Western Civilization or Universal Culture or WEIRD Culture?

It is common to think of Western Civilization as rooted in classical antiquity, the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the languages, history, and cultural attainments of Western Europe. It is also common to think of Western Civ as particularly favorable, and maybe even essential, to modernization as exemplified by the industrial revolution and the modern market economy. An example of both these ways of thinking is Huntington (1996). But this view is open to challenge, and in this post, I want to examine two such challenges: Scott Alexander’s “universal culture” and Joseph Henrich’s “WEIRD culture.”

In a Slate Star Codex post, How the West Was Won, Scott Alexander argues that what people often call Western culture is really universal culture, the omnivorous culture of “what works.” For example, “Western medicine” is really just whatever has been found to be the most effective at curing disease, maintaining health, etc. It is driven fundamentally by empirical standards, and in that sense is nonideological, and so the contrast with “natural” or “traditional” or “Eastern” medicine is bogus, in at least two ways. First, despite claims of its opponents in these other camps that “Western” medicine is forcing a certain conception of health or science or efficacy onto people, the truth is that it is the opponents who are playing that game, not “Western” medicine, which will adopt indiscriminately whatever can be shown empirically to get the job done. Second, there is nothing geographically Western about “Western” medicine, except insofar as the “what works” approach to medicine first began making spectacular progress in the West in the nineteenth century, and Western Europe and the Anglosphere nations have maintained a lead ever since. But it is not peculiarly “Western.” For one thing, it will take new ideas from anywhere, indiscriminately; the criterion is efficacy, not region of origin. For another, it can be adopted anywhere—and it is. Its essence is a rational standard of acceptance, as opposed to any ties to tradition, culture, region, or ideology. It is an accident of history that “Western” medicine was developed in the West.

Alexander gives some other examples of what he claims is the same phenomenon: Coca-Cola succeeded because it is “refreshment that works,” egalitarian gender norms “work,” sushi “works.” And note that sushi, of course, was not invented in the West. That’s the point.

Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 6a. Addendum on Cultural Group Selection

Apropos of Hayek’s claim that the mores needed to sustain the extended order (namely, several property and personal responsibility) evolved by a process of cultural group selection, I want to add a note about the origin of the prosocial attitudes (or values, behaviors, etc) needed to support the operation of the free market. To return to part 6 (on Hayek), click here. To advance to the next chunk of the main argument, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Bowles and Gintis, in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2011), provide a helpful chart of the different theories of how prosocial behavior might have evolved (page 53). The main division is between some form of genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Genetic evolutionary theories basically depend either on some sort of kin selection mechanism (organisms are benevolent toward family members because they share their genes) or on group selection (prosocial traits like honesty spread because groups of honest individuals out-compete groups of dishonest individuals). Cultural evolutionary theories generally depend on some sort of mechanism of reciprocity, either direct (tit-for-tat) or indirect (benefits of having a good reputation).

None of these provides a good explanation of how the sort of virtuous behavior that brings the free market into existence could have evolved, especially in large scale societies. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 6. Hayek

Here is the sixth chunk of the argument. To return to the fifth chunk, click here. To advance to the seventh chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here. An Addendum to the present chunk, on cultural group selection theory, is posted here.


Nozick’s is a split view. There is the morality of the side constraints, and there is the egoistic morality of the market, and they have essentially nothing to do with each other. From the perspective of either, there is no intrinsic reason to care about the other. A similar critique ultimately applies to Hayek’s otherwise very interesting take on a moral vision for a free society in The Fatal Conceit (1988).

Hayek believes human behavior is structured in three tiers. The lowest tier is instinctual and includes genetically supported behavioral patterns and impulses that evolved over the thousands of years of our hunter-gatherer prehistory. The second tier is that of culture. Cultural customs, traditions, mores, and practices are transmitted through social learning. They evolved through a blind, quasi-Darwinian process of relatively random variation and selection through the success or failure of those who adopt them. They are not the product of reason. Reason itself, which is the third tier, is a late product of this process of cultural evolution. It enables us to consciously and critically evaluate evidence, hypotheses, and proposals. It is the only self-aware capacity of the three, but it is a very weak instrument. It is almost entirely incapable of grasping the reasons or justification or purposes of our actions or of predicting their effects. Hayek believes reason across the board is highly overrated. It serves mostly as a source of post hoc rationalizations of our behavior. One should not trust reason, whether theoretical or practical, very far at all. (The hostility to reason betrayed in this book is stunning. But further discussion of this point is a topic for another time.)

The different tiers are the source of different and sometimes conflicting behavioral imperatives, particularly “moral” imperatives. Continue reading

(More) Unintended Lessons from Pakistan: Water, Theocracy, and Planning

This is a brilliant piece on the Ramadan-related deaths in Karachi, now numbering around 1,000.

Karachi is known for killing its residents, but weather had never been its weapon of choice.

Besides illuminating the politics of water, Hanif manages to clarify two further issues: the lethal irrationality of the idea of an Islamic State empowered to dictate what people can eat and drink and when, and the unintended consequences of the absence of centralized urban planning in a rapidly-developing “Third World” city.

The first point ought to be an object lesson to those who think that an Islamic State was or is needed on the Indian subcontinent to keep the Muslims of the subcontinent safe from a “Hindu Raj”: there’s no Hindu Raj in Pakistan and yet Muslims are dying by the droves in Karachi, but not in Delhi, Agra, or Lucknow. Faisal Devji’s discussion of the logic of Pakistani nationalism (and the comparison back to Zionism) is brilliant:

The second point ought to be an object lesson to those under Hayek’s spell and in the grips of the belief that centralized government planning is a discredited socialist idea that “we” can easily dispense with:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.

How does Hayek know that? The claim is an instance of the very knowledge whose existence he denies: it’s a generalization involving a series of integrated claims, offered about rational economic orders and their epistemic determinants as such, not a series of dispersed bits of “frequently contradictory” claims possessed by separate individuals. In any case, Hayek never considers the possibility that there are times when an agent or entity needs to integrate the dispersed bits of knowledge that others possess, since knowledge in its integrated form sometimes has greater practical value than knowledge in dispersed and disintegrated form. What if riparian law is one of them?

Without government protection of the water supply, there’s not a natural drop of water to drink, and without government “planning,” there’s no government protection of the water supply. Even if you wanted to privatize all the water in Pakistan, you’d need to do it under the rule of law, ensuring at a minimum that the privatized water was safe to drink. And that would require reliance on the dreaded activity, “planning.” In addition, Pakistan has water disputes with India, disputes that require bilateral negotiations for their resolution–which requires yet more government planning.

I suppose you could wish this all away by invoking the hopes and dreams of “ideal theory,” but ideal theory has to make some contact with actually-existing reality in order to make a claim on our credence. As it stands, a great deal of it does neither.