The meaning of life and the measure of civilizations

In The History of Liberalism in Europe. Paris: CREA/CREPHE (2002)
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In what respects is Western civilization superior or inferior to its rivals? In raising this question we are addressing a particularly strong form of the problem of relativism. For in order to compare civilizations one with another we would need to be in possession of a framework that is neutral and objective, a framework based on principles of evaluation which would be acceptable, in principle, to all human beings. Morality will surely provide one axis of such a framework (and we note in passing that believers in Islam might quite reasonably claim that their fellow-believers are characteristically more moral than are many in the West). Criteria such as material wellbeing, too, will need to play a role, as also will happiness or pleasure (and again we note that it is not clear a priori that there is more happiness in the West than there is among the citizens of other civilizations). Since, however, these axes of evaluation do not run in tandem, we cannot expect to be able to formulate some single criterion which would enable us to rank civilizations in a simple unilinear order. Even happiness (pace some proponents of the utilitarian philosophy) comes in different types, and to count in the civilization stakes the happiness involved would presumably need to be of the right kind. Thus it is not clear that happiness derived from, say, taking drugs or torturing small animals is going to be able to count in favor of a civilization as much as, say, happiness derived from reading poetry or planting corn. Hence, for these and other reasons, we will have to deal with a multidimensional framework, in which some civilizations may excel along some axes but do badly on others. A further problem turns on the fact that there is no such relation as better than. Rather, when A is better than B then this is always in some respect C. Yet even when we compare one thing with another in some given respect we are not always dealing with a simple linear order. This is because the relation ‘being better than in respect C’ is not in every case transitive..
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