April 7, 2016

Some Cultural Values are Superior to Others

A campaign against female genital mutilation
A campaign against female genital mutilation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I live in the United States. And while living in a state that just passed what is being heralded as the worst anti-LGBT law in the nation and is in the process of passing a bill that secular Americans recently recognized as the worst state bill in the nation, is more than a bit disconcerting, there are some substantial benefits to living in the U.S. For example, we are not one of the 13 countries in which atheism carries criminal penalties up to and including death. Not having to worry about being killed by our government because we are atheists is not something we should take for granted; it is cause for celebration. It may even be cause to reflect on how some aspects of our cultural values are morally superior to some of the alternatives.

There has been much debate between the regressive left and the classical liberals (some of whom describe themselves as cultural libertarians) on the question of whether the values of some cultures are better than the values of other cultures. One side argues that even hinting that one set of cultural values might be better than another smacks of bigotry, racism, colonialism, and all sorts of other perceived evils. They tell us that we must respect the values of other cultures, including those we find abhorrent. The other side argues that there are plenty of examples where the superiority of one set of cultural values over another is so obvious as to be almost self-evident. They tell us that it is perfectly reasonable to compare diverse cultures on their values.

Who is right? It seems fairly clear to me that the values of a culture in which one can be an atheist without being killed for it are superior to those of a culture in which atheism carries the death penalty. I'm not saying that all the values of the former culture are necessarily better than all the values of the second culture; I am saying that those values that permit atheists to live in one culture are better than those that sanction the murder of atheists in the other culture. I have no trouble saying the same for forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and the like.

Instead of attempting to defend the abstract collectives of a group, a people, a culture, or a religion, I'd prefer to defend the individuals that make up these collectives, individuals who deserve freedom, autonomy, and human dignity. And if you are someone who truly believes that it is preferable to allow a young girl to suffer through genital mutilation out of some misguided conviction that you must respect her parents' religion, then I suspect that your own values may need some work.

Does it make me nervous to be surrounded by heavily armed Christian extremists determined to protect themselves from all threats, real or imagined (mostly imagined)? You better believe it does! Does it make me sick to my stomach to see the evangelical fundamentalist Christians in this state attempting to legislate their religious beliefs in such a way that my LGBT neighbors are not treated as equals. Absolutely! And yet, there is some solace to be found in the knowledge that some of the cultural values in the U.S. and even here in Mississippi are far better than some of those found in countries where I could be killed just for being an atheist.
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