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.

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Natural Law Libertarianism in Two Flavours

My two latest Agoric Café videos:

In the first one, I chat with philosopher Eric Mack about walking out on Ayn Rand, clashing with Nazi Sikhs in Seneca Falls, libertarian rights theory, Kantian vs. Aristotelean approaches to fixing Randian ethics, Nozickian polymathy, the unselfishness of Samuel Johnson, the ethics of COVID lockdowns, physical distancing in Durango, the CIA as an argument against anarchism, shoving someone in front of a bus as a form of restitution, and the edibility of matter.

In the second video, I chat with philosopher Gary Chartier about Robin Hood, left-wing market anarchism, natural law, free speech and employer power, libertarian secularism, Seventh-day Adventism, religious epistemology, long-arc television, urban fantasy, Lawrence Durrell, Iris Murdoch, Whit Stillman, the evils of giving extra credit and taking attendance, and the attractions of being emperor.

Nozick, State, and Reparations

Talk of reparations has come back into common currency in American political discourse–meaning reparations to African Americans for the wrongs done to them since the beginnings of slavery. I don’t have a fully considered view on reparations (many of the arguments both for and against strike me as one-eyed), but I’ve both been surprised (and in another sense, not surprised) to hear libertarians insist so adamantly that libertarianism rules out reparations. Anyone who thinks this owes it to himself to read or re-read Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, if not cover to cover, then through the end of Part I, as I did on a recent plane ride. Continue reading

CFP: Symposium on Rasmussen-Den Uyl’s “The Perfectionist Turn”

I think I’ve posted this before, but thought I’d repost this CFP on Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s forthcoming book, The Perfectionist Turn, from the editors of Reason Papers. Here’s an article that states Rasmussen-Den Uyl’s case in a nutshell. I’ll try to see if I can find an informative blurb on the book, but I take it that the book is in part an answer to the problematic David Potts raises in his recent series here on “Morals and the Free Society.” For more information, contact Reason Papers at reasonpapers@gmail.com. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 11. Aristotelianism, Part 3—Conclusion

Here at last is the final chunk of the argument, in which all problems are resolved. To return to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The social excellences that I have suggested can be derived by considering the effective functioning of a free society make a conventionally appealing set: respect for others’ rights, candor, probity, patience, nonlitigiousness, loyalty, and reliability. But it should not be thought that every widespread intuition—“prevailing ethical belief”—about social ethics is thereby confirmed, or even most of them. A couple of examples of prevailing ethical beliefs that are contradicted by the argument from the needs of a well-functioning free society will help make clear the sort of social ethics that is implied by this line of thought. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 10. Aristotelianism, Part 2—Economic Analysis Can Reveal Natural, Social Human Functions

Here is the tenth chunk of the argument. To return to the ninth chunk, click here. To advance to the eleventh and final chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


When it comes to the social arena—an important one for ethics, obviously—I suggest that insights from economics can provide guidance concerning human functioning. I have in mind especially North’s (1990) analysis, mentioned earlier, of economic functioning in terms of institutions and their effects on transactions costs. That analysis showed that economic growth and prosperity depend on social institutions that reduce so-called transactions costs; i.e., costs associated with trade. In general, any established practice that makes human interactions more predictable and transparent will tend to reduce transactions costs. Simple examples are the convention of driving on the right side of the road and a uniform system of weights and measures. In the latter case, think of the difficulty of putting together a trade of, say, a certain quantity of cloth in return for a certain quantity of corn, without a mutually understood, reliable means of assessing the quantity and quality of these goods. The trade might still be made, of course, but the gains to the parties will be reduced by the additional time and effort required to assess the goods.

More interestingly from the point of view of ethics, transactions costs are reduced when property rights are scrupulously observed, and more, when economic agents are candid about the characteristics of their goods and services and are forthcoming with economic information generally, when their honesty can be trusted implicitly, when they are forbearing of others’ faults and of perceived injuries, when they are not litigious, when they are faithful to long term agreements, when they are reliable. Observance of such principles, where it is widespread, is a sort of institution or set of institutions, the social mores. It seems that we can learn from economic analysis which social mores are most important for producing a prosperous society in which desire satisfaction is optimized for everyone through voluntary arrangements. This is an instance of the strategy I mentioned at the outset, and which we noticed in Hayek, of taking the superiority of the free society for granted and asking what moral principles are required to sustain it. The strategy is powerful, inasmuch as history demonstrates pretty clearly that free social arrangements promote human social functioning at its best. Where free social arrangements have prevailed, there wealth has grown—for all, but perhaps for the poorest most of all—personal dignity has been respected, and humanity has flourished. Moreover, arguably any alternative social arrangement must depend on the principle of coercion, which—theoretical reasons and historical evidence seem to show—is incapable of producing a prosperous society of flourishing individuals. To the degree that all this is true, we have good reason to think that effective social functioning depends on the social mores that create and promote a free society. And this would seem to be an application of the Aristotelian functional approach to discerning proper ethical principles for the social realm. Continue reading