On the Confusion about Western Values and Universalism

On the Confusion about “Western Values” and Universalism

Like a case of herpes, debate about the universality of “Western values” has come back, and like herpes, nothing seems to clear it up. It is a chronic intellectual virus, for which we have misplaced the cure.

President Trump precipitated the outbreak with his speech in Poland on July 6th. The presentation’s harsh tone belied its positive message. Trump called up and defended a number of the moral and political principles upon which Western liberal democracies are based. He mentioned, inter alia, the empowerment of women and open political debate.

But then the President veered into the spongy swamp of “values.” He said that “we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” Trump asked if we have “confidence in our own values.” And he insisted, “Our values will prevail. Our civilization will triumph.”

With these words about “values,” the speech revealed a lack of confidence in truths about how best to protect individual human rights and freedoms. These truths have, indeed, been discovered in the West, but are not the property of the West and do not apply only in the West. But Trump implied that these were simply local, particular, and culturally-specific “values,” and thus inadvertently validated primary tenets of the postmodern relativism and ideological multiculturalism derided by many of his admirers. He failed to explain why political-philosophical principles that emerged in the West have universal applicability, and have in fact been embraced, at least on paper, by the vast majority of the community of nations.

What is worse, since Trump has denounced “globalism” and international institutions (often with good cause), he set up in the public mind a conclusion that there is a disconnect between “Western values” and “universalism”—that universalism is something alien to the West.

Indeed, the speech was praised for putting down universalism. Critics have rightly observed that not everyone in the world agrees with the principles informing Western liberal democracies. But this is obvious and beside the point. Universalism, properly understood, is not a claim about values being universal; it is not a claim about what people believe, but about human nature, namely that all people share central elements of their nature with others.

Evidence of a common human nature is readily available to human rights advocates. Victims of torture, censorship, and other forms of oppression from diverse cultures, many of whom do not understand human rights principles in abstract terms, understand that their rights and dignity had been violated. Ask an Egyptian or Chinese facing torture or execution on politically-motivated charges if they think they have a human right to life, freedom, and a fair trial, or whether those are just “Western values.”

What is essential about individual political and intellectual freedom is that, whether or not everyone agrees, they are principles that have been rationally proven and empirically demonstrated to give space to the flourishing of individuals’ moral integrity and to societies where individuals can best fulfill their potential. What is unique about the “values” of the West is that here emerged ideas that could establish a universally applicable political model for the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Flaccid, pseudo-intellectual discourse about “values” diverts us from seeking the truth about what is universally good for us. This is why most serious philosophers eschew discussions about “values,” leaving them to social scientists. According to the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, discussion of values is generally avoided in philosophical discourse because of its vagueness and association with moral relativism: “‘values’ refers to what people ‘think to be good, right and true.’” Behind its widespread use “lies the covert assumption that nothing has objective value, that ‘value’ means being valued and ‘good’ means being thought to be ‘good.’” The article goes on: “Values refers to a heterogeneous range of things that are valued. It is better to speak of specific beliefs about what is good, just, and virtuous, that is, about what is valued.”

President Trump’s speech, while flubbing the issue of universality, was a step in this direction. In the previous administration, President Obama almost never mentioned human rights; instead, he spoke often of “universal values.” Commenting on the jihadist massacre in Paris, Obama remarked, “This is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share.”

The phrase, while consistent with prevailing sensitivity-group lingo and postmodern “narratives,” is both redundant and an oxymoron. No values are universal. We should not seek knowledge and wisdom in values, “which are barely distinguishable, if at all, from mere preferences.” We should learn, or relearn, to seek and understand “what is good, just, and virtuous.”

Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom – Europe. His forthcoming book, The Debasement of Human Rights – An Activist’s Appeal for a Renewed Political Philosophy and Practice of International Human Rights, will be published by Encounter Books in 2018.

Photo Credit: President Trump delivers his speech in Poland on July 6, 2017. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.

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