The absurdity of claims of cultural superiority

Here’s a recent article on suicide in Greece:

Before the financial crisis began wreaking havoc in 2009, Greece had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world – 2.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. There was a 40 percent rise in suicides in the first half of 2010, according to the Health Ministry.

There are no reliable statistics on 2011 but experts say Greece’s suicide rate has probably doubled to about 5 per 100,000. That is still far below levels of 34 per 100,000 seen in Finland or 9 per 100,000 in Germany.

.   .   .

Another important factor behind the low suicide rate is that Greeks have extremely close knit families as well as a highly communicative and expressive culture.

“Greece is a country where everyone will talk to you,” said Sideris, the Athens psychoanalyst. “You’ll always find someone to share your suffering with and someone’s always there to help.

“It’s not only the good weather. It’s the powerful network of support that has made the suicide rate in Greece so low. It’s still there but this crisis is still too much for some people.”

I’ve previously argued that there is no such thing as inferior and superior cultures, just cultures that evolve to adapt to different needs.  I don’t doubt that culture plays some role in Greece’s economic problems, perhaps by contributing to high rates of tax evasion.  But this article is a reminder that cultural attributes (such as “close knit families”) that are a drawback in one area of life might be an advantage in another.

I think some people fail to see this because they are (naturally) attracted to their own culture, and see different cultures as being objectively “wrong.”


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36 Responses to “The absurdity of claims of cultural superiority”

  1. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    29. April 2012 at 19:11

    Other cultures are not wrong, they are worse.

    They are objectively worse.

    That’s not an opinion. That’s just a fact.

    A country is judged by the world it creates for its entrepreneurs, and how much it forces the politicians and academics to get down and kiss the ass of the business class.

    We can all agree on that right?

  2. Gravatar of bob bob
    29. April 2012 at 19:29

    You are breaking my ironymeter.

  3. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    29. April 2012 at 20:05

    “There are no reliable statistics on 2011 but experts say Greece’s suicide rate has probably doubled to about 5 per 100,000. That is still far below levels of 34 per 100,000 seen in Finland or 9 per 100,000 in Germany.”

    That reminded me of this 60 Minutes segment about the Tango Finlandia. Evidently the Finns have managed to take a “groin grinding passionate Latin American” dance and turn it into “a sad shuffle in a minor key, with lyrics to reaffirm a couple’s instinctive sense of hopelessness.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhxZoV3t61c

  4. Gravatar of RJ RJ
    29. April 2012 at 20:05

    Morgan,

    Culture != country.

    For every measure there’s a different ranking. Each measure has its own utility which is context-dependent. What is the context for your measure of the degree to which the “academics…get down and kiss the ass of the business class”?

  5. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    29. April 2012 at 20:45

    RJ,

    WRONG. WRONG. WRONG.

    America is not a country (see “United States”), it is the first geopolitical area taken over and assimilated by the apex meme – we call it capitalism.

    It starts around the Magna Carta, and at this point is altering China 100X faster than 3000 years of history.

    ALL COUNTRIES WILL BE ASSIMILATED.

    Screw other measures, no one cares what non-job creators think about life, religion, morality, ethics, or monetary theory.

    In the big game, the real game, you either deliver things other people want enough to pay for gladly, or you emotionally pan-handle, or you “community organize.”

    America is best, because it leads in acceptance of the higher order. More of our citizens GET IT than any other (god bless Estonia though).

    If Somalia is bad. If North Korea sucks. Then we are now ranking, and the US is best.

    And we are not a country, we are a culture.

  6. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    29. April 2012 at 21:01

    I’ve previously argued that there is no such thing as inferior and superior cultures, just cultures that evolve to adapt to different needs.

    The phrases separated by the comma seem a non sequitur to me. All cultures evolve to adapt to the different needs they have, granted. But *if* one has standards of good and bad, better and worse, then the results of such evolution must be better in some cases than others.

    One may claim one has no standards, in which case no culture can be deemed inferior than any other. But I really don’t believe that there are any people with truly no standards as to this, when it comes down to it.

    Of course, deciding the exact details of which standards of better and worse are better or worse is a whole ‘nother issue. But I’d guess on some basic points people in near all cultures of all history would generally agree: e.g., cultural standards that are “better” give a life expectancy of 75 rather than 25, their children surviving childhood, corresponding general wealth rather than poverty, law and civil society rather than tribal and personal vengeance and retribution, etc.

    These things can’t be achieved without many genuinely cultural traits (such as “trust in strangers”) that have been absent in the great majority of cultures throughout history — whatever local need it is that drives them to arise when they do.

  7. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    29. April 2012 at 22:27

    “I’ve previously argued that there is no such thing as inferior and superior cultures…”

    I think you meant to write “baldly asserted” when you wrote “argued.”

    But of course, it IS true that if your standards of judgment are Darwinian, the idea of inferior and superior cultures is nonsense.

  8. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    29. April 2012 at 22:30

    To bad when Morgan’s “apex meme” self-destructs, we can’t all force him to get down and kiss our asses.

  9. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    29. April 2012 at 23:34

    Scott,
    “I’ve previously argued that there is no such thing as inferior and superior cultures, just cultures that evolve to adapt to different needs” and “cultural attributes (such as “close knit families”) that are a drawback in one area of life might be an advantage in another”.

    Every so often my jaw drops once again because you say things I could have said, or have said, using these exact words.

    On the content – a lot of people can not understand this because they have not spent too long anywhere else from where they’re from. Once you do this you realize that there is a lot of contingency and path dependency in cultures and that you simply have to live appropriately to the culture you’re immersed in. The sad corollary is that cultural habits you learn from one culture often serve you little or none in another culture. There’s many drastic examples of people who “came back” say from a stint in the US to their native countries and failed badly back there when they tried to do things the “American Way”.

  10. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 04:13

    ““It’s not only the good weather. It’s the powerful network of support that has made the suicide rate in Greece so low.”

    That sounds like the most ridiculous post-hoc rationalization to me. Where is the evidence for this claim?

    “I think some people fail to see this because they are (naturally) attracted to their own culture, and see different cultures as being objectively “wrong.””

    Ah yes. The foot-binding Chinese and the sanguine Incas were merely adapting to their local circumstances. It’s all evolution, you see; there’s no right or wrong here.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. April 2012 at 05:23

    Morgan, No.

    Bob, Me, or Morgan?

    Mark, If you haven’t already, check out one of those Finnish films directed by Kaurismaki.

    Jim Glass, I certainly agree that some cultural attributes are better than others, but that’s not the same as saying some cultures are better than others. As an analogy, I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about either lions or zebras as being superior to the other species, but lions are certainly superior at hunting.

    Gene, You may have slightly misinterpreted my claim, see my previous response to Jim. I don’t mean to suggest I don’t have personal preferences regarding culture.

    Thanks mbk. It’s always better when jaws drop in a good way.

    Saturos, You are confusing cultures with specific cultural practices. See my response to Jim. And I didn’t mean the term “evolve” to be used in a purely Darwinian sense–it’s obviously more complicated.

    BTW, why stop at foot binding? Isn’t the German culture that it is now fashionable to regard as “superior” to the Latin cultures the very same one that produced the Holocaust and WWII? Does that get put on the scale somewhere, or do we just count whether a culture is good at making BMWs and paying taxes? Face it, any attempt to judge cultures superior or inferior is nonsense, all we can do is talk about superior at certain things I’ll accept that the early Chinese culture was inferior at producing foot comfort. Does that satisfy you?

  12. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 05:31

    Scott, What about North Korea? Are you going to put that down to “specific practices”? Yes of course the state of the lives of the North Korean people was determined by economic policy, which you can say was exogenous. But the same goes for any pattern of life. Do you think the totality of living attitudes and practices (state-worship, cannibalism, constant vital struggle and conflict, zero-trust, general zombification) of North Koreans amounts to a well-adapted culture? And yet this has come at a relatively late stage of that population’s habitation of that environment.

  13. Gravatar of RJ RJ
    30. April 2012 at 05:33

    Morgan,

    I think I understand what you’re trying to say. But is this really all you mean by American “culture?”

    “In the big game, the real game, you either deliver things other people want enough to pay for gladly, or you emotionally pan-handle, or you “community organize.”

    There’s truth hidden and twisted inside what you’re saying – after all, most countries have become “Westernized” as they’ve modernized. But taking the example I know best, the India I know now is much more superficially American than the India I knew growing up. Rap verses in Bollywood movies, jeans and t-shirts, Jack Bauer, McDonalds. But it is fundamentally not American and never will be because you can’t assimilate an entire culture. Characteristics and trends can migrate across cultures or spread from one culture to another, and culture itself changes with time. You could say that as time progresses, many societies might (will probably?) develop some of the cultural characteristics that have made America successful. While your Borg analogy was amusing, it’s heavy-handed and lacks nuance…the convergent evolution analogy is better.

    You also said this:

    “America is best, because it leads in acceptance of the higher order. More of our citizens GET IT than any other (god bless Estonia though).”

    …”it” being supply and demand, I’m guessing. Or something vague about working hard, earning money and providing for your family. Do you think this culture started with the Magna Carta? You don’t think the steady stream of immigrants into the US had anything to do with its industrial and economic successes?

  14. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 05:35

    At the risk of espousing some dodgy ideal observer theory, I don’t think people would on average be indifferent between all “fully evolved” (by whatever your definition is) cultures. Or what’s your standard of goodness, by which you conclude that none is more good than the other?

  15. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 05:37

    “I don’t think people would on average be indifferent between all “fully evolved” (by whatever your definition is) cultures”

    if they had to choose which one to live or participate in, I mean.

  16. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    30. April 2012 at 05:37

    Scott, stick to economics.

    All countries are human, all cultures are human. They are not apples and oranges.

    Humans have been cannibals. They have been communists. Both are worse than other things.

    And human progress goes, moving the ball forward on the timeline of global welfare, capitalists are the best. The top of the heap.

    That’s how we rectify your German equivocation. Forget the nationality, and ask which forms of order have been best, then rank cities, states, countries based on that form of order.

  17. Gravatar of Rien Huizer Rien Huizer
    30. April 2012 at 05:43

    Scott.

    I find this odd: the greatest ever Greek was no doubt Socrates. And he committed suicide. So what is the significance of a small rise in an otherwise unmeasurable rate in voluntary deaths in a country where the most admired person ever to inhabit the country took his own life?

  18. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    30. April 2012 at 06:57

    Culture is also about constant economic evolution and adaptation. For instance, some said that capitalism destroyed earlier cultures, but what was really meant was that people were given greater options beyond their own families, local groups, or most importantly, real estate, for survival. That is the part of culture that needs to be recreated in the present, as capitalism now struggles to continue providing that freedom for people in developed nations. The models of wealth capture that institutions gave us can be adapted for use at local levels, for non-scarce resources. The old models still work perfectly fine as they are now, for truly scarce resources. Of course, a few leaders of nations insist on making the basic model fairly inefficient.

  19. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 07:04

    If it turns out that conservatives, as Haidt has been arguing, are happier in general due to their stronger social, familial and religious ties, wouldn’t you say that makes them generally superior? Isn’t happiness the point of everything? I thought you were a utilitarian, Scott – you seem way too relativist for someone who believes all value can be reduced to happiness.

  20. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    30. April 2012 at 07:12

    Conservatives are superior because they don’t need liberals to survive. Liberals… not so much.

  21. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    30. April 2012 at 07:34

    I suppose this is a semantic debate about the word ‘better’, but after watching Q&A last night, I’d have to say Jim Glass has a point;

    http://www.q-and-a.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1389

    ———–quote———–
    LAMB: How did he get inside this [prison] camp in the first place?

    HARDEN: He was born there. His crime was to be born. And his parents were there for reasons that are almost as flimsy. His father was in the camp because his father’s brothers after the Korean War had fled to South Korea. And after the authorities heard about that, his father and his father’s many brothers and parents, were all rounded up and taken to Camp 14. And that’s where Shin was born. He doesn’t know why his mother was there. She never told him and he never asked. They didn’t have the kind of relationship where they would talk.

    His parents, his mom and dad, conceived him because they were chosen by the guards for something called a reward marriage and Shin was bred like a farm animal in the camp and raised by his mother. And he was physically his mother gave birth to him but he was raised with the values and the rules of the guards, and was not close to his mother at all. He had to memorize 10 rules of the camp most of which end by saying if you don’t do this you will be shot immediately.

    And the first rule of the camp, the most important rule, is if you try to escape you will be shot immediately and a corollary to that rule is if you hear about an escape and don’t report it, you will be shot immediately. And these, these were basically his 10 commandments, his ethical guideposts as a little guy growing up in that camp.
    ————-endquote———–

  22. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 07:55

    North Korea puts dystopian novels to shame. Because it’s not imaginative at all. Just brutal.

  23. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 08:01

    Actually, that interview Patrick linked to is gold.

    “South Korea is now the 11th largest economy in the world. It has people who are obsessed with education. They work really hard they have less leisure than any other country in the developed world and they kill, they commit suicide, it’s at a very, very high rate, in fact the highest rate in the world now.”

    Now, tell me Scott, what is the compensating differential for that? (The anti-Greece, if you will.) And how do you know it really does compensate? Is there an objective utilitarian formula for calculating the total utility of South Koreans under these conditions, vis-a-vis others?

  24. Gravatar of Mikael Mikael
    30. April 2012 at 08:20

    Scott, you once wrote a post stating the reasons why you’re a conservative rather than liberal (although you share important liberal traits, such a empathy). Your main reason was that you felt liberals failed to acknowledge the disincentives associated with social programs (I think that’s wrong and that they do, however that’s beyond the point for this argument).

    I think you touch on something very important here (although cautiously). Namely, culture is everything! Culture is how we overcome unsolvable problems such as collective action problems, time inconsistency problems, tragedy of the commons etc.

    I’m not a conservative because they ignore culture’s importance in creating a functioning society (Apart from their lack of empathy and retrogressive leaning)

  25. Gravatar of M. M.
    30. April 2012 at 09:14

    Scott,

    I will start by quoting you: “I’ve previously argued that there is no such thing as inferior and superior cultures, just cultures that evolve to adapt to different needs.”

    Question: What are the “needs” in Islamic cultures that produced barbarities such as honor killing, child marriage and cutting off the hand of a thief?

    I was not expecting such blatant cultural relativism coming from you. I imagine the millions of suffering Islamic women would beg to differ. See this article by Mona Eltahawy in Foreign Policy: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/why_do_they_hate_us

  26. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    30. April 2012 at 09:40

    Even though I am not a liberal (in present day terms), I am afraid of what we stand to lose if the knowledge realm which the liberal represents is lost to austerity, for it is a world that is precious to me. I have not even known how to express my fear of that happening to liberals on their own turf. Theirs is a wealth that is rich and vital. How do I tell them they are in trouble, when they still seek to obfuscate the link between their survival and the primary assets of the real economy? It does not have to be that way. We can take egalitarianism out of its present moral terms and place it squarely in the economic terms that matter for the survival of capitalism: the parallel time sets we actually have. No more parasites, no more conservative dreams of destroying present day capitalism, of which I suspect Tyler Cowen would agree.

  27. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 09:43

    And the weakness of leftists is their overestimation of the malleability of human nature through “social” pressures and incentives. They can never fully internalize methodological individualism – interpreting social behavior through the decisions of individuals; what it is for an individual to make their own decisions.

  28. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. April 2012 at 09:45

    Also their irrational faith in the benevolent results of having the “right” leaders.

  29. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    30. April 2012 at 10:07

    Saturos,
    You said, “They can never fully internalize methodological individualism.” Granted, you’ve had a lot more formal education than myself. But still I have to ask, did you ever meet a bookstore worker who didn’t want to be the one in charge of the bookstore? My example is primarily from the perspective of incentive.

  30. Gravatar of AFG AFG
    30. April 2012 at 10:21

    I don’t know about Greece in particular, but low suicide rates are often a sign of UNhappiness. There is a correlation between average national happiness and suicide rates, because when sad people are surrounded by happy people, they become even more depressed through comparing themselves to others.

    http://www.frbsf.org/publications/economics/papers/2010/wp10-30bk.pdf

    This probably proves your overall point better than suicide data alone. Cultures face a tradeoff between emphasizing happiness and low suicide, which would you rather have? I like to think of it as inequality of happiness.

  31. Gravatar of pyroseed13 pyroseed13
    30. April 2012 at 11:15

    So Scott, are you a moral or cultural relativist then? I think some cultures are clearly superior, namely ones that secure civil and economic liberties.

  32. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    1. May 2012 at 01:47

    Becky,
    I’m sorry, that sounded like a good question, except I didn’t understand what you were asking. If I asked one of the girls who work at the bookstore I visit in the city, I’d imagine they’d have plenty of ambitions besides working in that store, and not necessarily running it. And not all these ambitions would necessarily involve more money income.

    I’m sure not all actresses want to own their production companies. More analogously, I’m sure not all teachers want to run their schools. Not even all postal workers want to run the postal office – there’s other things going on in their lives, things they’d like to do better with, some involving money, some not.

    I still don’t get what that has to do with methodological individualism, though.

  33. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    1. May 2012 at 01:49

    And how do you know I’ve had more formal education than you? ;)

  34. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    1. May 2012 at 04:45

    Saturos,
    I’ve only had one semester of philosophy, and unfortunately I’ll pick up something about economics to read first, every time. Perhaps it’s just as well. Like someone said recently at Econlog, when two libertarians argue amongst one another it sounds like Methodists and Episcopalians arguing about which one is going to hell!

  35. Gravatar of Floccina Floccina
    1. May 2012 at 10:32

    But this article is a reminder that cultural attributes (such as “close knit families”) that are a drawback in one area of life might be an advantage in another.

    I agree, well said.

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. May 2012 at 06:58

    Saturos, You said;

    “Scott, What about North Korea? Are you going to put that down to “specific practices”? Yes of course the state of the lives of the North Korean people was determined by economic policy, which you can say was exogenous. But the same goes for any pattern of life. Do you think the totality of living attitudes and practices (state-worship, cannibalism, constant vital struggle and conflict, zero-trust, general zombification) of North Koreans amounts to a well-adapted culture? And yet this has come at a relatively late stage of that population’s habitation of that environment.”

    This is a great example. There is no better case in the entire world of a country’s practices not reflecting its culture. How do we know? Because until 1950 the north and south of Korea had almost identical cultures. Yet the political outcomes are quite different, as you note. Ditto for East and West Germany, or Nazi Germany and post-war Germany.

    You said;

    “I don’t think people would on average be indifferent between all “fully evolved” (by whatever your definition is) cultures”
    if they had to choose which one to live or participate in, I mean.”

    What people choose (collectively) is what I mean by culture. Does that answer your question? I don’t think the N. Koreans freely chose their government. As far as myself, I not surprisingly prefer cultures similar to the one I grew up in (in some respects, not all–I also see some things I like better in other cultures. For instance, I like the fact that Japan seems like a less religious country than the US.)

    Morgan, You said;

    “Humans have been cannibals. They have been communists.”

    If you think the two Koreas have vastly different cultures, then we are talking past each other. I think I am using “culture” in the more conventional sense of the term.

    Rien, Probably not much significance, but I don’t follow where you are going with that.

    Saturos, You asked whether conservatives would be superior if happier. Perhaps in that sense, but then let’s also suppose that all human progress from the Stone Age was produced by progressives, not conservatives (who opposed change.) How would you feel about that trade-off, given that studies show that richer countries tend to be happier, and also freer countries tend to be happier? Recall that conservatives have traditionally opposed “liberation” movements.

    And suppose studies showed that pigs were happier than lions, would you regard pigs as “superior” or just “happier.”

    Then there’s the reductio as absurdum of: Suppose Hitler were happier than the average bloke?

    Patrick, Good example with Korea, see my other responses.

    Saturos, I’ve never argued utility can be measured in any precise way, and have no opinion on whether Greece or South Korea is happier (surveys show both are fairly low in happiness.) As Tolstoy (should have) said, each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. But again, don’t confuse political and economic systems with culture, I’m talking as if North and South Korea have similar cultures (or at least did in 1950) If you are using a different definition, then we are talking past each other.

    Mikael, No, culture is not everything, check out the two Koreas. And I’m a right wing liberal, not a conservative. I think I may have said I’m regarded as conservative, or ally with other economists regarded as conservative.

    M. See my response to the others—we are talking past each other. BTW, do you think those cultures are more or less barbaric than Germany–the culture that (supposedly, not really) produced the Holocaust? (I should make it clear I’m not a holocaust denier, I meant to say it wasn’t a product of German culture, but rather German politics.)

    AFG, I did not intend to argue suicide is bad. Rather I was focusing on the Greek support network for those who were suffering.

    BTW, I don’t have strong views either way on happiness surveys.

    pyroseed13, No, I also favor countries with political and economic freedom. I think South Korea is WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY better than North Korea. Unlike you, I don’t think of this issue in cultural terms. I think the two Koreas have quite similar cultures, but different economic and political systems.

    I’m not a cultural relativist in the sense of believing all countries are equally good. North Korea is a much worse country that South Korea–I have no trouble making that distinction. Cannibal islands are worse (ceteris paribus) than non-cannibal islands.

    Thanks Floccina, I think others viewed my post as making sweeping claims of “relativism” that were not intended.

    Maybe I misused the term “culture” but I still think my usage in the Korea example is standard–viewing the two Koreas as having similar cultures and very different political/economic systems.

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