Join 3,513 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Is it wrong for the US to tell other countries how to behave?
July 31, 2002 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Is it wrong for the US to tell other countries how to behave? Is it cultural imperialism when we point out that some practices are backward and savage? Are we justified doing something about it? Should we even try to do something about it? Who decides if a cultural practice is "good" or "evil"?
posted by mrmanley (28 comments total)

I meant to say: Who decides if a cultural practice....
posted by mrmanley at 3:19 PM on July 31, 2002

but can we take the heat? i think it is backward and savage, for instance, to pay executives millions in bonuses and then lay off 500 people. it doesn't compare to say, clitoral circumcision, but everything is relative.
posted by quonsar at 3:23 PM on July 31, 2002

I think it all depends on intention and momentum. If enough people in one place feel strongly about the practices of people in another place, they should feel free to let the other party know. They should also use the means available to them to influence their own government(s) to oppose the practice by whatever means the government feels comfortable pursuing.

For example, some European Nations and the Vatican feel the Death Penalty is savage and immoral, and try to get other countries (notably the USA) to stop the practice. I don't think they have any extra-judicial rights to tell the United States what to do, but they have taken stances against the practice and enacted laws that ensure they will not be complicit in it.

Others are against abortion, and have successfully lobbied the US (and other) Government(s) to not contribute funds to abortion clinics, etc.

So what I am saying is that people who feel strongly should be free to influence their own government to take actions to influence other countries. This is the essence of the trade of ideas and a very important factor of life on this planet. While no one can definitively define "good" or "evil," they can certainly try, and might be successful.
posted by cell divide at 3:25 PM on July 31, 2002

Yes it is imperialism. No, it isn't wrong.

Who decides if a cultural practice is "good" or "evil"? First of all, one checks if it violates the right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. If it does, then it is a breach of individual rights, and thoroughly evil. If it doesn't, then it can still be evil, but not in a criminal sense which should be punished by the United States military.
posted by dagny at 3:29 PM on July 31, 2002

Well, by the fuzzy logic of cultural relativism, then it cannot be inherently wrong for the United States to be "imperialist", because hey, that's our culture, and who's to say it's wrong or right?
posted by reality at 3:41 PM on July 31, 2002

Is this just bad flamebait? I can't find "backwards" or "savage" anywhere in that primary article link from ABC News.

Dagny's point reflects our Bill of Rights very strongly, but the US was the first nation founded on such ideals. Those ideals are our finest contribution to the world, and all American inflections (and historical problems sticking to it) aside, basic human rights is one thing I think everyone should agree on. Such as the freedom to walk down the street and not be killed.

Now, how that is enforced when the offenses are happening in a country other than your own is another matter. But criticism is essential; in politics, doubly so. Or is that not PC of me to say because our constitution protects criticism of government?
posted by teradome at 4:00 PM on July 31, 2002

Who decides if a cultural practice is "good" or "evil"? First of all, one checks if it violates the right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. If it does, then it is a breach of individual rights, and thoroughly evil.

Wow, who knew it could be as easy as a simple checklist? I think agree with your general sentiment, dagny, but am uncomfortable with elevating the phrase "right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness" to the level of religious dogma, as you seem to. Other cultures and societies may take a different view on the preeminence of the individual. Even in the U.S. we breach individual rights in the interests of the collective under certain circumstances to maintain order. we may disagree on the extent to which it is or should be done, but it is a necessary thing.
posted by Ty Webb at 4:00 PM on July 31, 2002


No, it wasn't flamebait -- any editorial slant was my own. For the record, I do think that using powdered rhino horn for apothecary purposes is backward (and ludicrous from any medical perspective). "Honor killings" are savage. But the larger question is why do I believe that? Is it just because I have been culturally inculcated to think so, or are there larger (read: trans-cultural) ethical forces at work?

This is an important question because it speaks to the US "right" to interfere in the workings of other countries. If we mean to use military force to back up our ethical ideals (and I think we definitely should), then by extension we must also believe that our cultural beliefs are superior to others.

I remember reading somewhere (I think it was The Ends Of The Earth by Robert Kaplan) that some cultures he saw had better "muscle tone" than others; that they seemed to cohere better and have better unity. While it's not PC these days to suggest that some cultures are simply better than others, I think there's actual value in that observation. (Please take note before you haul out the flamethrowers: I do not believe in racial superiority of any kind -- culture and race are not the same thing at all.)

It's a very knotty and disturbing philosophical dilemma, but one that we need to face if we are going to be adventuring abroad.
posted by mrmanley at 5:19 PM on July 31, 2002

Jeez, does anyone know that "cultural relativism" doesn't mean that people get a blank slate to do whatever they want?

Cultural relativism is just accepting the fact that different cultures have evolved with differing moral and ethical guides. From within the culture, their actions are seen as valid, and when an outsider observes an act that seems wrong to them, they have to understand the context from which it is coming from.

That is taught in Anthro 101. What is also taught is that there is such a thing as human rights, and that people who ask for help should get it.

"Cultural relativism" is just a way to view the differing ways of life around us without knee-jerk condemnation. It's not an excuse for doing barbaric or horrendous things.
posted by lychee at 5:23 PM on July 31, 2002

Other cultures and societies may take a different view on the preeminence of the individual.

I like the Chinese, Maoist view, or the Russian Communist view of the individual. Very cultured. When you live in a society where the individual is not more important than the state, the importance of individual human life is severely minimized.
posted by insomnyuk at 6:01 PM on July 31, 2002

If "Honor Killings" are savage, then perhaps you should be lobbying your own government first and foremost. Texas regularly violates the right to life and liberty, for instance...
posted by five fresh fish at 6:11 PM on July 31, 2002

Yes it is wrong.

If no one can tell the US how to behave (ala no UN courts can hold US soldiers) then why should the US hold that right? I think the rights of individual nations should be held up equally.
posted by timyang at 8:09 PM on July 31, 2002

If no one can tell the US how to behave

Nations tell the US how to behave all the time. Frequently, we ignore them. And frequently, when we tell other nations how to behave, they ignore us. We coerce them to do what we want more frequently than they coerce us to do what they want, but that's a matter of ability, not "right".

I think the rights of individual nations should be held up equally.

posted by jaek at 9:02 PM on July 31, 2002

I'd add to lychee's comment that "cultural relativism" is an artifact of the same Enlightenment that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The Scottish Enlightenment version, for example, manages to relativize political systems, literary expression, family arrangements, and even emotions (particularly in Adam Smith, John Millar, William Robertson, and David Hume). But their belief that, say, a certain emotion--like love--was simply not possible in "savage" cultures certainly did not entail the assumption that the more "civilized" should refrain from passing judgment. John Millar, for example, makes it clear that he thinks women have a dreadful time of it in hunter-gatherer societies. The presumption, of course, was that a "savage" culture could one day become "civilized"; everyone existed in the same system, as it were, just at different points of time and space. Enlightenment relativism usually presumes that "they" may in due course become "us," and that "we" were once "them."

The "we can't pass judgment" form of cultural relativism is a pretty degraded version of the Enlightenment variety, and one that makes hash out of any attempt to communicate across cultures. Someone once told me that cultural relativism only works when you're dealing with inconsequential issues, which I think is true. This is the problem with cultural diversity, which is fine when confined to the "picturesque" but runs into trouble when matters causing substantive disagreement or revulsion come into play (forced marriage, clitoral circumcision, legalized slavery, etc.).
posted by thomas j wise at 9:11 PM on July 31, 2002

Depends on context. The European Union twists the nutz off countries wanting in: Countries with strong religious traditions like Turkey and Ireland have to go against long held customs to fit in. The IMF comes under criticism for attaching social agendas to loans. When we help a country is when we have the most influence, so the question should be: Whats in it for us? Why not attach conditions to aid? Isn't it in our best interest to grow our agenda? When we fail to do it as with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait they end up hating our guts; when we do it as with Germany and Japan they secretly hate our guts.
posted by Mack Twain at 12:58 AM on August 1, 2002

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." Therefore according to Mr Wilde perhaps america is not the best yardstick as to what is culturally barbaric.
posted by johnnyboy at 1:10 AM on August 1, 2002

Who decides if a cultural practice is "good" or "evil"?

You mean to tell me you don't know the answer to that yet? Why it's GW and Ashcroft of course!
posted by nofundy at 5:02 AM on August 1, 2002

If not Ashcroft, perhaps just Ash:

"Good... bad... I'm the guy with the gun"

Savage... Barbaric... Backward... Whatever. All labels we apply to stigmatize whatever practice or belief we disagree with.

As to the rest, I suppose that it's time to remember that once there was a Camelot. Because today, in the end, "Might is Right," and "Might for Right" is a discarded notion.
posted by Perigee at 6:18 AM on August 1, 2002

It's a very knotty and disturbing philosophical dilemma, but one that we need to face if we are going to be adventuring abroad.

i think it's because to "tell other countries how to behave" (or make them behave that way) is undemocratic, which of course conflicts with the founding principles of the US, and so undertaking such efforts can be seen as hypocritical, which invites criticism, and so on...

i think that's why the US should be (and has at times been :) reluctant to "adventure abroad" in whatever sort of policing action. of course it's undertaken with the 'greater good' in mind, but without negotiations that claim cannot help but be seen as illegitimate. to be so requires debate and deliberation, but that takes time...

i think 'clear and present' danger or emergency obviates measured response, but by the same token any forthcoming aid is a measure of the social 'network or capital' one has built up. to rely upon others one must (and indeed is obligated) in relatively stable times to establish trust amongst the communities' members, so the need for open diplomatic channels and exchange...

so how about might makes right? (with the corollary, stupid is as stupid does :) oh and what ook sez! "Any actions we demand of another nation, we should also demand of ourselves[...and w]e should actually follow our democratic ideals, instead of just paying them lip service." like i'd say the strategic good faith reserves the US has either earned or bought over the years are running pretty low. if the US gov't wants to go it alone, then fine, but i wouldn't expect its influence to increase or anything, or even for US interests to be promoted abroad that well (strategic or otherwise).

it's the case where the reservoir of good will towards america, that in times past has been an asset and perhaps now is seen by some as a liability, is threatened from without (by peoples' desire to see US influence in the world wane) and also from within (by citizens belief that this good will comes at a cost constraint--that US influence in the world will wane) so, a very knotty and disturbing philosophical dilemma? YES! hence the PR drive to improve america's 'image'... keke :)
posted by kliuless at 7:27 AM on August 1, 2002

thomas j wise - You believe in progress! How rebellious and unfashionable these days.
posted by NortonDC at 7:52 AM on August 1, 2002

I firmly believe in human rights and their global applicability, but couldn't pass this up:

"Listen, bud," said Ford, "if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say 'That's terrible' I wouldn't be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin. But I haven't and I am."
posted by signal at 11:35 AM on August 1, 2002

Worth repeating: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

I vote that we include "all people" in the "all men" category, and we use the economic, political, (and when threatened) military force necessary to ensure this equality and those rights.
posted by ewkpates at 12:31 PM on August 1, 2002

ewkpates: the 'we hold' bit is significant, because it means you're dealing with a statement of opinion, not fact. The fact that the opinion is that certain 'truths' are 'self-evident' doesn't necessarily make them either self-evident or true. (Rather like the 'we believe in one God' thing.) Lots of people seem to miss that subtle distinction.
posted by riviera at 1:19 PM on August 1, 2002

There's the other problem that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" can mean whatever you want it to.
posted by Summer at 2:11 PM on August 1, 2002

Rights, many people forget, are inherently political constructions. In our republic, we each extend to the other certain rights in exchange for the promise to assume certain responsibilities (most particularly, the proimise to defend the rights of our fellows). The right to life, liberty and pursuit to happiness, for example, is ludicrous to a man in the middle of a desert with no water. He will likely die regardless of his "rights," because neither the desert nor the sun are capable of recognizing them, to deprive them of members.

In a multicultural world, we must consider whether we are willing to defend our ideas of rights for those members of cultures who have no inkling of the historical background behind those rights and, therefore, no concept of their own responsibilities under that structure. Eventually, it comes down to a matter of persuasion - can we persuade another culture to see things our way? And what are we willing to do to force (force can be rewards, or military action, or myriad activities in between) a culture to see things our way?

Either way, it is foolish to assume that any culture not our own can conceive of the idea of our "inalienable rights." What we have done very successfully in the past is a two-fold approach: have an open society where people from other cultures can view ours and decide for themselves whether or not, in the great marketplace of cultures, ours wins out over their own, and inculcate into our culture the best aspects of other cultures. I would add to that, to stop interacting with cultures that we feel are barabaric or savage (and so marginalize them, even as our own culture continues to adapt and spread), while becoming even more open to cultural immigrants from those cultures.
posted by UncleFes at 2:24 PM on August 1, 2002

Other cultures and societies may take a different view on the preeminence of the individual.

I like the Chinese, Maoist view, or the Russian Communist view of the individual. Very cultured. When you live in a society where the individual is not more important than the state, the importance of individual human life is severely minimized.

insomnyuk, that whizzing sound you hear is my point flying right over your head. To say that other cultures may take a different view of the individual vs. the collective is not to say that those cultures would necessarily disregard the individual, just that they may have other ways of balancing individual vs. collective interests.
posted by Ty Webb at 2:34 PM on August 1, 2002

Sorry, riviera, but I think you misunderstand Mr. Jefferson. "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is Mr. Jefferson's claim that "these truths" are objective, and not a matter of opinion. He is saying something like "We say that all men are created equal in an objective philosophical way." "We hold" merely means "It is our argument that". Whether the argument stands is open to debate, that the argument is about objective truth (fact) and not opinion, is not. Philosophical truth is as true as any other kind of truth. That's why we argue about it. It's just a lot harder to prove.

Summer, we can probably argue that "life" doesn't mean "death", that "Liberty" doesn't mean "slavery" and that "Pursuit of happiness" is troublesome, but certainly involves a little free speech every now and then. Let's not get carried away.

UncleFes makes interesting points, but they sound more pragmatic than philosophically oriented. The social contract doesn't bind or protect non-citizens (a point which has gone relatively unremarked since September) because they haven't signed it, they aren't citizens. The problem is that Jefferson was giving a reason for violating the contract between the Colonials and the British, and his argument was that the philosophical/political truth was that the Colonials had rights outside of, and more significant than, that particular social contract. If we agree with him, we are obligated to extend these rights to others when it doesn't compromise our ability to protect ourselves.

Political philosophy, it's all just good clean fun, isn't it?
posted by ewkpates at 4:41 AM on August 2, 2002

Now that we've got all that cleared up, Is it wrong for other countries to tell the US how to behave?
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 4:54 PM on August 2, 2002

« Older Today in Mexico, Pope removes chin from chest to c...  |  The End of the Anti-Hit List?... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments