How not to talk to cultural conservatives. A reply to Sven Gerst

Over at his own blog, Sven Gerst has outlined some of his thoughts about current debates concerning the events that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Both national and international commentators have drawn a very pessimistic picture about the impact the events (will) have on German and European immigration policy in general as well as the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular. Furthermore, as Sven observes, a dangerous discursive mode is taking over public discourses, a mode that is characterized by “violant outrage” (as opposed to “naive ignorance”, usually the other way Germans tend to deal with political questions, according to Sven). This trend can be seen particularly within social media, as Sven notes (and which I can absolutely agree with).

Sven takes issue with the idea that nations have a “right to cultural preservation”, which he takes to mean, in its reasonable form, a “right to cultural self-determination”. He rejects views that imply an entitlement to one’s culture as “outrageous and implausible” and focuses instead on this more modest claim. This claim is then rejected on the ground that culture and its (presumed) values are in fact not lived in our (Western) societies. The argument can roughly be summarized in the following way:

(1) cultural self-determination requires a commitment to “preserving activities”;
(2) preserving a liberal culture, understood as a public good (non-excludable and non-rivalrous), prohibits coercive institutions, and
(3) no non-coercive forms of cultural preservation can be found among members of current liberal cultures, so that
(4) the contents of the liberal culture alone do not justify closing the borders an preventing others to come in.

Thus formalized, the conclusion in (4) does not really flow from premises (1) to (3), so an additional premise is needed: (3*) only if there really is a culture that is defended and lived non-coercively is there a justification of closing borders in order to prevent a decline of that culture. Note also that Sven’s argument is a argumentative response to someone who has a conservative view and aims at closing borders on the basis of the cultural-preservation-argument. He makes this clear by directly addressing a conservative and accusing him of being a “free-rider”.

Although I absolutely agree with Sven’s conclusion about open borders, and I find his argument interesting and novel, I think some open questions and problems still remain. I will mention, without going too much into detail here, what I think are problems Sven would have to address if he wanted to fully convince me of his argument (not implying, of course, that he actually wants or needs to convince me). All this will set the scene for an outline of my own view – something I will deliver in another, near-future post.

First of all, I am not sure if the first premise is actually true, at least in the general form I present it here. Note that this premise is not spelled out directly, but Sven needs it for his argument about coercion and non-coercion as forms of preserving or determining culture to work. So why do I have doubts about the premise’s truth? Here’s one way to frame it: Cultural self-determination addresses autonomy in choosing values,  institutions and practices, but whether that is conservative or progressive is not thereby implied. Self-determination has a creative element to it, which incorporates a whole range of activities that one should be able to perform as a matter of the right to self-determination. Perhaps the problem begins when we follow Sven in interpreting the fundamental question (“is there a right to cultural preservation?”) as meaning “is there a right to cultural self-determination?”. I do not deny that self-determination includes preservation, but this is one part of it, not a different way of conceiving it. If that is true, there might be different ways of answering Sven’s fundamental question about self-preservation and the more modest question about cultural self-determination. Moreover, I have the impression that the relation between self-preservation and self-determination is the exact opposite of what Sven thinks it is: the more modest claim is about self-preservation, not about self-determination.*

Second, I find it interesting to take into question whether culture is actually a public good. This time, the premise is directly mentioned in Sven’s argument, but what about this: Culture is always a matter of subjectively living the values of that culture, a matter of individually creating it and giving life and meaning to it. Culture is thus always what an individual perceives as culture. Culture is individualistic and it can potentially include beliefs about what a culture is, without requiring that the content of these beliefs are realized. This means that there need not be any decline of what one thinks is a culture. All that counts is that people include certain beliefs in their minds for these beliefs to be part of a culture. If that is true, no public good-argument can or needs to be made. Sure, culture may involve more than one person sharing a given value, but this is not essential to culture, and it might not even be truly called culture, when what culture is, is completely determined by an individual’s view. Below I will elaborate further on this point.

However, what is more important is that I am not sure a liberal culture is opposed to coercive means to uphold itself. Personally I agree with this position, but I think in a conversation with cultural conservatives this begs the question. Cultural conservatives would disagree here and simply state that of course does a liberal culture allow for coercive means to uphold the liberal culture. Conservatives might argue that the overall amount of liberty or whatever value one cherishes is what counts, or that liberty is not as important as any other sort of cultural value, e.g. those that have historically shaped a given society. Again, I am not saying that this is true. But Sven argues directly with and against cultural conservatives, and such a conservative would flat-out deny premise (2).

The remaining argumentative strategy would be to say that closing borders is some form of authoritative, coercive act which is allowed, as conservatives say, or not allowed, as liberals say. The burden would lie on the question whether coercion is allowed, and should it not be allowed, closing borders is prohibited. But then the whole argument rests on the plausibility of this claim (which I think is plausible), and a whole new debate emerges.

In terms of premise (3) I think that this might be read as constituting a move from an individual perspective in premises (1) and (2), to a more collectivistic perspective in (3). For although there might be a decline in values such as musical art, democratic involvement or civic engagement (examples mentioned by Sven), this holds true only on the collective level, measurable by observation. It does not speak to a cultural conservative. For the conservative might join Sven in his observation – and might in fact regret it. The conservative would also point out that he himself is an example of a truly cultural human being. Whether that might be so or not is not the point. The point is rather that a cultural conservative might draw different conclusions from the collective-level observation of what Sven calls cultural free-riding.

Fourth, the conclusion Sven draws from these premises is correct – although not directly derivable from the premises. The idea is that there is not much ‘real’ culture going on in our societies, so that merely finding the culture good, or valuable, is not enough to say that no other culture should come in touch with it. Sure, but where does the question of “no other culture comes in” come in? As I said above, I think Sven needs an additional premise, spelling out a principle by which it is clarified when a right to cultural self-determination exists. The premise might state that one has a right to self-determination and thus a right to preserving one’s culture if one takes pains at living and defending it. However, this appears (a) to imply an implausible view about what a culture is (essentialist vs. subjective), and/or (b) to overstate what self-determination means (as opposed to self-preservation).
(a) As I have already noted, there seems to be a problem about what a culture is. Sven seems to think that culture involves a given set of behaviors, norms, institutions, and other elements that are prevalent among the members of a cultural group. These behaviors etc. need not be objective in the sense of pre-existing human society, but they are objective in the sense of being real. Humans come together being sincerely committed to behaviors etc. in action and thought. Authenticity might be the correct label for this view, and in any case, this approach is an essentialist one since it presumes an essence of a culture (which, in Sven’s argument, is then not realized, hence the prohibition on closing border). However, there is no such essence, according to a more subjective, individualistic version of culture. Culture just is what people think of it. And importantly, it includes beliefs about what constitutes a good society, e.g. what values should be prevalent, what should be protected, etc. In this perspective, someone who acts according to values A can still hold that it is worthwhile to protect set of values B, or more particularly: the belief that B needs to be protected is part of A. As a consequence, no decline in (actual behavior of) B can be invoked in order to show that people are “free-riding” on others contribution to a culture.
(b) Another problem with premise (3*) is that it overstates what self-determination amounts to. Remember that (3*) is needed in order to make the transition from the observation about what’s going on in our culture (decline in cultures invoked by conservatives) to the conclusion that what is going on does not justify closing borders. One implication of that premise is that it would justify doing so were it the case that liberal, non-coercive means to preserving one’s culture were actually existent. What would exist here are rights to non-coercively determine the outlook of a culture. But does self-determination per se include keeping others out of one’s culture? I think if one subscribes to a view that allows only non-coercive, liberal means to determine something – a culture or any other thing (which a conservative does not) – , it is thereby implied that closing access coercively is not included in the range of available means. So self-determination does not, in the liberal sense, imply closing access. But what about a view that does not subscribe to non-coercive means only? Well, also in this case keeping others out as a matter of principle is also not allowed. The reason is that something that violates the entering person’s fundamental rights and his moral standing, must not be violated through one’s exercising one’s control rights. My point is: Even if there exists a right to self-determination, it would not call for closing borders as a means to reach one’s end (namely, to preserve one’s culture). This is so independent of whether one subscribes to a liberal view, emphasizing non-coercive means, or a conservative view, allowing for coercion. Concerning Sven’s argument this has the implication, if true, that his argument rests on a premise (i.e. 3*) which leaves us with a false alternative between the conditions when it is allowed to preserve one’s culture and when it is not.

Let me say, once more, that I absolutely do not disagree with Sven’s overall point where he is saying that no reasons to close borders exist. I really think there are a lot of arguments in favor of that conclusion. There are consequentialist ones, emphasizing the net benefit we gain from letting other people into our lives and cultures. There are moral arguments to the extent that not letting others, especially the desperately poor, in amounts to the same moral wrong as killing them. There are political ones, holding that (current) nation states do not have the appropriate shape to have the right to close borders. And there are cultural ones where the focus lies on a concept of culture as being fundamentally characterized by change, modification, evolution, progress – and where  any attempt to preserve cultures amounts to a conceptual error, so to speak (one wants to preserve something which does not exist). I will have to say more particularly about the two latter arguments in another post. Let me just briefly say that my own take on the issue is basically related to what Sven mentions at the end of his post, namely that liberal cultures thrive towards openness and liberal values. I think this is true, as it has been true in the distant past, where cultural exchange as well as trade and specialization fostered liberty and related values (and are reinforced by it). But I would like to combine this view with a story about humans as owners of social institutions, giving them a strong ownership-based right to determine their culture, and with an attempt to solve the inherent dichotomy between self-determination and open borders. In other words, using the ownership idea I would like to say that cultural self-determination and open borders are in fact not mutually exclusive, against what one would think they are.

So, as a final word on Sven’s terrific post, I would like to say that I there are good reasons to come to his conclusion, but his way to do so is not the right one. And in addition, I’d like to point out that even if there is a right to cultural self-determination, including self-preservation, there are strong reasons to favor open over closed borders.



* Note that this might be wrong. Compare the concepts of self-determination and self-preservation in the case of individuals: we have a right to self-preservation which usually means a right to be let alone (for libertarians), or entitlement-rights to subsistence (for progressives and left-liberals). Self-determination is a different concept which is about how self-preserving activities can be pursued. Libertarians think that people must be left alone, whereas left-liberals think that certain equalities must be there in order for self-determination to be used by individuals. Self-determination follows self-preservation, can be curtailed in the name of self-preservation, for example. Without arguing for it, I will assume that the case of cultures is sufficiently different from the individual case so as to justify at least to raise the question whether self-determination takes precedence over self-preservation. Perhaps I am wrong. Generally speaking, though, I think it would be interesting to discuss the issue on two dimensions: one is the individual level of particpants of a culture. The questions then are, for example, what rights to individuals have when they see their culture (or their preserving activities) threatened. The other dimension is that of a group-level right to self-preservation or self-determination. The questions here are: Do groups have rights on their own, which might differ from rights individuals have? And what is the role individuals play, what rights towards the group do they have? I have no more ideas to contribute at this point beyond raising that question. It occured to me while observing that Sven follows the methodological individualist’s path, whereas the collective agency-level seems to include a couple of insights that might be relevant here.



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