Asian values and global standards

One of the intriguing ideas floated at the occasion of the recent UN Millennium Summit is the concept of an international court that will try crimes against humanity.  This idea rests on the belief that acts like genocide constitute a global injury that must be redressed globally. There is a strong feeling that the instruments for making leaders of nations accountable for such crimes are not adequate.

Such an idea however runs counter to the principle that nations are sovereign within their own realm, and that they are entitled to evolve their own way of life and to act in order to ensure their survival.

The term “Asian values” has recently become a code word for this principle.  Its proponents reject the uncritical application of the values and practices of Western democracies to measure the performance of non-Western societies.  The most articulate defenders of the “Asian values” position are Singapore and Malaysia.  They think that so-called global standards like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are often used as a warrant by powerful nations to interfere in the affairs of the weaker ones.

It is of course presumptuous to speak of Asian values as if the countries of the region belonged to one undifferentiated cultural landscape, or as if they shared a common historical experience. There is great diversity within Asia just as there is a plurality of national experiences in the West.

Many values and practices today regarded as traditional are nothing but the products of the contingencies of uneven development in a global economy.  What Asian societies are today is a blend of traditional beliefs and practices, of modern habits and practical adaptations to rapidly changing conditions in a world that is increasingly beyond their control.

To the extent that they are skills or tools of survival in a changing environment, cultures may be simple or complex, effective or ineffective in solving problems.  But there is nothing in the world, said the philosopher Richard Rorty, that can tell us “what culture it would be best to belong to.”  I take this to mean that cultures cannot be measured or evaluated except on their own terms or in relation to the purposes they define for their adherents.   They are, in short, incommensurable.

If every culture has its own integrity, then only those who live within its shadow would have the right to judge its merits.  If we accept this, are not the connoisseurs of Asian Values then — leaders like Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew — right to reject any attempt to measure their political practices in terms of criteria they claim are alien to their people’s experience?   What justification may we offer to highlight the importance of values like social justice, or democracy or sustainable development, and to use these as a framework for examining Asian values?

I share the pragmatist position that Rorty takes on these questions. He believes that one can avoid being chauvinistic about one’s culture or condescending to other cultures, but retain the capacity for moral indignation when one’s own values are violated.  We may not have any recourse to rational transcultural values to justify our indignation, he says, but this need not lead us to moral or political paralysis. “Ideals may be local and culture-bound, but nevertheless be the best hope for the species.”

I cannot sympathize with the philosophy of Asian values, if by this is meant the refusal to be answerable to a transcultural framework like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  While it may not be possible to come up with a non-circular philosophical argument to justify the specific enumeration of rights in this document, it nevertheless remains a worthy product of the conversation of cultures.  No matter that Mahathir insists it was drafted mainly by the representatives of the Western colonial powers.

This is not to say that the dominant perspective on human rights is flawless.  For it is true there has been too much emphasis on individual rights, notably civil and political rights, and too little on the collective rights of peoples – the right to development, to self determination, to an identity.  Lee and Mahathir are correct in saying that traditional Asian values, by contrast, place a great stress on social harmony and unity, and on the primacy of the community over the individual.  But nothing in Asian values says that individual freedoms may be suppressed to preserve social harmony.  That is what the Asian dictators have done; it is not what Asian values dictate.

The formation of new cultures hospitable to social justice, democracy, and sustainable development will not be made easy by the revival of traditional values, or by the mindless imitation of Western institutions and practices.  As in the past, new social orders will come from the imagination of those who have the courage to step out of their own cultures, assess these in relation to the demands of survival in a vastly changed world, and to invent new skills and tools appropriate to the present.


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