The Value Of Culture
Many people share the belief that when a culture is lost something of value is lost, and that this value is not exhausted by the culture’s impact on the well-being of the people whose culture it is, or even the well-being of people outside this culture. The recent inclusion of ‘ethnocide’ – the destruction of a people’s way of life, their communities and cultural practices – into the UN Draft Declaration On Rights Of Indigenous Peoples is one example of this common belief, and at the same time shows its important political implications. But what, if anything, is the basis of such value claims? The aim of this paper is to explain our intuitions about the value of cultures by making use of two thought-experiments about the loss of the culture of the Panara Indians in Brazil during the 20th century, and to provide a number of ways in which these intuitions can be given philosophical grounding. I begin by clarifying some issues about our understanding of culture and value. I then argue that cultures are usually valuable in virtue of the well-being of their people, or of human well-being in general. In particular, they are valuable due to their relevance for human identity and recognition, as constituting contexts of meaningful choice, as providing diversity, and as material for human curiosity. More importantly, however, I further argue that cultures can also be valuable separately from well-being altogether, in three ways. First, following Hegel, they can be valuable in virtue of providing the conditions for the development of human rational agency and freedom, which may be considered valuable independently of well-being. Second, given certain religious beliefs, they may be considered valuable in virtue of being an instance of divine will or creation. Third, and most interestingly, they can be valuable in virtue of their manifesting and representing human life and self-understanding. This last view, based on what I call the ‘manifestation thesis’, can be understood in two distinct ways. On the one hand, cultures are aesthetic and intellectual achievements in a sense similar to great works of art of literature, and may thus be considered admirable for their own sake, particularly in view of their unique traditions and customs. On the other hand, cultures are also the instantiation of the various ways in which human beings bring meaning to the world and give it expression on a social, political and religious level. Cultural traditions and customs reflect not only its immediate environment and associeted constraints (as e.g. culinary traditions usually do) but also the particular way in which human beings make sense of their own life and its place in the world. In this sense, culture is part of what makes life human. The loss of a culture is the loss of a significant aspect of human self-understanding, and hence also the loss of a constituent part of humanity itself. I end the paper by considering some possible objections to the manifestation thesis, and some possible worries about the political implications of the view that cultures have value independently of the well-being of their members.