Humans Haven’t Yet Figured Out How To Combine Culture and Ethics

“The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other.” This famous line from Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics sets out a basic idea that, in some form or another, is at least part of most thoughtful philosophical understandings of morality: at a fundamental level, you and yours are no more important than them and theirs. 

Yet many of the goods in life—from a mere sense of belonging, to the highest expression of fine arts—are cultural, that is, the product of partially distinct groupings of individuals typically based on morally arbitrary factors. And many of the goods of modern life depend on the existence of a diverse range of cultures, each adding to the interestingness of the world we experience. So far, it seems that the preservation of cultures, and the goods that they provide, requires some kinds of exclusion.

And so we humans are tossed around by the ethical pull of sameness and the cultural push of difference.

There is some way, I hope, to peacefully and sustainably accommodate ethics and culture. But we haven’t figured it out yet. We are fearful and panicky, ill-informed about how the world works, over-committed to an inflated sense of our own group’s importance, inadequately appreciative of what those different from us add to the world, and resistant to recognizing just how similar we are to them.

Yes, I know these remarks are abstract, but it is what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what some recent headlines (including, but not limited to, the one below) have made topical—even if many other factors besides those I mentioned are releveant.

nytimes Brexit

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