Philosopher/biologist Richard Dawkins, best known as the world’s most formidable atheist, does not shy away from rustling the feathers of some pretty fierce birds. Recently he even infuriated many of his admirers by tweeting, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” He was immediately called an anti-Muslim bigot by some, while others chose to challenge his assertion with false analogies. Making a strong statement worthy of a treatise in 140 characters is a tricky enterprise, and perhaps an unwise one, but the politically incorrect observation he was making was not about the Nobel Prize’s perfection as a measure of accomplishment, but rather about how the Muslim culture has strangled human progress, creativity and advancement for centuries. In this he is correct.
It has long been cant in the cultural diversity corners of the Left that all cultures are equally valid, and that any culture’s assertion of special virtue or superiority is pure chauvinism and imperialism. This position is untenable, and it is also anathema to ethics, which suits many of its adherents just fine. Ethics is impossible and reduced to nonsense if we accept the myth that what is wrong in one culture can be right in another. A culture may try to claim that wrongful behavior is ethical, but the proof is in the pudding: if the resulting society is miserable, poor, sick, violent, unproductive and short-lived, its claim was mistaken. Nazi Germany thought that genocide could be ethical. Its end confirmed the proposition that it is not. If culture was as irrelevant to a society’s progress and success as this warped tenet of multi-culturalism holds, then the ongoing culture wars in this nation would be silly; in fact, they are a matter of survival. Pretending that culture doesn’t matter is a convenient myth, as it allows the “Fundamental Attribution Error” to flourish, which is to blame failures and problems on outside influences rather than internal mistakes and flaws.
There are toxic cultures, those that are built on mistaken values and theories of human nature and survival that simply don’t work. Cultures that embrace lying, violence, oppression, abuse of power, suppression of individual autonomy, creativity, and initiative, greed and cruelty sew the seeds of their own destruction, or at least the misery of those unlucky enough to be surrounded by them. Dawkin’s provocative tweet simply applies Kant’s Rule of Universality to the Muslim culture, and asks rhetorically what a world would be like in which the Muslim culture was the only one. That’s not bigotry. That’s enlightenment.
Of course, the culture under attack always has a natural defense, just as the culture in “1984” would have the rejoinder of “Who says freedom is a virtue?” Similarly, while Richard Dawkins believes that knowledge of the physical world, the search for truth, scientific advancement, equality of the sexes, technological advancement, societal wealth and a flourishing of the arts are measures of success, that too is a cultural preference. If all that matters is finding approval and grace in the eye of the one true deity, then Dawkins’ measurement is a false one.
Cultures are by nature arguments for what the best ways to live and the best values for a society to encourage are. The arguments are important and natural; it is not bigotry to make the argument that one culture is superior to another, and it isn’t unethical either. What is unethical, because it makes ethics impossible, is to deny the existence of the argument, and to claim there isn’t anything to argue about, because it’s all good. It isn’t all good.
If it is all good, then good has no meaning at all.
Sources: Independent, The Guardian, Huffington Post
19 thoughts on “Culture, Truthteller Ethics, And Richard Dawkins’ Tweet”
” What is unethical, because it makes ethics impossible, is to deny the existence of the argument, and to claim there isn’t anything to argue about, because it’s all good. It isn’t all good…. If it is all good, then good has no meaning at all.”
Jack, in two sentences you’ve nailed beautifully what I think some of us have been trying to say in volumes.
What OldGrayMary said.
Er, why does the headline say Richard Dawson instead of Richard Dawkins? I was wondering how the former host of Family Feud could make an ethics headline at this late date.
Haha. I thought that too. Maybe something about his three piece suits and that he kissed every female contestant?
Maybe it’s so the fucking insane Dawkins fans don’t find us via google alerts?
Just like how you don’t type out the name of the father of Rand Paul unless you want the fucking Ronulans to show up…
Why would they go ape-shit? We’re essentially agreeing with the tweet,
Because he said something not-nice about the Religion of Peace. They didn’t care for that.
Do you really think Atheists and Muslims are allied?
It took ten years, but he married one of the contestants in ’91.
(Not that I’m disagreeing with this post. Some things like clothing or hair can be relative, but not everything.)
Go ahead, have your fun. The problem is that jack’s pop culture brain often takes over the controls. Fixed it.
It’s possible to argue that one culture is better than another, but it’s rarely interesting. So a noted atheist and scientist in a secular culture that highly values progress, particularly in the arena of science, doesn’t think Islamic culture is as good because it’s religious and isn’t interested in science. I’m not offended by his statement, but I can’t say tells me anything I didn’t already know about him.
It may not be “interesting,” but it’s necessary.
Jack, this is one of the best posts I’ve read since I started coming here.
MC, it may not be “interesting,” but it is INDEED necessary. The world does not exist for our amusement.
Just for kicks, ignore the religious basis and focus specifically on some of the behaviors we see in the Islamic world (not all of it, certainly, but a particularly active and virulent strain of it). Again, behaviors ONLY, regardless of their source.
Would you say that a culture that advocates keeping half the population uneducated, dispenses unequal punishments for the same crime based upon gender, demands total submission to a central authority yet leaves determination of both crime and punishment to the interpretation of individuals who are NOT that authority, and that advocates either the assimilation or elimination of those who think differently to be a culture that’s on an even playing field with other cultures?
The problem with the comment is that it uses a false marker to make it’s point. Skeptics should avoid such invalid statements. It looks like anti-muslim bias because Dawkins should be better than to think that Nobel prizes are a valid marker to compare the input of different groups.
Yes, I think Dawkins would agree with that, though he might not admit it. This is another trap of Twitter—it tempts smart people to speak Bumper Sticker.
…except he brushed that criticism aside as unimportant. That’s what really caused an uproar among skeptics
Because people like Dawkins don’t think they can ever admit to making a stupid mistake and still be treated as brilliant—one of the reasons the world doesn’t work.
I’ve met too many of them. I’ve also met too many people that pretend that admitting a mistake means that someone should be written off.
The single biggest fallacy I’ve found that power-brokers and experts fall victim to is “never apologize or admit error.” It’s epidemic,