behavior.
- radical feminism (of the man-hating type) will be discouraged energetically an stigmatized as “anti-American”
- women who “work” outside the home will soon carry social stigma for abandoning their children to third-party (unloving) day-care. Day care will be stigmatized.
- Income-splitting will be brought back so that married couples can reduce their tax burden (this will not likely apply to common-law couples). France has been doing this for a decade now. All families in France divide their total income by the number of family members living at home. I have a Canadian friend who relocated to France because, with a wife and five kids, and though earning $150,000 per year, when he divides this amount by 7 … he pays zero income tax! Watch for this policy here.
- Larger Retirement savings plans will be created only for married couples with children
- No-fault divorce will be ended, and all divorce tightened right up and not permitted to anyone until after a five-year waiting period with mandatory counseling, if there are any children of the marriage
- Abortion will be banned, officially described as murder and anti-American, as in the past, with the exception of abortion for real threats to the life of the mother, rape, or incest
- all expenses for the adoption of children will be deductible, and adoptive parents celebrated.
- The most important kind of “family”, to receive special state concern, will be defined as “a married mother and father living together with their dependent children” and all other families will be considered secondary.
- Both mother and father will be considered equally legally and morally responsible for their underage children from conception.
As for my preferences for Western civilization? I think there has never in history been anything remotely close to the unique combination of political, economic, and moral “cultural settings”, so to speak, that have in the past few centuries produced the most wealthy and successful and scientifically amazing civilization ever.
Politically, those nations derived from Mother England have had a wonderful run of it by creating societies based on a rule of law, with checks and balances on government, etc., that has only in the past half-century been breaking down badly due to the “living tree” philosophy now central to Western courts eager to engineer us all into a socialist utopia by betraying their own founders’ beliefs and wise measures against top-down state power and tyranny.
Morally, and with all its imperfections, the Judeo-Christian framework, even though we are now living mostly on the “moral surplus” of it, has worked very well because it teaches moral agency and personal responsibility and self-discipline. That has all been eroded with the post 1960s “me generation,” and so now we have whole nations swallowing nonsense about the importance self-esteem, a concept they divorce entirely from any requirement for estimable behavior.
Economically, and with all its imperfections, the “democratic capitalism” we have enjoyed has created unprecedented wealth (too much, perhaps, for many) such that whereas at the turn of the 20th century there was by any measure perhaps a half dozen wealth nations on the globe, there are today about 70. But predictably, when governments see wealth, they immediately see a huge possible tax harvest, and that is what they do.
Eventually, as for Sweden and Canada already, all centralizing, socializing states (all the Western democracies have gone this way)become what I call “tripartite” states in which one third of the people create the wealth, one third work for government, and one third are dependent in some way on government for their livelihood. At that point, the last two thirds will always gang up on the first third, and … game over for a once free society. This is Obama’s gambit. As famous author has said recently, everywhere on the globe we have more democracy, but less freedom. I have suggested here why that is so.
That concludes Part One of the interview.