Culture and Freedom

by Martin Butler

Although by no means the only ones, two models of human beings and their relation to society are prominent in modern social and political thought. At first glance they seem incompatible, but I want to sketch them out and start to establish how they might plausibly be made to fit together.

The first one I’ll call the cultural model. It is based on the truism that human beings are the products of the particular traditions and histories of their society, and is a relativistic view since it allows for no trans-cultural standards against which cultures can be compared. The key features of this model are its historical nature and the fact that it is essentially social, in that individuals can only be fully understood with reference to the culture in which they were raised. All cultures have a history and evolve over time, and cultures only exist in groups of individuals; you can’t have your own personal culture.

To fully understand a culture it’s necessary to get to know the specific patterns of life within it, and these can’t be captured by abstractions or generalisations. You might, for example, say that culture X is Christian but that doesn’t actually tell you very much about how life is lived in that culture. This does not mean that human beings are completely malleable since we can accept that human nature exerts limits on what it’s possible for a person to be, and of course individuals within a culture can be very different. However, according to this model, culture leaves a major and indelible mark. There will, of course, be huge variation, but I think it’s important to note that typically gender and gender roles, bonds of kinship, religious belief (or lack of it) and rituals of various kinds are pivotal in shaping the identity of most cultures. The stereotypical image of a traditional culture is ethnically homogeneous with a well-established shared way of life, strong bonds of kinship and well-defined gender roles, all of which are supported by a set of widely held beliefs (usually religious) along with the general acceptance of a particular historical narrative.

The second model is the enlightenment model. The ideas that form the core of this model have been around for a long time but they found a particularly clear expression in European philosophy of the 18th century. This model gives centre stage to reason and free-will, and sees individuals and their rights as the starting point and building blocks of society, rather than the products of society.

According to the enlightenment model, individuals have the capacity to create a society according to rational principles (the US constitution being an example), and to freely determine their own destiny through the use of reason, quite independently of their cultural identity. This model involves the adoption of universal values and abstract principles such as equality and the rule of law, which are regarded as trans-cultural. The particular details of ‘ways of life’ do not figure in this model. Because human beings are considered to be rational and freely choosing agents, the enlightenment conception does not fit easily with the contingencies of gender, gender roles and bonds of kinship. (Although this was not necessarily evident in the 18th century.) In fact, all the particularities of an individual’s culture and the traditions it embodies are potential constraints on the expression of an individual’s freedom rather than an essential ingredient in their identity. This is a key area of contrast with the cultural model.

A further contrast lies in the fact that the enlightenment conception is ahistorical in the sense that rationality is ahistorical. It is a fixed truth that 2+2=4. Similarly it is claimed that human rights, free will and other abstract principles of the enlightenment are fixed truths and beyond any evolving tradition. According to this model, a society that allows for individual freedoms and respects human rights is objectively a better society than one that doesn’t, therefore this model is not relativistic in the way the cultural model is. This objectivity introduces the possibility of progress towards a better society, an ideal lacking in the cultural model.

It could be argued that these two conceptions are not comparable because a set of norms lies at the heart of the enlightenment model, while the cultural model makes no normative assumptions and is more like an explanation of how we acquire our values. But this would be too simplistic. Culture is used to justify norms of behaviour. We often hear, particularly recently, expressions of ‘pride in cultural heritage’. The very fact that something is part of ‘my culture’ gives it normative force, and inherited ways of life are celebrated, as is the sense of belonging they engender. Preserving one’s culture is generally recognised as a good thing and the very fact that cultures are unique rather than based on universal principles is revered. Cultural diversity, like biological diversity, is something to be cherished.

A key point here is that the justification for the value of a culture tends to be non-rational because cultures are not designed according to rational principles. They can involve arbitrariness and contingencies which would be hard to justify by reason alone. For example, status within the group is often inherited (sociologists call this ascribed status). The appeal of a distinctive way of life embodied within a culture is more about emotional attachment and belonging than fairness or rationality.

It might also be claimed that these two models are not comparable because the enlightenment should itself be regarded as just another cultural product. According to this view, the values of the enlightenment are as culturally created as the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice. In one sense this is true. However, because the values of the enlightenment to a large extent define our age, they have taken on a life of their own and cannot (for us at least) be treated as just another cultural curio.

The incompatibility derives from the rationality and individualism at the heart of the enlightenment set against the apparent arbitrariness that we often find in cultures. But there is a sense in which the very notion of rationality is misplaced when assessing a cultural practice. Take a fairly innocuous issue like dress. Tradition has it that in western cultures, as in most other cultures, men and women dress differently. From the enlightenment perspective however, this is an absurd constraint on individual choice. Why shouldn’t men and women wear whatever they choose? Rationally there should be no such thing as men’s and women’s clothes. From the cultural point of view, however, living within a community where wearing appropriately gendered clothes is the norm provides an important sense of belonging and identity, which is more difficult to articulate than the straightforward rationality of the enlightenment but just as powerful. Cultures are held together by powerful non-rational instincts and many of the debates over gender and gender identity come down to disagreement over what should take priority – pre-existing cultural practices or rational individualism, which regards these practices as impinging on rights and freedoms.

Despite the obvious incompatibilities between the two models, there is even so a sense in which each can only be understood in relation to the other. The enlightenment does not offer enough by itself. It’s tempting to visualise a utopian society constructed solely on the ideals of freedom, rationality and individual rights, but this is deeply mistaken. All societies do have a culture of one sort or another with accepted norms and patterns of behaviour, and this will necessarily mean that the ideals of individual freedom with be limited. This is not just a matter of ensuring one person’s freedom is compatible with another person’s – a problem Mill’s harm principle attempts to solve. (This principle, part of the enlightenment project, states that you are allowed as much freedom as does no harm to others.) Take the trivial example of sleep patterns. If I choose to live a nocturnal lifestyle in an urban area, it would be unacceptable for me to make as much noise in the night as other people do in the day. I might argue that it’s my choice to live a nocturnal life. The diurnal culture is cramping my style and I have a right to be myself! The harm principle cannot help us here, because although I might be harming others by continually waking them up in the night, this is only because they choose to sleep in the night rather than live the nocturnal life, so why should priority be given to them? In any case I could argue that they harm me equally by waking me up in the day when I sleep. This is, of course, nonsense and makes it clear that there has to be a cultural norm which is the starting point. A focus on individual freedom along with the harm principle is insufficient to establish a cultural practice. Once we have a cultural practice, the ideal of individual freedom, (and indeed the harm principal), might be used to adjust and modify accepted ways of life, but there’s no starting from scratch. These changes would then have to become part of a new accepted cultural practice.

A further point is that the ideal of individual freedom is an abstraction, and there are many ways in which it can be embedded in the actual practices of a culture. Those living off-grid in remote locations with no utilities, internet or other amenities believe they have real freedom since they are out of sight of government authorities. Wide consumer choice for all aspects of life is another version of freedom, as is a society in which government provides healthcare, education, a comprehensive safety net and other amenities. Even these general descriptions can’t capture the range of detailed possibilities, so the ideal of freedom is meaningless unless understood in relation to an actual set of social arrangements, and for each to work, an established cultural practice would be required.

There is also danger in trying to start from scratch with abstract ideas alone and a lack of inherited cultural practices to ground society. When things become culturally unmoored naked power has a free run and the most appalling inhumanity can result. From Stalin to Pol Pot, the twentieth century is littered with examples of this.

The enlightenment model does however bring us something important. Notwithstanding the wider culture, it’s very difficult for us, as children of the enlightenment, not to acknowledge the value of the individual and individual dignity. We see life in terms of individual fulfilment and can’t help but recognize the power of the ideal that all individuals are worthy of equal respect. Universal values and the ideal of social progress are positive goods, even though they need handling with caution. Indeed, even though we disagree, we try to measure the various alternative embodiments of freedom listed above in terms of how they meet these ideals.

The cultural model is problematic too. Like the stereotyped image referred to earlier, it’s likely to give us an idealised or romanticised version of what culture is, and there’s often an over-emphasis on the unchanging nature of tradition. Few cultures are hermetically sealed bubbles. It’s not the case that one generation simply follows the previous generation in “a blind or timid adherence” as T.S. Eliot puts it. Cultures don’t mechanically self-replicate. Within a culture there will always be forces which produce change, whether unconscious and almost imperceptible, or whether taking the form of more direct challenges to tradition. Enlightenment values form the paramount challenge to tradition in our era. They cannot be ignored, but the process of change has to be one of integrating modified practices rather than wholesale and abrupt change.

The value of the cultural model is to be found in the recognition that we are social animals. Culture plays a crucial role in our identity and sense of place in the world, even if our culture is at odds with the ideals of the enlightenment. It reminds us that human life cannot be reduced to a set of rational principles. The rationality of the enlightenment is based on the paramount importance given to the individual, but the notion of a culture provides a more nuanced view which recognises the history of a community and the often quirky patterns of life seen in communities, reminding us that a desire to smooth out the quirks is often misplaced. As Kant, surely one of the most important enlightenment philosophers, noted: “From such crooked timber as humankind is made of, nothing entirely straight can be made.”