Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Why Are Some Humane Values So Rare In the World?

Before he died recently, Arthur Schlesinger defended the Western values of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, democracy, human rights, and liberty. He wrote:

These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle-Eastern ideas, except by adoption. There is surely no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures based on despotism, superstition, tribalism, and fanaticism.
One wonders, however, why these are almost uniquely Western values? That is, why didn't they crop up everywhere? For it might be argued that these values resonate with us. Indeed, the Dalai Lama has said, "No system of government is perfect, but democracy is closest to our essential human nature." The same could be said for the other Western values besides democracy. Yet, if that is true, why are all these values not ubiquitous?

Nowadays, there is some confusion in America about where Western values come from. Propagandists for the Religious Right put out the falsehood that we in the West owe our core values to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition. But in order to believe that one must not have read the Bible, nor paid much attention to the history of those religions in Europe.

In reality, Western values have at least three main sources, all of them European. First, they are based on the remarkable cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Second, they are based on the humanism inspired by those cultures that arose during the Renaissance. And last, they are based on the values nurtured in England (and later in Scotland) beginning around 1100 or 1200 A.D. Schlesinger was right: Western values were certainly not imported from the Middle East via the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition, but are instead truly Western.

Yet, why is it that they did not develop outside the West? Especially when they are arguably the values that most resonate with human nature?

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