Thursday, June 22, 2006
10 questions for Adam K. Webb
(Cross-posted from Gene Expression)
Adam K. Webb is the author of Beyond the Global Culture War and a lecturer at Harvard College. His specialization is world political thought, liberalism and antiliberalisms. Below are 10 questions....
UPDATE (Aziz): Adam Webb responds to questions over at the GNXP comment threads, where a robust discussion took place.
1) Dr. Webb, I have read your book, Beyond the Global Culture War, but I suspect few of my readers have (yet), so can you offer a succinct summary of your argument for us?
The book traces the rise of liberal modernity and the global culture war it has sparked. You might call me a traditionalist with a deep commitment to social justice. I share the misgivings that many thinkers and movements around the world have about the flavour of the emerging global culture-consumerist excess, an obsession with markets, the erosion of traditional ways of life, and the like. But I fear that resistance today, whether from the fundamentalists, populists, nationalists, or other such folk, isn't going to do much to roll back what so many of us find objectionable. For one thing, it's too insular. The Islamists, the Christian Right, the indigenous activists-none of these are offering an alternative vision that speaks to humanity at large, rather than just to (some of) their own people. They fight against the liberal "end of history," but they're going to keep losing because they're not fighting on the same global scale. And the visions they do offer their own societies are off-putting to many, for obvious reasons. They're too defensive and too rigid. They claim to speak for some great and now defunct premodern civilisations, but they're hardly representative of the many layers of human experience and human aspirations that those civilisations really included.
In the book I try to explain how liberal modernity gained ground, even though it doesn't really satisfy the deepest human needs. And I suggest a way out: a way to fight back against it in a kind of grand cross-cultural alliance of exactly the traditions it has put on the defensive for the last century.
2) In Beyond the Global Culture War you express some concern that the raw cultural material for resistance to liberal globalism is being diminished by the day, and we are facing the possibility of the "dark night" of the end of history passing over us. Forever is a long time,
but do you imagine then that a liberal global culture can truly attain a steady equilibrium 'climax' state which suppresses cultural change in any "ethical" direction for a sustained period?
No culture can remain in equilibrium for hundreds of years, in the sense of not changing at all. But a liberal global culture could remain dominant long enough to erode much of what inspires real resistance to it. That doesn't mean it would reach an equilibrium in the sense of satisfying people's needs. In the deepest sense, once one probes below the glitter of high living standards, I think liberal culture is intrinsically unsatisfying. That would still be true even if it delivered an iPod to every pocket and a Lexus beside every olive tree a century or two from now. Something would still be missing. But people in an unsatisfying culture aren't necessarily always aware of what they’re missing, or of real alternatives to it. In the developed West today, we see some of that directionless alienation. Stronger resistance lingers elsewhere in the world precisely because there are still lived practices, communities, and memories that inspire it. Once they're gone, all cultural change is likely to be from within, as variations on a theme. As I explain in the book, an atomist can be a libertarian, a social democrat, even an evangelical of the more individualistic sort. So there might still be changes within liberal culture, but the basic contours of the new global civilisation would be set.
That is what is really at stake today: the shape of a future global civilisation, while we're still in the century or so when things are in flux. It's a time of rapid change, even vertigo, and will be for another couple of generations. But as many times in history, vertigo will give way to stability. I'd like that stability to be a global version of the great civilisations of the past, not the kind of self-indulgent technocracy that is now trying to lock in its own vision.
3) You allude to ethics and principles derived from religion and philosophy. Against this you set the models of the rational self-interested actor, which seems to derive in large part from
neoclassical economics, though I suppose you would assert that the roots can be found in the general 'atomist' worldview. And yet it seems to me there is another alternative, and that is the model derived from cognitive psychology which contends that our minds are shaped by a particular biological architecture which results in biases and tendencies, a refutation of the behavioristic paradigm which rejected discussion of aspects of psychology beyond the empirical domain of inputs and outputs. In its application to economics this often implies that 'rationality is bounded,' or at least strongly constrained by the fact that our actions are often contingent upon non-reflective influences. Have you considered this dimension in regards to your meta-narrative?
I think my overall argument about ethics is quite compatible with any insights we might get from biology and psychology. The former is about how people understand their place in the world, and what demands they place on themselves. The latter is about impulses that work on a less than conscious level. A culture can channel those impulses in better or worse directions. The human impulse to protect one's kin, for example, can be a building block of a larger culture of social responsibility in one time and place. In another time or place, it can take the form of what Edward Banfield called "amoral familism": a cutthroat disregard for everyone outside one's immediate circle. The fact that cultures vary shows that ethical commitments shape how deeper impulses play out, and even that there is a point where biology stops and conscious ethical agency really comes into its own. I focus on ethics in the book because we can do something about what is conscious, in a way that we can't do much about unconscious human nature.
4) My understanding is that the attitude of the Chinese mandarin class toward Xunzi, the early Confucian who most emphasized ritual as opposed to heart, was ambivalent because of the fact that it was his students who became the base for Legalism. On the other hand, some scholars contend that State Confucianism as it emerged under the Han dynasty owed a great deal to Xunzi and Legalism even though rhetorically it reviled them. What is your attitude toward Xunzi? Do ritual, heart and piety stand shoulder to shoulder, or do you emphasize one in your personal constellation of values?
I's true that some of Xunzi's students became the founders of Legalism. But I suspect he would have frowned on the path they took. The Legalists were hard-headed pragmatists who tended to scoff at ethics. (They're eerily modern-sounding....) Xunzi was no soft idealist, but he was deeply committed to Confucianism. He was much like Aristotle in appreciating that living an ethical life required being habituated to good practices first. People needed to learn how to be good, through ritual and custom and law, rather than just relying on an innate goodness to come out, as Mencius tended to stress. While the later Confucian high culture elevated Mencius over Xunzi, perhaps because he seemed more idealistic, all the stress on custom and study smacked of Xunzi. Premodern China spoke Mencius but lived Xunzi, and benefited from doing both.
Speaking for myself, I tend to think heart is more important than ritual, as you put it. That's probably because I see rituals varying across cultures, while the bettering of the heart at which they aim is more universal. I’m interested in common ground, and that often seems the easiest place to look. That said, I'm very aware of how important habits, instilled by a culture, are in forming people and sustaining their better natures. It's very easy to talk about one's heart as the most important thing, and then slide into a kind of shapeless complacency, especially if a society on the whole is not very hospitable to virtue. Rituals can fortify. I imagine Xunzi would agree: rituals are important, but they're important because of where they lead, which is to the heart.
5) You express the hope that a cosmopolitan international 'virtuocracy' may emerge in your World Commonwealth (or, more accurately, it will be the cause of the emergence of that polity). This virtuocracy would be an expression of unity in diversity, not erasing differences of outlook between traditions, while at the same time reaching a respectful understanding of various visions and their common goal. I can see this in the case of a Hindu or East Asian virtuocracy, but I am somewhat more skeptical of the participation of Islamic or Christian civilization in the sense that it seems that 'Abrahamic' traditions have come to emphasize an exclusive and almost tribal attitude toward the other streams of human culture. While 'orthodox' Hindus and Confucians seem to be able to express an attitude toward pluralism which is not hostile, it seems to me that fundamentally what we term 'orthodox' followers of the Abrahamic traditions, as opposed to liberal revisionists and accommodationists, can not fundamentally accept pluralism as anything more than a temporary compromise in the ideological Forever War. What is your opinion in regards to this issue?
It's true that in some ways we can contrast Christianity and Islam, on the one hand, with Hinduism and Confucianism, on the other. The two pairs handle encounters differently, and see the boundaries between "inside" and "outside" differently. But we should be careful about saying that the two Asian traditions are more pluralistic than the two Abrahamic ones because of that. The real difference lies in how they see their beliefs as being transmissible to outsiders, and how they see beliefs interlocking when they meet. Take one example. When the Jesuit missionaries went to China in the late 1500s, they developed a rapport with some of the mandarins and even gained a few converts. The Jesuits saw Christianity as universal, as something any human being anywhere could embrace quite easily, alongside a lot of local cultural practices that could persist because they were worthy in their own sphere. The mandarins saw Christianity, much like Buddhism, as offering a kind of spiritual supplement to the worldly social ethic of Confucianism. It wasn't a matter of one belief system losing out to another. Different kinds of beliefs could interlock, in a division of labour, so to speak, because they addressed different levels of human experience.
Now I admit that not all encounters work that way. A Christian and a Muslim would have to seek common ground on another level, perhaps in parallel understandings of God even though they differ on other details. It doesn't have to be easy, and some people will never reach out to others that way. But as I argue in the book, there are enough ways to find common ground across traditions-certainly enough to make common cause today against a lot of pressures that tradition-minded folk everywhere find troubling. A common political project, at the global level, does not require deep theological agreement. But it does require realising that likeminded people are better off casting their lot with each other in a time of crisis. If you don't hang together, you’ll hang separately, as Benjamin Franklin said in a different context.
6) I have spoken of 'tradition' a few times here, I am curious, are you at all influenced by the school of 'Traditionalism' which ultimately derives from Rene Guenon?
His overall approach to spirituality was rather eccentric and esoteric. He hasn’t been a direct influence on my thinking, unlike some of his contemporaries. But I suppose there are some parallels in his misgivings about the modern society of his own time, and his effort to take multiple traditions seriously and find overlaps among them.
7) In Beyond the Global Culture War you admitted holding metaphysical beliefs, but stated that exploring them would only distract from the thrust of your argument because of its scope and intent. May I ask what metaphysical beliefs you hold?
The short answer is that I'm a theist. I believe in a divine presence, and that human spirituality reflects a deep-seated impulse towards it. I believe that the virtues have foundations, and that they're not just subjective values conjured up out of thin air. I believe the state of mind that one acquires through living virtuously is, universally, more deeply satisfying than any external rewards one might get through vice or subterfuge. I believe that the world's traditions of wisdom all have some degree of higher inspiration behind them, and that they're the first place one should turn for guidance on how to live, today as in the past.
8) You hold out the hope for pluralism of belief and life in the future. And yet it seems that your world must also be constrained by some common standards, common boundaries of what it means to be human. What is your attitude, or, more precisely, what do you believe the attitude of the potential virtuocracy would be, toward bioengineeringand cybernetics? In other words, is a full expression of humanity a set of ideas and ethics resident within the mind irrespective of the form in which in resides, or is their something essential to the organic unity of body which we possess that should be respected and held in stasis?
The distinctly human, in the sense of what sets human beings apart from animals, is the ability to have these kinds of ethical ideas and to act on them in a sustained way. To be fully human obviously requires being sentient, and having the sort of consciousness of oneself to act ethically. Or to shift the language a little, it means having a mind and a soul, and living among other beings who also have minds and souls. As long as that is the case, I don't think the organic constitution of the creature matters much. An intelligent extraterrestrial, if we imagine such a creature, could be said to have a mind and a soul (and, I strongly suspect, would have traditions of wisdom analogous to our own). So I suppose one could change the organic features of humanity without changing the essence of a higher consciousness. Whether one should is another matter. There's a temptation to hubris in doing so. But beyond that, there’s also the problem of what one changes and to what ends. A cut-throat capitalist society values very different human impulses and capacities than, say, mediæval Christendom did. Genetic engineering could have very different effects on the ethical climate and the cultural balance of power in a society, depending on who dominates that society and what they're trying to accomplish. Imagine someone who had been genetically engineered to have a razor-sharp intellect, a relentless competitive instinct, and an imperviousness to emotion. That poor fellow would still be an ethical agent, but he’d have an uphill battle against the temptations from within and without. And society would be worse off for it, even if he might increase GDP. The lesson? If I’d trust anyone with the ability to tweak "human nature," it surely wouldn't be the sort of people likely to be paying for it and directing it in the near future.
9) I will admit that myself, I do admire some aspects of Confucianism. But, at the end of the day I am an empirical man, and it seems to me that Confucians held an idea of human nature which leaned strongly toward the 'tabula rasa,' or 'blank slate,' which assumed that the possibility of perfectability of all men (and women presumably). But the reality, to my eyes, is that behavior genetics and other modern biosocial sciences show us that there is variation across our species, and some people have strong biases against being 'perfected' in various directions. That is not to say that biases are destiny and that expectations of society should be contingent upon the expectations of statistics, but do you believe that a virtuocracy should avail itself of the findings of the modern empirical sciences of human nature?
Premodern civilisations were very attuned to the variety of human capacities, temperaments, and aspirations. And their social structures reflected that wisdom, albeit often in very imperfect ways. Even Confucian China, while urging all people to improve themselves, recognised real differences in practice. Modern liberal society downplays human diversityexcept the superficial kinds-for a variety of reasons. One ill effect is that, despite its loudly proclaimed freedoms, society today does not really provide the many institutional spaces for different worthy ways of life that traditional societies did. Try being a world-renouncing mystic or a devout villager today, and you'll have problems. The broader culture will disdain you and bring all kinds of subtle and non-so-subtle pressure to bear. Modern society is not structured for many kinds of human flourishing, according to people's inclinations and capacities. It's structured for efficiency and uniformity, with enough room for a pedestrian kind of self-indulgence so people can let off steam.
If behaviour genetics sheds light on inborn temperament, then it's simply telling us with more scientific detail what we've always known. The lesson, given some ethical reflexion, seems to be that a postliberal society would have to get away from just professing an empty tolerance of individual choices, and instead restore the spaces and the cultural signals that allow multiple ways of life to flourish and complement one another. In the book I talk at some length about what this might involve. Lessons at the level of public policy on how one treats individuals are rather more complicated. Prodding individuals along different paths according to their supposed inborn temperaments gets quite messy, even dangerous. It may work quite well just to create the diversity of spaces, send signals about the many different aspirations we value (and mean it!), and then let people do as they wish.
10) A common assertion of Creationists is that if you believe that humans derive from pre-humans, and so share a kinship with animals, then we will behave as animals. What is your opinion of this contention? Does evolutionary biology strongly imply amorality to you?
Not really. People may try to read amorality into evolution, some because they want an excuse for amorality (social Darwinism, for example), and some because they find evolution unacceptable and think all bad things must go together. I don’t think the link makes much sense. Evolutionary biology, if true, is an account of certain mechanisms by which the organic features of human beings developed. That account, taken at face value, doesn't have any obvious point of contact with the world of ethics. It tells us at most how the physical platform for consciousness was assembled, and perhaps why some impulses put pressure on the mind and soul. I am not a Creationist in the narrow sense that those you mention are. But even to them, I’d point out that the basic framework of evolutionary biology says nothing about the origin of the cosmos, about any non-obvious external influences that might have influenced evolutionary developments, or above all about the nature of ethics and spiritual experiences once consciousness has emerged.
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