Friday, January 8, 2010

What can be wrong with worrying about Western sins first

It has often been remarked that progressivist moral outrage tends to be highly selective, in that things that can be blamed on Western actions typically attract far more outrage than those which are done by non (and particularly anti-) Westerners. A common defence, when challenged, is that “the West should worry about its own sins first”.

The problems with such a defence are:

(1) The notion of pragmatic moral outrage is a nonsense. One can be pragmatic about where one puts one’s efforts, but selective moral outrage is, at best, hypocritical and, at worse, a cover for something else.

(2) It continually defines “the West” as “the big problem” or as “the source” of problems. Western civilisation and societies are the most successful societies in human history on the basis of a wide range of indicators. If one defines virtue against success, one is going to end up promoting a lot of failure: which is precisely what progressivists have so often done (with indigenous policy being a prime example).

(3) It grades victims on the basis of something other than the hurt or injustice done to them. This is not only likely to be monstrously belittling to them and their suffering, it also represents a fundamental attack on the very notion of moral judgement and common humanity.

(4) It typically involves a very unfortunate taxonomy of human agency, where Western agency “counts” so much more than non-Western agency. A particularly fine example is shown by this piece whereby Western (specifically Danish) cartoonists are held responsible for the violence of murderous fanatics (via). But a lot of Western progressivist commentary on the jihadis effectively turns them into moral children, not really responsible for their actions. (Unlike, of course, Israelis, conservative Americans, etc.)

(5) It encourages a mindset where non-Westerners can refuse to take responsibility, thereby encouraging the continuation of failure: a point made well here.

The real reasons for such selectivity are status claims and defending congenial framings. A moral framework that judged matters purely on the basis of harm done and opportunities denied is not likely to support the notion that the moral heights are possessed by taking an oppositional attitude to Western society. On the contrary, the likely inference is that the situation of The Rest would be much better if it was much more like how things are in The West. (Note, ‘more like’ does not imply ‘the same as’: it is silly to imply the West represents moral perfection.) Just as does noting that the groups and regimes the US ends up fighting are, almost always, morally much worse than the US (which, again, leaves lots of scope for argument about the means and ends of US policy).

Selective moral outrage is not justified by the “Western sins first” defence. Yes, the West should strive to have morally justifiable policies, but the fundamental principle is our common humanity, not which moral outrages we find more congenial to find outrageous for other reasons.

ADDENDA This post has been amended to add point (5).


  1. A few notes:
    1) Those with power have the most opportunity to abuse it. For 500 years the West (and later Japan) were the most powerful.

    2) Agency is a prickly philosophical concept but there is validity in "pragmatic outrage". An American in the 1860s might be upset about the antisemitism or imperialism of Europe. His outrage would be well-taken but without effect. If he were upset about slavery or treatment of the Natives in his own country, however, there was plenty he could about it. One must talk more of the moral issues in one's own country both because we can do something about it and because we have more responsibility for it. (So, while moral Israelis have a duty to emphasize their doings in the West Bank, moral Chinese would fight for democracy and Tibet, moral Frenchmen for the dismantlement of the "Francafrique," etc.)

    3) Solving the problems of foreign countries - while perhaps not impossible - is much more dangerous territory as it easily slides into raw imperialism.

    4) Posing the question in terms of "Westernization" ("they are in trouble because they are not like us") is extremely misleading and fallacious. It presupposes that somehow the biggest drive in Western foreign policy is to have South Vietnamese and Iraqis going to McDonald's and parking their S.U.V.s in pristine suburbia. It is a literally nonsensical way of posing the question.

  2. (1) Simply not true. The Ottoman Empire did not stop making inroads into Europe until 1683 for example. The Qing Empire was still an expanding imperial power until the early C19th. European dominance was really something that peaked in the C19th and early C20th, mainly as a result of industrialisation being invented there. (European dominance of the Americas was a result of disease and being more technologically advanced commercial agrarians.)

    (2) Why do many Europeans and Australians get so outraged, for example, over American policy? Many Muslims so outraged over cartoons but not Muslims slaughtering other Muslims? The outrage is, in fact, so often not connected to action but purports to be something it is clearly not: an outrage genuinely grounded in concern for others. What it is outrage grounded in their own sense of status.

    (3) Imperialism is only bad if it makes the situation of the locals worse. Now, the lack of effective feedback is likely to make that the long term tendency, but it does not automatically follow. It was much better for Hong Kong to be ruled by the British than China, for example.

    Helping other countries is difficult: look at the grotesque failure of aid, particularly in Africa. Adding military forces to the effort does not make it easier (the killing thing you know). But military options are not the only options.

    (4) You are so missing the point on this. First, my point was nothing at all about Western policy. Second, I did not suggest they had to become more Western in a strong sense: in fact, I explicitly went out of my way to make that clear. It was things such as rule of law, limited government, strong property rights, etc that I was meaning.