On Philosophy

May 13, 2007

Interfering With Other Cultures

Filed under: Ethics,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Often we wonder whether we can justify interfering with another society. People are generally of divided opinion about this. In favor of interfering is our intuitions that we have an ethical obligation towards the people living in that society, such that we are obligated to make their lives better if we can. And in favor of not interfering is the intuition that by doing so we may be destroying their culture, and that this is bad. Both intuitions are mistaken. Ethics is a way of resolving certain large scale “prisoners’ dilemma” type situations that arise in societies. Thus ethics only applies to members of our own society*. Of course intuitively it may seem like we have ethical obligations towards everyone, but that is because our ethical intuitions don’t spring from a completely rational understanding of ethics. But neither do we have a duty to protect other cultures. A culture is valueless by itself, what matters is the people who are part of it. And if those people could be better off by changing then they should change. Honestly I don’t know where our intuitions about the inherent value of other cultures comes from, but I suspect it springs partly from the historical fact that changing a culture used to mean killing most of the people sharing it, and partly from thinking of different cultures as individuals, who all have the right to survival.

So, given a completely isolated culture, we don’t have any obligation to interfere in their society to improve the lives of the people who compose it. But neither are we obligated to preserve their culture as it is. So leaving them alone is a completely viable option. But let us suppose that we did choose to interfere. If we did what guidelines would apply then?

I think the best way to tackle this problem is to treat the people who wish to interfere as visitors, because the easiest way to interfere in a culture is to live among its people. Now visitors do acquire ethical obligations to the people in the societies they visit, because they are like temporary members of that society. So, as a visitor, we are obligated to do what is best for the members of our new society. And what is best for people is usually to give them more personal power, more control over their environment and their lives, and more freedoms (opportunities). Thus we would have an obligation to inform people of a less advanced society about modern science and modern technology, and to give them access to modern medicine. And we would also have the obligation to expose them to new ideas, because such ideas give them new opportunities to live differently, if they so choose.

On the other hand we shouldn’t try to force the social or political structure of such a society to change in a direction we think is for the better. If the people of a society freely choose to continue to do something we see as bad after informing them of a better way to do things, as we see it, then that is a choice they are free to make. The idea is to be a resource of ideas and knowledge for the society, not to be its leader or guide. Providing ideas and knowledge is to give the people of that society more power and more options from which to choose from. But trying to lead them would be to constrain their options, to try to make them do something they may not want, which would be to make them less free. To do that as a visitor would be unethical.

But what about a society that doesn’t want any visitors, which rejects them without bothering to learn what they have to offer? On one hand it seems like to force visitors upon them would be to interfere in the kind of way explicitly prohibited above, by taking away their freedom to choose not to have visitors. After all, they do have access to the information that visitors are a possibility, and have freely chosen to reject them. But, on the other hand, they obviously don’t know what the visitors have to offer, since they are rejecting all of them, and hence we may suppose that they are making an unwise choice, or at least one based on only partial information. This dilemma can be resolved by noting that by rejecting all visitors their society is thus disconnected from ours. And hence we have no obligations to them. Thus we are free to inform them, possibly against their will, what potential visitors have to offer (possibly via megaphone). If they continue to reject visitors after that then at least we can be confident that they are making an informed decision.

* Note that in this context society does not refer to a single political unit, like a nation. Rather society refers to a group of people whose wellbeing is connected. As such all members of modern nations are really part of the same society; my wellbeing is not independent of that of the Canadians or the Germans, although I am less connected to them than I am to my neighbors.


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