Challenging our contemporary culture's flawed worldview

Challenging our contemporary culture's flawed worldview

Hayden Ramsey

What are the underlying assumptions behind today's typical Western worldview and in what respects are they flawed? What have been their consequences for society? Dr Hayden Ramsey examines these fundamental questions.

Dr Ramsey came to Australia from Scotland in 1994 and has taught at the Universities of Melbourne and La Trobe. He has worked on the personal staff of Archbishops Pell and Hart in Melbourne and is now Academic Research Fellow in the Archdiocese of Sydney and Professor of Philosophy at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Why do people hold the "philosophies of life", the worldviews, that they do? This is not a psychological question (though the answer may well include psychological elements). It is really the question: what is it about context and culture and purpose that explains the appeal of certain theories to certain of us at certain times?

In the case of today's orthodoxies - heavily subjectivist, autonomy-focussed, unused to mystery, nominally egalitarian - what explains their huge appeal? Part of the answer is people's unwillingness to be judged - at all, by anyone. People want to be left free to do what they like. The very idea that someone can try to persuade me not to do something (far less stop me from doing it) is treated with disbelief. "Who are you to tell me what to do? You've got to be kidding!"

This view comes at least partly from a sense of radical equality most Westernised people now possess. The world must all be the same; all peoples must be the same; despite their evident dissimilarities (in talents, resources, needs, virtues, entitlements, obligations, understand-ing, etc), all individuals are the same. No poppy is tall; and certainly no poppy has the authority to question or prohibit any other poppy.

Of course, everyone is for equality - if that means the universal moral worth of persons. But the idea that no one has the right to judge me reflects a radical, new sense of what it is to be equal.

What of moral and spiritual and cultural value are we losing in this climate? Many people seem content to lose what were formerly treasured ways of life and ways of sharing. As long as freedom of choice, freedom from control, freedom from judgement, and freedom to spend are unchallenged, people will accept a less secure ethical environment and the risks that come with the decline of traditions. Even to speak of these things sounds fuddy-duddy and goody-goody in a world in which moral insight and long-established conventions seem irrelevant, bloodless abstractions.

Nevertheless, people do still accept some measure of social order and social control, such as basic state authority. Even the out-and-out political liberal has to accept that without minimal state authority it would not be possible for him to pursue his liberal beliefs and practices at all.

But if this authority is not to make people feel judged or experience constraint on their desires, then it cannot appear to them as interference or rule by "outsiders". It is generally when modern people believe they are no more governed than anyone else, and that no one else is more of a governor than they are, that authority is peaceably accepted.


But where the only authority people are willing to accept is minimal surveillance and direction, this authority, paradoxically, is more likely to corrupt and turn to sheer power. When authority is minimal - a matter of road-rules and tax laws - there are no truly "authoritative" principles, practices, or precedents to guide its exercise, constrain the authorities, and give protection to citizens.

When authority is no part of a broader ethical and political life, no part of a tradition with a history and a future, then that authority is proceduralist and self-justifying. If not legitimated by a body of principles and a vision of the community, it is only as authoritative as the public servants who administer it; it is not curtailed save by itself; thus it is more open to abuse and exploitation.

Our modern civilisation has quickly become one of assessment and audit. We believe that being open about things (or "transparent"), and having a clear reporting-line for when we feel guilty about things ("accountability"), are basically all we must do with respect to the common good. We somehow feel that this is being very ethical, ticking the ethics box, whereas, in fact, openness and clear reporting-lines are generally about protecting one's own back from possible criticism or prosecution.

As for the content of these new policies, it can only be very thin; a matter of process, unable to generate new ideas and introduce or critique values. But, of course, there is only point in having a transparent framework if there is something worth seeing clearly inside it. And what is to be seen has to be something more than the transparency that allows us to see: there have to be values and standards prior to transparency for us to value transparency.

Meanwhile, accountability of people to each other only matters because there are affairs we judge to be seriously important - important enough for us to hold people accountable for their successful implementation; important independently of accountability. Thin, procedural views of authority and justice cannot alone bring adequate order and control to social life because we must always ask: what are these procedures for? What of independent value do they serve?

Public culture

How could we go about improving the quality of the public culture? One approach would be to avert or limit the sense of radical equality that seems to underpin it. The notion that no one should be felt to judge me, or should appear to the world to judge me, is not a feasible basis for shared social life. It is not even how anyone actually lives today: we all accept and often welcome judgement and a restraining hand; we do not think we are "all the same".

The best challenge to "people are all the same" is not "all are different" but "each unique". In other words, it is careful attention to the individual, the features of a character that make someone distinctive, unusual, gifted in some area that can restore some proportion to the contemporary sense of radical equality.

In the ethical traditions of Aristotle and Aquinas, it is sensitivity to the local, attentiveness to what makes members of the (identical) species different (individuals), that creates the basic moral sense that then helps people to adopt good life-philosophies. The great philosophical defenders of universal moral principles know we grasp these principles by first attending to ourselves and others as individuals, and that we follow these principles within the opportunities an individual life discloses.

Something of this "sensitivity to particularity" is at work in modern recreations of these great philosophers' virtue theories. Contemporary "virtue ethics" asks us to make moral judgement, not by appealing to the formal principles of moral theories, but by asking "what sort of person would this choice make me?" and "what sort of community would I then be helping to create and endorse?"

Most philosophers have welcomed virtue ethics with open arms, whether as alternative to other ways of doing ethics or as supplements for those other ways. But virtues, if they are to be truly virtuous, are not just conventions: if cheating the wife and cheating the taxman is a convention in country X, that does not mean these habits are thereby virtues.

Virtue only works on the assumption of good judgement. It is where good judgement forms habit and offers critique and redirection that habit is virtuous. Virtue ethics can help to challenge the "sameness" of today's sense of radical equality; if we value good judgement and wisdom, placing these high above freedom from judgement and the right of each to be the same as the other.

Clearly, we are not living in an age that gives high priority to good judgement and wisdom; many people would be hard-pressed to say what these words meant. Yet beginning to change people's thoughts here is not all that difficult. It does not take professional philosophical argument: it just takes reawakening in people the sense of the person as an individual, with a different life from others, with great preciousness in him- or herself.

We capture what is meant by true equality not by teaching that people are "just like everyone else" but that everyone else is, like us, uniquely different. Thus the sense of radical equality can give way to a sense of human particularity, and thus the grip of contemporary subjectivism may slip a little.

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