Napier’s Lesson

In the 1840s, Hindu priests complained to Charles James Napier (then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in India) about the prohibition of suttee by British authorities. Suttee was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands. According to Napier’s brother William, this is how he replied:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This incident, perhaps the finest single moment in the history of Britain’s relatively benign imperialism, teaches two lessons still profoundly relevant today.

The first lesson is for the various sorts who call themselves “multiculturalists” and “moral relativists”. Napier showed us that these ostensibly liberating doctrines actually translate into “might makes right” – that, in the absence of a common normative ethical framework, disputes about “custom” will be won by the tribe with the most ability and will to use force.

The second lesson is for people who, having noticed than relativism and multiculturism are a road to ruination and blood, then argue that we must fall back on religion as the only possible source of truly universal ethical norms (If God is dead, is anything permissible?). Notice that the would-be widow-burners are priests? The “custom” they are arguing for is exactly their bid in the game of if-you-accept-my-religious-premises.

Napier, in promising those priests a hanging, says nothing of any religious counter-conviction of his own. And it would make no difference to the lesson if he had – except, perhaps, to underline the point that religion is just another form of tribal particularism and thus fundamentally unable to lift us away from the bloody muck of might-makes-right.

Those Hindu priests, being polytheists, are at least better equipped to understand this inability than a Christian or Muslim would be – they don’t pretend to a universal normative ethic, just one that is binding on those who live within their tribal custom. Monotheists, on the other hand, miss the point – they think everyone else’s religion is mere tribal particularism, while their own is uniquely and miraculously true. In this monotheists are essentially similar to any occupant of a hospital ward for delusional psychotics, and it is thus unsurprising that their capacity for consequential ethical reasoning is badly damaged.

Napier’s lesson doesn’t tell us where to find a universal normative ethic that isn’t dependent on religion. But it does tell us that until we do, the only “solution” to conflicts of custom will be this: rules get made by those with the most power to threaten and murder and the will to use that power.

And here is where the irony of Napier’s last sentence really stings. “Let us all act according to national customs.” Illusions about the logic of these conflicts can only lead to more bloodshed, not less.

95 thoughts on “Napier’s Lesson

  1. Well, I must say this was elegantly phrased and I definitely agree with the concept of the way ward road to destruction or at best the violence done to the weak and defenseless. Good piece I intend to repeat it.

  2. The British Raj was a fascinating period in many respects. One bit that stands out was the relatively extraordinary record of the British administrators. If you had to call out the troops to put down unrest, you were considered to have failed, so administrators had strong incentives to understand local customs and avoid needing to use the mailed first. It ultimately failed because policy was made back in Whitehall by people who *didn’t* understand the local conditions, without talking to the folks who did. The Sepoy Rebellion was a symptom of the problems that created.

    Some years back, I was at dinner in a restaurant, and heard a chap talking about a friend from an area once ruled by the British (Malta, I think) who said “It’s not good to have a master. But if you *must* have one, the British are by far the best!”

    It was no real surprise that the British forces in Iraq fared better than the US troops in dealing with the locals. They understood that having overthrown the former regime, they were now the ones who had to serve as mediators in local disputes and hand down judgements all could accept and live with. The US never seemed to realize that Iraq was a simmering cauldron of ethnic and sectarian rivalries and hatreds, that Saddam Hussein had kept a lid on by main force. When Saddam was removed, the pot promptly boiled over, which *should* have come as no surprise to anyone but did to the US. (And the Bush administration never seemed to have a clear plan for what they expected to do *after* they got rid of Saddam. “You’re all democrats now” wasn’t going to work…)

    An old friend once exclaimed “They’re not shooting at *us*! They’re shooting at each other! We just happen to be in the middle!”, and it was an apt description of what was going on.

    There are a lot of problems with mulch-culturalism too many people are blind to, and will bite with a vengeance. Often, they are problems that get ascribed to the wrong causes. One example is the burkha worn by women in some Islamic areas. People talk about Islam when they refer to it, but it has little connection with Islam. It’s a custom that had been in place long before Mohammed came along and became the Prophet, and had simply been incorporated into Islamic law because it’s what everyone in the area did.

    The question to ask is “What purpose does the burkha serve?”, and the answer is simple. All cultures will have rules that govern what behavior is considered acceptable, and controls to insure the rules are followed. The controls may be internal (you don’t do something because you believe you aren’t supposed to) or external (the society has mechanisms to see that you don’t do something), but they will always exist.

    Consider what happens when a man meets an attractive woman, and is interested in having sex with her. In our culture, he is assumed to be able to control himself. He is expected to know the steps of the dance, ascertain whether the woman is available and interested before making a move, and take no for an answer. The controls are internal. In the cultures where the burkha is worn, the assumption is that the man *can’t* control himself, so the woman must dress with extreme modesty to avoid giving any provocation. The controls are external. And if your culture assumes you *can’t* control yourself, you never learn how, so there have been some tragic problems when men from those cultures come to the West to study and are dropped down among attractive women who dress like whores by their standards.

    A similar situation obtained in Latin America decades ago, and expressed itself in the institution of the duenna. Latino culture taught men they were hot blooded and passionate, and left alone with an unmarried woman they would be unable to resist her charms. It taught women they were feminine and passive and would be unable to resist the advance of the man. The culture got around the obvious problems by making sure young unmarried women weren’t *left* alone with men. They were always accompanied by a duenna – an older married relative or friend who served as a chaperone. Once again, the controls were external. (It seems to have changed in the past 50 years, and the duenna was always a largely upper-class phenomenon in any case.)

    My own suspicion is that Latino culture got it from the Spaniards, and they in turn got it from the Moorish Arabs during the period when the Moors ruled Spain.

    There are plenty of other areas like that, and they are dangerous because they happen on an unconscious reflex level. You really don’t understand the hidden depths and assumptions of your own culture because your responses are reflex, and you don’t even realize you have them until you get plunked down someplace where the culture does it differently.

  3. His reply is so cool! I already translated it and passed it to my friends… Hm, to bad that this isn’t related to computing… It would make a nice koan in Jargon File. :)

  4. It would be of interest to note that the practice of Sati (or suttee as you put it) originated with the Muslim invasion of India.

    During the height of the islamic wars, Hindu widows, especially those born of royalty or higher families (re: Rajputs and similar clans), preferred to self-immolate in the face of defeat, rather than the islamic raiders who would convert them and add them to their harem. This slowly evolved to become a “custom” with all the trappings of religious ceremony.

    Hinduism, per se, does not prescribe for such practices, in any of its texts.

  5. @DMcCunney
    “My own suspicion is that Latino culture got it from the Spaniards, and they in turn got it from the Moorish Arabs during the period when the Moors ruled Spain.”

    I can agree with most of your point. However, I would like to add some remarks to the history.

    The separation of men and women as exemplified by the burka has been part of whole Mediterranean/Middle Eastern area from before the classic Greek times. So there is no surprise that you find such separation in Spain whose original, pre-Roman, population were related to the Berber from North Africa.

    This separation might be linked to the endogamous practices that also were ingrained in this region (marriages were between cousins). It seems the Pashtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan are also a point in evidence, as they love the burka and are endogamous (IIRC). Women have to be separated (protected) from men whom they were not related to. In such regions, in the extreme case, there are no valid reasons for a man to see the face of a woman that is not family.

    In these endogamous regions, there is also a custom of “honor killings” of women. Which in turn might be related to a superstition that a growing embryo can sleep for years, making paternity uncertain. So a woman that is not “pure” could carry a cuckoo’s egg and become a liability.

    The Burka never took off in places were men and women had to meet non-relatives to marry (exogamy), e.g., Indonesia and Malay, which are Islamic but where you only rarely see a burka.

    But having said that, it is very questionable whether the Arabs around Mecca used the burka at the time of Mohammed. More likely the Islamic Arab elite took it from city elites (Christians from Damascus, Greeks from Anatolia, Egypt?) when they conquered the cities of the North.

    I am not sure whether the burka used to be worn by lower class women at all before modern times. I know that Oman women wear a face mask, but that is to protect their faces against blowing sand. Tuareg women, and Bedouin women in general, reportedly never have hid their faces. And even in Saudi Arabia the headscarf was in decline (if it had been worn at all) before a religious campaign in the 1950s.

    In short, all this “burka is islamic” stuff most likely is a religious mystification with no historical evidence. No surprise here.

  6. Interesting article and Napier’s response is worth noting in the light of attempts in Europe to undo the principle of “one law for all of us”,(unrealised goal though that may be).

    However the allegation that British colonialism was relatively benign is pure revisionism and ignores the actual data on civilian slaughter, torture, famines and of course the outright theft of goods and resources from the colonised regions.

  7. > It was no real surprise that the British forces in Iraq fared better than the US troops in dealing with the locals. They understood that having overthrown the former regime, they were now the ones who had to serve as mediators in local disputes and hand down judgements all could accept and live with.

    The British were thoroughly defeated and utterly humiliated in Iraq. They did not hand down judgments, but where judged by those they vainly sought to timidly appease. While they hid from their enemies, the oil port Basra fell into the hands of our enemies, an Iraqi militia sponsored by Iran, and had to be taken back by US and Iraqi troops, while the British cowered like gays.

    The British humiliation in Basra was repeated in Helmand province of Afghanistan, where three thousand British troops were defeated and besieged by what turned out, when the US marines arrived, to be a mere eight hundred taliban. Britons really need to do something about this machismo leakage. If the British clobbered someone, somewhere, perhaps reclobbered the Argentineans, or rescued the Karen from the Buddhists, or liberated Zimbabwe, or even invaded Grenada, I suspect that British Muslims would become less pushy.

    President Karzai himself has drily remarked that
    there were almost no Taliban in Helmand until
    the British arrived

    For two years British troops staked out a
    presence in this small district center in
    southern Afghanistan and fended off attacks from
    the Taliban. The constant firefights left it a
    ghost town, its bazaar broken and empty but for
    one baker, its houses and orchards reduced to
    rubble and weeds.

    But it took the US Marines, specifically the
    24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, about 96 hours
    to clear out the Taliban in a fierce battle in
    the past month and push them back about 10km.

    The district chief returned to his job from his
    refuge in the provincial capital within days of
    the battle and 200 people — including 100 elders
    of the community — gathered for a meeting with
    him and the British to plan the regeneration of
    the town.

    “They have disrupted the Taliban’s freedom of
    movement and pushed them south, and that has
    created the grounds for us to develop the
    hospital and set the conditions for the
    government to come back,” said Major Neil
    Den-McKay, the officer commanding a company of
    the Royal Regiment of Scotland based here.
    People have already started coming back to
    villages north of the town, he said, adding:
    “There has been huge optimism from the people.”

    The influx of 3,000 US Marines, split between
    Kandahar and Helmand province, has forced the
    Taliban to deal with a new front in the southern
    deserts of Afghanistan

    During a month of fierce combat, the
    2,400-strong 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit
    drove the Taliban from Garmsir, a district along
    the Helmand River that insurgents had called
    their own for two years. Penetrating deepest
    into Taliban country were the 180 men of Alpha
    Company, First Battalion, Sixth Marines, who
    commandeered a series of mud-brick compounds,
    reinforced them with sandbags and razor wire,
    and now use them to launch foot patrols through
    poppy fields and villages.

    The defeat has pushed the Taliban to give up on
    frontal attacks here …

  8. I left out the links for those quotes, which illustrate British incapacity, and the contempt with which their enemies held them in recent wars:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jun/09/afghanistan.military
    President Karzai himself has drily remarked that there were almost no Taliban in Helmand until the British arrived, and that since their arrival the output of opium poppies has more than doubled along the Helmand river.

    http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2008/06/01/2003413448
    presence in this small district center in
    southern Afghanistan and fended off attacks from
    the Taliban. The constant firefights left it a
    ghost town, its bazaar broken and empty but for
    one baker, its houses and orchards reduced to
    rubble and weeds.

    But it took the US Marines, specifically the
    24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, about 96 hours
    to clear out the Taliban in a fierce battle in
    the past month and push them back about 10km.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121443455438105091.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
    During a month of fierce combat, the
    2,400-strong 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit
    drove the Taliban from Garmsir, a district along
    the Helmand River that insurgents had called
    their own for two years.
    That is to say, the Taliban had called in their own when they had only the British to worry about.

  9. The repeated painful military humiliations suffered by troops from Europe and Britain in modern times suggests that the modern progressive multicultural state lacks asabiyyah and can therefore neither fight nor win. Sooner or later, probably sooner, this is going to come to the attention of predators.

  10. Religion as a source of morals: why should morals have a single source? I think we can accept religion being one of the many important sources of morals, plus there are many others, tribal tradition, social contract, empathy being other important sources.

    Religious reductionism is stupid. But I am more annoyed by the empathy reductionism of modern liberal people: something is bad if you feel bad for the (proposed) victim. Maybe it is just me, but morals should not entirely depend on feelings, not even on noble feelings like compassion. It is a serious mistake to assume morals can be reduced to generally being nice.

    Anyway. Of the many sources, there is one kind of source which is should somehow be brought back to the modern world: honor. In that particular sense that turning pride into a source of morality: you don’t cheat on exams _because_ you want to show everybody you are so clever that you can ace it fairly. You help that attacked girl because you want to feel and look like a hero. You don’t cheat on your wife because you gave your word and your pride doesn’t let you break it. This is an excellent trick for turning a vice (pride, vanity, ego) into a virtue, and is kind of missing from our post-modern moral cocktail.

    How could we bring it back?

  11. @JAD
    The Dutch troops were send into Uruzgan province in Afghanistan after US troops behavior had almost driven the complete province to defect to the Taliban. The Dutch withdrew when the Dutch population lost all confidence that the Afghan security problems could be solved by shooting Afghan people.

    European countries do not have armies equipped to fight wars on the other side of the globe. That is a conscious choice. During the Afghan mission, close to half of the Dutch army materials were in Afghanistan. On the other hand, countries with less than 20 million people can hardly be expected to fight empirical wars throughout the globe. Especially, if it is other people’s empire.

    Both Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that the US high firepower shock-and-awe approach can indeed destroy developing countries completely. But they also show that all this firepower is unable to win them the war.

    So who is humiliated?

    The British who were drawn into this war against their better judgment and the will of the people, the Americans who are still killing foreigners ten years on, or the French, who predicted this outcome from the start.

  12. DMcCunney: guilt cultures = internal control, shame cultures = external control, as simple as that.

    However, I wonder why and how self-control correlates so well with climate. What exactly turns people living in hot climates so passionate? Especially sexually… when it is over 30C (85F) my (male) libido pretty much disappears. In a hot desert the last thing I would think about when I see a woman is sex. Factor in sweaty, unwashed, yucky body odors… on the other hand, in the chilly Scottish wind the first thing that ought to come to everybody’s mind is bundling up with a warm body. Yet they tend to have a culture of strong self-restraint. Strange.

    Spicy food may be part of the answer for passionateness, but actually I am from a spicy city (Budapest) and yet people are not particularly passionate, a bit angry, sure, but that is a different matter, but there is none of this hot-blooded Spanish-style culture.

  13. @Shenpen
    “but morals should not entirely depend on feelings, not even on noble feelings like compassion. It is a serious mistake to assume morals can be reduced to generally being nice.”

    Morals are a human instinct. Human instincts are implemented by “feeling good” when following them. Being “nice” is indeed one of the foundations of current day morals. It helps people to live in multimillion cities. People not being nice makes a city very unhealthy.

    @Shenpen
    “Of the many sources, there is one kind of source which is should somehow be brought back to the modern world: honor.”

    Honor is the morals of barbarians.

    Go on a study course in Saudi Arabia. They know everything about honor. You can also read Steven Pinker’s “How the mind works” about honor, and “Our better Angels” about morals.

  14. Ultimately, it isn’t the British troops’ fault for all of these embarrassing defeats of late, it all falls back to our sh*tty gov’t.

  15. @Shenpen
    “However, I wonder why and how self-control correlates so well with climate.”

    Because it does not? Are Malaysians passionate? Vietnamese? Rwandese?

    What you claim to be “passion” is mostly inter-male boasting (and bonding) in Mediterranean cultures and descendants that separate men and women (boys and girls).

    If teenagers can pair up, men do not need to boast about it, they do it.

  16. Winter: everything can be done extremely or moderately. Just because sometimes people take some to such an extreme that they kill for it, it does not mean it in itself is wrong. Channeling pride into moral behavior is a very clever trick when did moderately.

  17. Winter: “Being “nice” is indeed one of the foundations of current day morals.”

    Well, this is exactly the problem with current day morals. Especially as city living goes. Have you seen much dignity last time you looked around? I didn’t. When people think niceness is all that matters, then you get really depraved stuff like those Germans who want to ban bestiality not for the correct reason (debasement of human dignity) but for the ridiculous reason that it might hurt animals.

  18. >I wonder why and how self-control correlates so well with climate.

    Maybe because it actually correlates with national IQs? The Mediterrainian countries have lower IQs than the rest of western Europe, and Arab and north African countries are lower yet. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn self-control, some east European countries have IQs similar to the south European ones and they manage, but that it requires more work, and without the social support, they don’t make the effort.

  19. @JAD
    It is interesting that you attribute a lack of “social solidarity” wrt war to multiculturalism when it seems vastly more probable to me that it would instead be a sign(for good or ill) of a healthy democracy. It seems logical to me that the martial commitment of a democracy would naturally be tied to the plebian public opinion of that war, and public opinion is a very unstable thing especially when it transitions from “some other guy died for his country” to “my son just died for his country” (and then to “my son just died for more corporate profit”).

  20. @shenpen

    guilt cultures = internal control, shame cultures = external control

    I’m not sure I agree with this simplistic dichotomy. To me it doesn’t seem to explain either Catholic guilt(which seems to me to be non-controversially external control) or tribal shaming(which is an attempt to instill internal control). Perhaps you are using specific meanings that you haven’t unpacked?

  21. @Shenpen
    “When people think niceness is all that matters, then you get really depraved stuff like those Germans who want to ban bestiality not for the correct reason (debasement of human dignity) but for the ridiculous reason that it might hurt animals.”

    If anything, I am with the Germans here. Note that “Pride” and “Honor” are two different things.

  22. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition1.htm

    C. S. Lewis has an entirely non-religious argument for objective morality. Catholics and related Christians call it “Natural Law”. It is a short read but very important.

    Also, Ayn Rand was an Objectivist.

    The original quote shows moral relativism. But if morality is objective, might means you can impose either good or evil.

  23. @tz a.o.

    The problem with “Objective” morality is that morals are value judgments (good vs bad, beautiful vs ugly). And value judgments are never objective. Religions try to go around this problem by posing some eternal judge, which is then defined as “Objective” and “True”. But in the end, humans have to make a judgment about which is right and which is wrong.

    In history, there was a similar (or even identical) struggle over “True” vs “False”. This was solved for the majority of humans (we hope) by assuming that Absolute Truth cannot be known, but it can be approximated. Empirical sciences are the tool to that approximation. So, science can decide which of two assertions is “more true”. Disputes can thus be solved “objectively”, satisfactory to all honest participants (see how “honest” enters the equation).

    In ethics, such approaches have been tried. But these too have to pose some standards to which morals must be compared, eg, “can be applied to more humans”, “allows the most happiness”, “blind choice” (if you were born blindly into a community, what inequality would you tolerate) etc..

    Other than such approaches, all disputes end in “IS” vs “IS NOT” shouting matches. Irrespective whether you call it “Natural Law” or “God’s Commandments”.

  24. @Winter

    I agree with Cerebrate. Whatever words that describe “honor killings” were very badly translated into English. The concepts do not map. What word do the locals use?

    Honor is what you know about your own conduct. Reputation is what others know about it. The difference is similar to the difference between guilt and shame.

    Guilt is the feeling you get when you do something bad. You also anticipate guilt when you plan to do something bad. Shame is the feeling you get when other people find out that you’ve done something bad.

    You may be especially confused if English not your first language. English is a very large language, with many fine distinctions. We may not have simple words for the distinctions in this case.

  25. Honor is what you know about your own conduct. Reputation is what others know about it. The difference is similar to the difference between guilt and shame.

    Guilt is the feeling you get when you do something bad. You also anticipate guilt when you plan to do something bad. Shame is the feeling you get when other people find out that you’ve done something bad.

    Mostly OK, but you have to realize they use the same word “honor” in shame cultures as well. How you define honor isn’t the same way someone in a shame culture would (it is indeed more what you’d call “reputation”).

  26. @Bob
    “Honor is what you know about your own conduct. Reputation is what others know about it.”

    That was the subject of one of Plato’s books (The Republic?). Bible book of Job goes some way. I do not see a difference between “honor” and “reputation”, except that reputation captures both positive and negative.

    Honor killings are about restoring the honor of the family. The same way hara-kiri is about restoring your own honor. In these cases, there is no separation between “honor” and “reputation”. Both Socrates (Plato) and the Bible (Book Job) make a separation between reputation and virtue. But not between honor and reputation.

    And about the English. All European languages have words that are almost perfect translations of English “Honor”. In French “honneur”, Spanish “Honrar”, German “Ehre”, Dutch “Eer”, Finnish “kunnia”. All are linked to Glory. And all these languages use that word in “Honor killings”.

    Turks and Arabs seem to be perfectly happy with the translation.

  27. That isn’t the first time I’ve read that quote from Napier, and I’m a big admirer of it.

    That being said, I do call myself a multiculturalist, but not a cultural relativist. “Multiculturalism” in western societies (well…okay…Canada) is the belief that all cultural expression should be encouraged or, at least, not actively discouraged, with equal consideration given to all from the point of view of the law – with the implicit assumption that these cultures must be compatible with western values such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, etc.

    It’s that last part which I believe disqualifies me from the cultural relativism camp and, according to many, from the multiculturalism camp as well. Western values are part of a western culture, so the argument goes, and if that culture is enshrined in law, then you are, ipso facto, not a multiculturalist. My main response is that I don’t really consider “western values” to be part of any particular culture. Rather “western values” are a social prerequisite before multiple cultures can flourish in any kind of geographical space. Society should be a marketplace of cultures and western values are just the basic rules necessary for this to work, kind of like a “meta-culture”

    I don’t see any other way for it to work – and in fact, it doesn’t work any other way, even in societies which label themselves as “multicultural”, like Canada. You don’t get to mutilate your daughter’s genitals, or burn a Indian widow alive, or kill your sister because she likes showing her ankles, or kill your neighbor because he’s gay. You do get to worship Allah (or not), listen to sitar music (or not), eat kebabs(or not), and wear a burka in public (or not), if you’re not being forced. Criticizing multiculturalism by equating it with the idea that “anything is permissible, except calling something impermissible” is attacking a straw man.

    I’ll say further that one thing which often confuses these issues is this notion that cultures are “package deals”. Some people think that if you like curry and sitar music that you have to be gung-ho about widow burnings too. Or that if you worship an entity named Allah and think that falafel tastes good, that you are automatically of the belief that a) women are inferior to men and should have their genitals cut off and b) infidels shall be crushed. I think it’s fairly obvious that this isn’t true.

  28. @Winter

    “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

    With our human imprecision there are a number of meanings for most words. Meanings drift with time, too. There are some definitions of the word “honor”, particularly the verb, that are associated with glory, but you notice English has a separate word for glory.

    Of course the Arabs are happy to translate their word as honor. They know honor is a good word in English. They don’t want outsiders to condemn what they think are justifiable practices.

    I suspect the word in Arabic has overtones of shame and an attempt to salvage damaged prestige.

  29. This incident, perhaps the finest single moment in the history of Britain’s relatively benign imperialism, teaches two lessons still profoundly relevant today.

    While Britain did many good things like the introduction of railways and this particular incident you mention, its imperialism was by no means “relatively benign”. As this chart : http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2011/11/06/opinion/06atrocities_timeline.html?ref=sunday

    shows, famines in British India that took a toll of 27 million lives.

    The point is really that the extent of these famines were, by and large, artificial. For instance, (i) in many of the years of famine, Britain exported Indian wheat to Britain rather than importing it or at least keeping quite. (ii) British tax policies made many farmers convert to cash crops from food crops (the policies were designed to support British cotton mills industry by ensuring cheap supply of raw materials) and this was a reason why food production in India diminished and the famines became catastrophic. (iii) Taxes went up several times during the British rule since they were using Indian money to fund their wars across the world (however warmongering the pre-British Indian rulers were, their wars were not fought on the kind of scale British wars were).

    It is amazing how almost all Indians acknowledge the extent of good British did to their countries, while most westerns like you have almost no idea of the scale of British destruction in India.

  30. “cowered like gays” ? Really?

    I know quite a few “cowardly” gay soldiers that could break you in half.

  31. @Winter

    Plato’s Republic was about the various forms of government. It classified governments into types, with variations, depending on who was in charge. It described them in terms of pure forms that could not exist in the messy real world.

  32. Pingback: Multiculturalism and suttee in the Raj « Quotulatiousness

  33. “Honor is what you know about your own conduct. Reputation is what others know about it.”

    One of today’s better writers of science fiction made exactly that distinction (in slightly different words); Lois Bujold in A Civil Campaign.

    “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. The friction tends to arise when the two are not the same. There is no more hollow feeling than to stand with your honor shattered at your feet while soaring public reputation wraps you in rewards. That’s soul-destroying. The other way around is merely very, very irritating. Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.”

    - – Count Aral Vorkosigan

  34. The guilt/shame dichotomy is huge.

    In a guilt-based society, if you do something wrong, you feel bad (guilty) about it. If someone blows the whistle on you, you’re the bad guy.

    In a shame-based society, you only feel bad (shame) if others know you did something wrong. The whistleblower is the bad guy because before he opened his yap, there was no shame, so he’s the one who created the shame.

    The difference is huge.

  35. honor definition: Honor is high respect, great reputation or high rank received or enjoyed. (noun) An example of honor is an excellent student receiving praise for their accomplishments.
    yourdictionary.com/honor

    Sounds like reputation to me

  36. There was a book of Plato where Socrates contrasts a man who is good, but gets an undeserved bad reputation with the reverse. I forgot which one it is.

  37. @tz:
    > C. S. Lewis has an entirely non-religious argument for objective morality.

    His “argument” doesn’t prove what he claims it does. At most, he shows that you can’t derive “ought” from “is”, so to have any “moral truths” at all, you have to have at least one that is accepted without proof. This argument goes back to at least Aristotle, IIRC, and has been posed by other philosophers (Hume comes to mind) so it’s hardly exclusive to Christians.

    Lewis does *not* show, however, that what he calls the “Tao”, a set of specific moral truths, is the “correct” set of moral truths. He just says, in effect, you have to accept at least one moral truth as an axiom, so you should accept this particular set of moral truths as axioms. Non sequitur.

  38. >It is amazing how almost all Indians acknowledge the extent of good British did to their countries, while most westerns like you have almost no idea of the scale of British destruction in India

    I said “relatively”. Trust me, the sort of things the French and Germans got up to were worse, the things the Belgians and Spanish and Russians got up to were much worse, and as for the Japanese… *shudder*

  39. @Shenpen: “DMcCunney: guilt cultures = internal control, shame cultures = external control, as simple as that.”

    I doubt it, because I don’t think you’ll find any culture which uses only guilt or shame as a control. Cultural controls are always mixes of the two approaches, though some cultures will incline more to one than the other. The point was mostly that while the controls will exist, different cultures will implement them in different ways. You get into trouble when you try to deal with a culture that doesn’t do it the way yours does.

  40. >He just says, in effect, you have to accept at least one moral truth as an axiom, so you should accept this particular set of moral truths as axioms. Non sequitur.

    Lewis, was, as I have previously noted, a very sloppy thinker.

  41. All of morality is habit, and habits are contingent. They differ as a matter of mere historical (and prehistorical) accident. The horse peoples who arose in various parts at various times in Asia who were accustomed to invading neighboring lands, burning the villages, and stealing what they would (and the corresponding seagoing peoples of Europe), never felt bad about it. The Romans never had a crisis of conscience while building their empire (that came later, on the way down). You could have counted on your hands the number of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century European Americans who felt sorry for Native Americans. Some slaveholding Americans freed their slaves before they were forced to, but most did not. It’s not as though we feel bad about what we’ve done to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, etc. (n.b.: if you argue that we’ve actually helped these countries then you’re proving my point) Of course the party on the short end disagrees, but “objective” outsiders often do as well. The Russians and Chinese see little wrong with what they do to those on the periphery of their nations. The various tropical tribes who make brutal lethal war on a regular basis, motivated entirely by the prospect of reduced competition for food, wouldn’t comprehend an outsider’s objection to the practice, which practice is after all older than our species.

    There is a great deal of overlap among the habits of groups of humans, so it’s understandable that many have been tempted to isolate and enforce a universal kernel. That way lies madness and totalitarianism, even if the project is pursued (as the monotheists sometimes have) over centuries. When the project is a five year plan, you have the Qin Dynasty of ancient China and present-day Korea under the Kims. Habits only change under the sustained pressure of material interest, typically over generations: either some generation of Tribe A figures out the right way to run a society under changed climatic or demographic conditions, or Tribe A dies out and the next generation of Tribe B moves in and figures it out while absorbing the remnants of Tribe A.

    If one reckons the quickened innovation and resulting wealth of modern societies as good things (even this isn’t universal; talk to Paul Erlich et al.), then one might decide to concentrate on habits that either support or undermine that innovation, and ignore the many other habits that are orthogonal to it. That’s what we’ve been trying in the West recently, and on balance it’s working so far. This is true even though most Westerners don’t understand the process, as they fixate on burkhas and unapproved drugs and patriotism and guilt and so on. The less change in habit we require of outsiders who are considering whether to join our club, the fewer generations it will take them to join. The greater the portion of the Earth that submits to the soft Westernism of commerce and innovation, the closer we get to the universalists’ dream anyway. If we can say anything about people 100 years from now, it’s that none of them will care how many mosques there are in Tennessee. No purist of any stripe will make the future. As Taleb tells us, we can be right, or we can win. We can’t do both.

  42. Semi-nomadic barbarian tribesmen make very bad neighbors.

    Any tribe of hunter-gatherers or herdsmen needs a territory of a certain size, or it begins to starve. This is no different from lions, wolves, tigers, and other carnivores. They have to resist encroachments from their neighbors. Most do this with displays, limiting actual combat as much as possible. So do humans.

    However, raids across the border are a lot of fun. There’s a chance at loot, rape, arson, and showing off in front of your tribesmen. Many tribes won’t let a young man marry if he isn’t a proven warrior.

    Therefore a barbarian tribe is continually at war with its neighbors. It tends to be limited to a very rough contact sport, but anybody is thrilled to kill or injure somebody on the other side. Nobody expects the war to end. Nobody expects final victory. If they lose too many battles to one neighbor the tribe tries to move in on another, weaker, neighbor.

    Farmers take war much more seriously. Farmers accumulate all sorts of flammable property. A raiding party passing through a field can ruin a harvest. At times the fields themselves can be burnt. Farmers expect wars to start and more importantly, end.

    Winter, imagine the 30 Years War, only it didn’t end.

    Farmers and ranchers with barbarian neighbors take an understandably dim view of their neighbors’ habits and customs.

  43. @DMcCunney

    There’s a third social control mechanism. Fear of being caught and punished.

    The Soviets tried to shame people with their Marxist theology. They apparently hoped people would internalize the precepts. Over time it didn’t work and they fell back on fear. They couldn’t appeal to shame or guilt.

    Some people in the Western political classes think nothing but law enforcement can control behavior, that guilt and shame are useless and outmoded. This is bad.

  44. What if morality-centric religion is simply an “epiphenomenal” reflection of objective morality? Then the commonality of ethics between cultures bolsters its validity, and tribal particularisms and subjective valuations aren’t the essence or totality of religion, but can in fact coexist better through the moral of liberty.

    esr’s definition of religion leads him to his conclusions, but it is not the same definition that believers use. This difference also explains why believers sometimes claim that even atheists have a religion.

  45. Many atheists evangelize.

    If it looks, acts, and quacks like a duck, maybe it is a duck.

  46. @Bob: “There’s a third social control mechanism. Fear of being caught and punished.”

    Not really. It’s simply a method of external control. I wasn’t the one who brought up the notion of guilt and shame based cultures, and I think that’s misleading in any case, as I can’t think of a culture that doesn’t use a mixture of both. Some may be weighted more in one direction than the other, but I know of none that are exclusive.

    But every society I can think of has some form of “catch and punish” to cover the cases where other controls are insufficient, and members of the society who are charged with doing so. The fact that you know you *shouldn’t* do something (guilt), and that you will be poorly thought of by others if you do so (shame), is no guarantee you *won’t* do it given sufficient provocation.

    If the society can’t prevent you from doing something it disapproves of in the first place, it can at least try to punish you after the fact, if only to set an example for others as to why some things are bad ideas.

  47. @Bob: “Therefore a barbarian tribe is continually at war with its neighbors. It tends to be limited to a very rough contact sport, but anybody is thrilled to kill or injure somebody on the other side. Nobody expects the war to end. Nobody expects final victory. If they lose too many battles to one neighbor the tribe tries to move in on another, weaker, neighbor.”

    That roughly encapsulates the Mongols pre-Genghis Khan. The great innovation of Genghis seems to have been convincing the Mongol people that instead of preying upon each other, they should turn their aggression outwards towards neighboring peoples.

    You can make a good case that a lot of Russia’s problems are symptoms of arrested social and political development because what became Russia was under the thumb of the Mongols while the rest of Europe was evolving. (A friend active in international education once mentioned a Russian student telling her “The Mongols made us short!”) Consider Sergei Eisenstein’s classic propoganda film, Alexander Nevesky. Prince Alexander was paying tribute to the local Khan of the Golden Horde at the time the Teutonic knights invaded.

  48. @DMcCunney

    I think the third category is necessary. Law enforcement is a separate mechanism because you and your neighbors may not think you have done anything wrong.

    Is it immoral to push the envelope on your tax return? If the IRS changes its rules to disallow certain tax avoidance methods you used to use are you suddenly revealed as a sinner? Will your neighbors think less of you?

    In certain countries if someone files a truthful and complete tax return his neighbors and friends think he’s a chump. If lies and gets caught they think he wasn’t clever enough.

    You’re right. All cultures use a mix of methods. The mix varies from culture to culture. In one guilt predominates. In another shame. In the truly pathological punishment predominates.

  49. @Bob: “I think the third category is necessary. Law enforcement is a separate mechanism because you and your neighbors may not think you have done anything wrong. ”

    Fine by me, but irrelevant to my point. I simply distinguished between internal and external controls on behavior in a society. Law enforcement is an external control.

  50. Winter on Thursday, July 19 2012 at 5:30 am said:
    > So who is humiliated?
    >
    > The British who were drawn into this war against their better judgment and the will of the people …

    It does not matter how you got into a war, if you conduct the war in a weak, shameful and unmanly fashion, no one will remember your excuses or even listen to them …

    The problem is not that European troops lack logistics, but that they lack balls. Perhaps multicult and the Europe project has left them without national pride. Perhaps their army, and their entire society has been feminized by a progressive project to treat manliness as testosterone poisoning. Whatever the problem, it is obvious that these are not the soldiers that won the battle of Goose Green, won it in the face of superior numbers, prepared defenses, and high treason by the BBC.

    Perhaps the problem is that the traitors were unpunished and are more in power than ever, and the heroes were dishonored, and therefore there are no more heroes. Whatever the reason, European troops in general and British troops in particular can no longer win even with enormously superior numbers and equipment. Britain has what looks like an army, but that army, shamefully, will no longer fight.

  51. froginthewell on Thursday, July 19 2012 at 11:10 am said:
    > While Britain did many good things like the introduction of railways and this particular incident you mention, its imperialism was by no means “relatively benign”. As this chart : http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2011/11/06/opinion/06atrocities_timelin.html?ref=sunday
    shows, famines in British India that took a toll of 27 million lives.

    And how many famines were there before the British conquered India? If you read travellers reports of unconquered parts of India before 1830, they were total hell holes, where even the wealthy lived in desperate poverty.

    Famines ended pretty early in the British empire, were ended by the British empire. The last famine shown in your chart is the World War II war famine, imposed by Japanese siege, and it is ludicrous to blame the British for that one, and similarly the earliest famines listed were pre imperial, and it was ludicrous to blame the British empire for them.

    Post colonial Britain, is, however, responsible for many famines and genocides, in that they imposed horrifying regimes on third worlders throughout the world, for example Mugabe in Rhodesia.

  52. @esr : point taken

    @James A Donald :
    1. If you read travellers reports of unconquered parts of India before 1830, they were total hell holes, where even the wealthy lived in desperate poverty.

    See this chart :
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-AXJLcZ0Kvvk/T-HGFBor-KI/AAAAAAAATJ0/jQN47egIjYs/s1600/chart.png

    In 1700, India’s contribution to the world GDP was, like, 25-30%. Now indeed, that is about in proportion to India’s share of the world population around then, and that is how things worked in the pre-industrial revolution world. Such a country cannot possibly be a hell-hole of the sort you mentioned, so you should cite some kind of a source if you want to make a very strong assertion like that.

    2. and similarly the earliest famines listed were pre imperial, and it was ludicrous to blame the British empire for them

    The earliest famine contributing to that was in 1770 in Bengal, and at that time Bengal was under the British East India company (like in the case of the 1840s incident mentioned by esr). A third of the population of Bengal (=Bengal state + Bangladesh) perished in that single famine! All sources I have come across pointing to the scale of such famines being unprecedented.
    About the “Japanese siege” and second world war – as far as I know India was never an importer of food grains, so how could Japanese siege do anything? Of course, it is entirely conceivable that the famine was precipitated by Britain increasing the export of Indian grains to Britain to satisfy its world war needs, but then that blame falls squarely on the British.

  53. @JAD
    “It does not matter how you got into a war, if you conduct the war in a weak, shameful and unmanly fashion, no one will remember your excuses or even listen to them …”

    The USA have now been shooting Afghans and Iraqi’s for a decade. What do they have to show for all the people killed?

    If your “ally” wages a decade of war for the honor of it, reasonable people drop out. The US have not reached any of their stated goals in Iraq nor Afghanistan. And they have only themselves to blame for it.

    Europeans have a lot of personal experience with “killing for the honor”, and being killed for it. And Europeans also have a keen understanding of the fact that shooting people does not solve problems. Americans watch too many American movies.

  54. “Britain’s relatively benign imperialism”

    Heh. Try going to Ireland and running that up the flagpole.

  55. The USA have now been shooting Afghans and Iraqi’s for a decade. What do they have to show for all the people killed?

    Sigh. Have you not been paying attention? Al Qaeda is broken, and is now humiliated and on the run everywhere in the Arab (and even some parts of the non-Arab) world. The people of Pakistan are finally being confronted with reality (however indirectly) and much good may come of it, as the Pakistani military and the mass popular delusions that enabled them, have been the source of much evil. The Taliban have been revealed for that they are (a small number of religious extremists, would be theocrats, hated by nearly everyone they want to rule) as opposed to some kind of popular movement that they were made out to be. Islamist violence has been discredited (the Islamists are much more likely to kill fellow Muslims, for many reasons) everywhere the Americans have gone.

    Results would be better if our political class (both parties) wasn’t so incompetent, but this isn’t a perfect world. Willfull blindness for political effect gets so *tiresome*.

    Europeans have a lot of personal experience with “killing for the honor”, and being killed for it. And Europeans also have a keen understanding of the fact that shooting people does not solve problems. Americans watch too many American movies.

    Yeah, you’re an idiot. Shooting people can indeed be very, very good at solving problems. Or have you not heard of those really rambunctious German tourists who had to be forcefully expelled a few decades back? I hear they had to shoot a few of them.

    Yes, you’re a European. You’ve been sufficiently traumatized by your own stupidity that you’ve chosen to forget that violence is a tool, its moral value depends on how and why it’s being employed. Easier not to think, just put your fingers in your ears and chant “violent is bad”.

  56. @Greg
    ” You’ve been sufficiently traumatized by your own stupidity that you’ve chosen to forget that violence is a tool, its moral value depends on how and why it’s being employed.”

    We learn from our mistakes. That counts for something.

    @Greg
    “Al Qaeda is broken, and is now humiliated and on the run everywhere in the Arab (and even some parts of the non-Arab) world. etc”

    So that makes it worthwhile destroying two (three?) countries, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people?

    That was most definitely not what we were told were the aims of this operation when our armies signed on. So were we betrayed about what the USA wanted to accomplish?

  57. We learn from our mistakes. That counts for something.

    If I were you, I’d be a little more reluctant to keep proving that I learned the wrong thing, and am apparently too stupid to tell the difference.

    So that makes it worthwhile destroying two (three?) countries, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people?

    “Destroying two countries?” Oh FFS. Did we “destroy” them with carpet bombing? I notice the death count is only hundreds of thousands now, it’s no longer tens of millions dead from famine and dysentery. (Yes I’m laughing at you.)

  58. That was most definitely not what we were told were the aims of this operation when our armies signed on. So were we betrayed about what the USA wanted to accomplish?

    Exactly what part of ruining Al-Qaeda and discrediting Islamist violence would be contrary to the aims of a (silly name but it’s what we have) “war on terror”?

    Or overthrowing and discrediting actual genuine theocratic tyrants? Who sponsored and employed terror….

  59. >If I were you, I’d be a little more reluctant to keep proving that I learned the wrong thing, and am apparently too stupid to tell the difference.

    It’s a European habit. As incompetent as our political class is, theirs is actually so much worse that we had to fight two wars in the last century to part-fix what was broke. Third one coming up any decade now, I’m thinking.

  60. @esr
    “we had to fight two wars in the last century to part-fix what was broke.”

    Heinlein’s mercantile empire was modeled on the “Dutch golden century”.

    Our view of war is the still the same: It costs money, is bad for business, and solves nothing. Our two world wars, actually, a single protracted war from 1914-1990, did nothing to solve European problems. The EU did solve most of these problems, created new ones.

    What you tell us about our “broken” system is exactly the same as what happened in Japan and South Korea: War wariness after total destruction.

    All aside, the USA destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan accomplished nothing but death and destruction. It has cost the USA large sums of money and even more influence. And it was bad for business.

    And the US are on the verge of repeating the same mistakes with Iran. But now targeting 60 million people.

    I would like to remind you that the French diplomats predicted this exact outcome in 2001/2. The US still deride them over it. But the French were right.

  61. I’ll take one more stab at this.

    Our view of war is the still the same: It costs money, is bad for business, and solves nothing.

    You’re OK with the first 2 clauses. But the last one is where the stupidity comes in. How many refutations do you need to have rubbed in your face before you’ll stop spouting the same stupidity?

    Our two world wars, actually, a single protracted war from 1914-1990, did nothing to solve European problems. The EU did solve most of these problems, created new ones.

    Well at least you’re someone who understands that it was all basically one big struggle for European dominance. So I’ll give you that. Not many understand that the whole thing was pushed into motion by the French, on purpose, but that’s for another day. The one thing that finally ended the war was the US military (especially *after* 1945). You may want to try to understand how that worked. Pacifism doesn’t bring you peace, it just ensures that anyone who abuses you can do so free from consequences. Non-aggression – backed by the *capability* of force – brings peace.

    Your persistent inability to understand the difference, and your perverse (but knowing human nature, almost inevitable) need to try to portray stupidity and cowardice as a virtue and broadcast it to the world, have not served the world well.

  62. In the absence of proof that a body of universal normative ethics is possible to be had, perhaps it’s rational to operate under the assumption that power is the only available alternative ? Further, perhaps power is the universal ethic that we are refusing to embrace, because it doesn’t fit our conception of a desirable ethic?

  63. “Britain’s relatively benign imperialism”

    Heh. Try going to Ireland and running that up the flagpole.

    Ireland is an interesting case. I don’t think their degree of suffering under British imperialism was especially atypical. But, they didn’t get the typical civilizing benefits of exposure to English Common Law, because they had already derived those benefits long before Britain’s imperial era. First, Ireland had already been under Britain’s sphere of influence and exchanging culture with them continuously since the 12th century Norman invasions. Second, and more interestingly, even before contact with Britain, Ireland already had its own legal code, Brehon Law, which was in many ways superior to Common Law. Medieval Ireland was (along with Iceland), one of the two nearest historical examples of a stable anarcho-capitalist society.

  64. >In the absence of proof that a body of universal normative ethics is possible to be had, perhaps it’s rational to operate under the assumption that power is the only available alternative ? Further, perhaps power is the universal ethic that we are refusing to embrace, because it doesn’t fit our conception of a desirable ethic?

    You might be right. I don’t think you are, because I think that utilitarian ethics can be repaired along the lines Sam Harris suggested in The Moral Landscape (See my review). The value of Napier’s lesson is that, by showing us which ways to solve the problem won’t work, it concentrates our minds on approaches that might work.

  65. >. I don’t think you are, because I think that utilitarian ethics can be repaired along the lines Sam Harris suggested in The Moral Landscape (See my review.).

    Thanks, I’ll check it out.

    It just occurred to me that even if such a body of ethics can be constructed, it may not be a given than everyone will adopt it. In the absence of (converging towards) universal adoption, wouldn’t we be left in the same place where we started the quest – a place where we hope that power isn’t the answer even though its the only thing that works universally?

    I wonder further if religion is a manifestation of humans as a species recognizing power as the only universal currency that can back up other currencies (like gold has been used to back paper currency) and this constructing universal ethics on the foundations of control and command structure. It is too far fetched to imagine that anyone in enter religion with such intentions (Hubbard?!!) but this might be why religions have been pervasive and successful…

  66. This story gets passed around a lot by those who pine for the days of a less timid and apologetic Western civilization but note it takes place in the 1840′s some 80 years after the British became rulers of Bengal following the battle of Plassy. During that time the East India Company did very little to interfere with the customs of their Hindu and Muslim subjects. Then as now, moral absolutism was deemed “bad for business.”

    What changed? By that time a new class of “Babus” natives, educated on Western lines in English medium schools and employed by the British had arisen and the anti-Sati movement was a cornerstone of their attempts to reform Hinduism. What was actually going on was a modernizing religions typical battle between Fundamentalists and Traditionalists. (“Hinduism does not prescribe it in any of its texts” as Hari says is a Fundamentalist argument.) It was the Hindu reformers who urged the British authorities to take action and it was the Hindu Traditionalists who had previously been successful in urging them to keep the status quo. That “priests” complained is a red herring. The Babus themselves were also largely Brahmans (The priestly caste, yes, but, also in Bengal the major landowners amongst the Hindus. Feudal lord versus bourgeois is another power struggle which is a hallmark of modernity.) Both sides appealed to the British because the rulers held to the multicultural policy that they were the guardians of Hindu and Muslim religion just as previous rulers had been. Elsewhere in British India where Sati was practised as for instance amongst the Rajputs of Rajasthan, and the reformers were weak and the British made little effort to curb Sati.

    Napier was an Evangelical Christian. He invokes English custom not Christianity only because by that time Enlightenment and nationalist ideas were thoroughly integrated into Anglo-American Protestantism. Even today isn’t the standard American Evangelical line that the Founding fathers were Christians and therefore the USA is a “Christian country.”?

    The implications of your observations seem to me to suggest that a universal ethics is not possible only tribal particularism. We will always be stuck with might makes right so let us not hesitate to use our might to defend what we think is right without worrying about what the guy on the receiving end thinks is right. If so I’m not sure you should look up to Napier’s Raj then.

  67. Daniel Franke

    >First, Ireland had already been under Britain’s sphere of influence

    It’s a bit strange to say that Ireland was ‘under Britain’s sphere of influence’. Until recently Ireland was *part of* Britain, and some of it still is.

    @James A. Donald

    >British troops in particular can no longer win even with enormously superior numbers and equipment. Britain has what looks like an army, but that army, shamefully, will no longer fight.

    What are you *talking* about? We’ve been fighting these mid-East wars with you since the beginning. Granted, we’re not winning, but then neither are you guys!

  68. Until recently Ireland was *part of* Britain, and some of it still is.

    Either you meant to say “Until recently Ireland was *part of* the United Kingdom, and some of it still is”, or you’ve misunderstood me to be speaking on geological timescales when I used the word “recent” :-)

  69. @Daniel Franke

    I generally use the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’ interchangeably. In the context of this discussion that certainly seems appropriate. I’m not really sure what else ‘Britain’ could mean, unless you interpret it as ‘Great Britain’, meaning the biggest island in the British Isles, which I generally do not.

  70. It’s a European habit. As incompetent as our political class is, theirs is actually so much worse that we had to fight two wars in the last century to part-fix what was broke. Third one coming up any decade now, I’m thinking.

    You know, part of me thinks that there will be no lasting peace in Europe until France is finally destroyed, broken back into regional pieces too small to cause continental-scale mischief.

    Things got bad in a hurry after Germany ate itself in the 30 Years War, letting France become the dominant continental power. WWI was just them trying to get back on top and displace Germany again. (What I have once is rightfully mine forever, what’s yours is ephemeral…) The EU is just them trying to slime their way back into control again, this time coopting the Germans (rather than Russia and the UK, that didn’t work out as planned in 1914) for the extra muscle needed to make it work.

    Of course the EU is going to fail (never enough other peoples’ money to make it last), the main partners will have a falling out, economic warfare – then likely real warfare – will result. The sides may wind up looking like WWI again, too. As a bonus the Muslim immigrant populations are likely to add chaos and be involved in excitingly terrible things, both doing and receiving.

  71. I’m no communist, but sometimes I wish the bad old USSR was still around, just so our militarists could fixate on an actual rival rather than the fearsome might of a couple of dozen unwashed goat enthusiasts hiding out in their caves while gradually losing all of their fingers in demolition experiments.

    I’m wearing flammable underpants!

  72. @winter:
    “The problem with “Objective” morality is that morals are value judgments (good vs bad, beautiful vs ugly). And value judgments are never objective.”

    CIRCULAR REASONING!

  73. I don’t like third-hand quotations, and the story sounded a bit too good to be true. So I went hunting on Google Books, that allows you to restrict the search by year the book was published. And after going from recent variants to older variants of the quote, I indeed I found what seems to be the original, from “History of General Sir Charles Napier’s administration of Scinde: and …” by Sir William Francis Patrick Napier.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=d84BAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=napier+burning+widows&source=bl&ots=T5yqukc5Fk&sig=C4j5YudGlQEkZ1edhbQEUe-CyYU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Ix4KUKWZJ6HG6wGK7ImPCg&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=burning%20widows&f=false

    He also put down the practice of suttees, which however was rare in Scinde, by a process entirely characteristic. For judging the real cause of these immolations to be the profit derived by the priests, and hearing of an intended burning, he made it known that he would stop the sacrifice. The priests said it was a religious rite which must not be meddled with — that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a very sacred one. The general affecting to be struck with the argument replied. “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!” No suttee took place then or afterwards.

    (The system says I’ve already published the same comment, even the first time I tried. Weird. Adding this remark…)

  74. @esr “As incompetent as our political class is, theirs is actually so much worse that we had to fight two wars in the last century to part-fix what was broke. Third one coming up any decade now, I’m thinking.”

    It’s not clear that the US “part-fixed” Europe, rather than made it much worse. Siding with the bad guys during WWI, condoning the destruction and enslavement of Germany, doing all it could to stop all resistance to the Soviets in Russia. Then when Europe went ablaze again, provoking Japan into war through embargo and unilaterally engaging Germany, sending ample help to Stalin, refusing to help those who would have resisted Stalin and handing him half of Europe on a platter. Having Stalin-backed Mao win in China by decreeing an Embargo on Chiang. Backing national-socialist wannabe and future mass-murderers dictators everywhere that the British or French flag was rising. The history of US intervention during the XXth century is far from being this one-sided “saving good from evil” that is taught in official propaganda (school and mass media) – although for reasons polar opposites to those a Chomsky would advance.

    Have you read Mencius Moldbug’s blog “Unqualified Reservations”? If so, what do you think of it? His point of view of a proxy war between what is roughly identified as the Pentagon vs the State Department is enlightening.

  75. Jaidhar, the historical details you’ve posted are interesting, but even if we accept your interpretation as completely true I don’t think they do anything to change or blunt Napier’s lesson.

    In particular, if conflict between different factions of Brahmins was an essential part of the backstory, this only further undermines the position that a universal normative ethic can be found in religion.

    And suppose it is true that Napier was an Evangelical – the fact is that he invoked the customs of his nation, not his religion. (I must respectfully note that I find your claim about Napier’s Evangelism doubtful – he conducted himself in that incident as I would expect an Anglican of secular bent to do. Can you point to evidence?)

    >Even today isn’t the standard American Evangelical line that the Founding fathers were Christians and therefore the USA is a “Christian country.”?

    Yes; I’ve previously rebutted this. But it’s not an important belief in mainline protestantism.

  76. @Greg
    “Non-aggression – backed by the *capability* of force – brings peace.”

    And where is that “Non-aggression” in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    The problem here is not the initial war as such. Not even the lies and disinformation spread to justify these wars. Wars happen, mostly out of pure stupidity and stubbornness.

    The real mortal sin of the USA was to destroy the governing structures of Iraq, and then not replacing them. Dissolving the army and letting hospitals and army stocks be looted, but send in the mercenaries to protect the private interests of the USA (politicians and sponsors).

    Btw, since the Napoleontic wars, the power struggles in Europe were between Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. France and Austria weekended and were becoming second rate powers at the start of the 20th century. Prussia and Britain became much stronger. Remember that Germany fought France and Britain together at one front, and Russia on the other. In WWII France was simply overrun.

    Germany was the real European industrial power house in the 20th century. To our great suffering.

    Had Germany prevented WWI, it would have dominated Europe in the 1930s. Had Germany not fought WWII, it would have dominated in the 1950s. They did not fight a third war, and they dominated Europe in the 1990s. At the moment, Germany is the only industrial Western country that can compete head on with East-Asia.

    The back of France has already been broken by demographic decline in the 19th century.

  77. But isn’t this the whole point, and also the whole point in your related piece on morality without religion? Would it all, sans religion, collapse in a heap of nihilism? The point is that memetically we might evolve and derive a moral code, but often that moral code has the basic principle of sacrifice your own needs for the needs of the group. For example, don’t steal is one such example. If I rob a bank and get $10,000 I am better off, but society is worse off in a number of important ways. So by not stealing I am sacrificing my own welfare for that of the group.

    So any memetically derived moral code needs with it an enforcement mechanism. The temptation to cheat is strong enough that there have to be a lot of different mechanisms. For sure a legal system, police and force, which Napier proposes is one way. But it stands at a huge disadvantage — it only works if you get caught. The evil genius of western religions is that they put the enforcement mechanism into your brain, offering an empty promise of paradise as a compensation for the systematic personal loss of choosing to do “the right thing.”

  78. OK, so you’re just poorly informed. It’s striking how your errors and (deliberate?) lack of knowledge all tend in one direction…

    And where is that “Non-aggression” in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    That’s surprisingly easy.

    Afghanistan… well let’s just say it’s a bad idea to essentially wage proxy war against the greatest military power on the planet, without either a) a *really* deniable proxy, or b) a nuclear-armed patron looking for a fight.

    As for Iraq, are you aware that the first Gulf War never actually officially ended? Yes, that great multinational response to counter naked Iraqi aggression… the game was still officially on. No peace, just ceasefire. Kind of like Korea. And maybe you weren’t paying attention either, all through the entire decade of the 90′s, as the Iraqis continued to present the US with casus belli, one after the other. So you’d pretty much have to be a politically-driven idiot to call the US response “aggression”.

    The problem here is not the initial war as such. Not even the lies and disinformation spread to justify these wars. Wars happen, mostly out of pure stupidity and stubbornness.

    The real mortal sin of the USA was to destroy the governing structures of Iraq, and then not replacing them. Dissolving the army and letting hospitals and army stocks be looted, but send in the mercenaries to protect the private interests of the USA (politicians and sponsors).

    So the first thing you do is invalidate everything you’ve been arguing up til now (I can see your need to move some goal posts, so I understand). OK, no surprise. Then the big reveal- the US’s REAL crime, is that they’re crass. They have bad manners and poor taste.

  79. This part is actually more interesting.

    Btw, since the Napoleontic wars, the power struggles in Europe were between Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. France and Austria weekended and were becoming second rate powers at the start of the 20th century. Prussia and Britain became much stronger. Remember that Germany fought France and Britain together at one front, and Russia on the other. In WWII France was simply overrun.

    Germany was the real European industrial power house in the 20th century. To our great suffering.

    Had Germany prevented WWI, it would have dominated Europe in the 1930s. Had Germany not fought WWII, it would have dominated in the 1950s. They did not fight a third war, and they dominated Europe in the 1990s. At the moment, Germany is the only industrial Western country that can compete head on with East-Asia.

    The back of France has already been broken by demographic decline in the 19th century.

    In the early 20th Century France had been displaced as the leading continental European power and was in relative decline compared to Germany, made obvious and inevitable by demographics. That actually made them *more* dangerous, not less.

    Studying the sizes of the standing armies and the military budgets of the Great Powers before WWI is fascinating, and puts the lie to much of conventional wisdom. The one power who was most aggressively building for war was France. They had a limited window, their position was slipping and they needed to be prepared for and to start, their revanchist war is soon as possible.

    The UK’s immortal shame here is that they made WWI possible by letting themselves be France’s bitch (the treaty commitments they made essentially compelled them to be France’s auxiliary, pledged to support whatever France chose to do). The pan-Slavs were just dangerous idiots, as racially driven phantasists usually are – their influence meant that Russia was commited to war to destroy Austria before Austria could find a way to come to terms with their Slavic minorities (a triple – German, Magyar, Slav – monarchy would have destroyed pan-Slavic dreams). So France and Russia each desperately needed to destroy a German power and were committed to supporting each other in the attempt. The UK signing on as tail to France’s dog tipped the calculations enough in Russia/France’s favor that war was inevitable.

    The only way for Germany to prevent WWI was to placate the UK by giving up their overseas ambitions, not engaging in any imperial expansions and NOT building a fleet. Absent that, Germany *would* inevitably be attacked and find itself fighting on two fronts. In which case the only possible way to win would be to try to defeat her enemies in detail (how the Finn’s won that battle, btw). Which is where the Schlieffen Plan (and German “aggression”) comes in. Didn’t work. 1915-1917 Germany was heavily outnumbered and fought almost completely on the defensive on the Western Front. It was just one series of British and French offensives after another. Inept bloodbaths. Got so bad the French army mutinied, but that’s another story.

    Had Germany not fought WWII…. yeah. We’d all have more living relatives. But that’s what happens when a major power with a genuine grievance finds solace in Leftist ideology.

  80. Oh, and as an aside to prevent anyone from getting any unrealistic impressions of the French simply being helpless and outmatched in WWII… in June 1940 when the Germans invaded France, the German and Allied forces were of roughly equivalent size (German actually very slightly smaller!).

    The Germans had less artillery, fewer tanks (and those, in most metrics were inferior to their French counterparts), fewer fighter aircraft, though the Germans did have a clear advantage in light and medium bombers. The Allies had huge advantages in motor transport, with most German formations reliant on horse-drawn transport. Most German units were poorly equipped indeed. Germany was poor, had been poor, had really only barely begun to rearm, so much so that for the early years of the war the German armored forces depended heavily on tanks stolen from Czechoslovakia.

    Mostly what the Germans had going for them was superior doctrine.

  81. I’m inclined to believe that there *is* a universal morality: respect for life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness; an acceptance of duty, working hard to support yourself and those you wish to support; and a realization that if you seek to serve others, you will prosper.

    And when I say, “Serve others”, I need to clarify, that you can be, and in most instances, ought to be paid, for the services you provide–although if you have the means to do so, you should definitely offer aid to those in genuine need.

    Any tradition–religious, secular, or governmental–that embraces this morality, will prosper. Indeed, that is why America has become the most powerful nation on Earth! And any tradition–religious, secular, or governmental–that fights against this morality is tyranny, and will be doomed to misery. We see this in every Communist and Socialist society ever established; it is also why America is currently on its decline.

    While it’s possible to justify this morality philisophically and religiously, it has also proved its worth pragmatically.

    Disclaimer: FWIW, I practice a religious faith (I am a Latter-day Saint, aka a Mormon) that literally has this as a doctrine of proper governance, accepted as revelation. Even so, as I look over the history of governments throughout the world, I cannot help but see this pattern play out again and again: those societies that respect Individual Rights, prosper, while those that sacrifice Individual Rights for the Collective do not.

  82. A lot of what is codified in Islam is Arab/Middle Eastern tribal tradition.

    As soon as Islam spread out of tribal Arabia, it became modified and diluted, the more so the further it spread.

    When the ultra-traditionalist Wahhabist sect of Islam appeared in eastern Arabia, it was rejected by the rest of Islam (it was called “the trouble out of Nejd”).

    That has changed a great deal in the last century. First, the rulers of Nejd (the house of Saud) conquered the Hejaz and gained control of Mecca and Medina. Second, and far more important, the oil boom put enormous amounts of money at the disposal of Wahhabism.

    Most of the Moslem world is relatively poor. The Saudi Wahhabs have money to burn. They quickly became the chief financiers of institutional Sunni Islam. (There is mutual hostility with Shia Islam, which is funded less lavishly by Iran.)

    Saudi money supports tens of thousands of Wahhabist missionaries, preaching to both infidels and non-Wahhab Moslems, mosque building, schools, books, and so on. The result has been cultural Arabization of other Moslem societies, as well as religious radicalization.

  83. James Donald is rude, intemperate, and exaggerates – but he is largely right about British operations in Basra.

    The British adopted an accomodating, low profile approach, which initially avoided violent confrontation with any Iraqis. This resulted in a much lower level of violence in Basra, and the British bragged that they, the old colonial hands, clearly knew much better than those ignorant Yanks about “handling the natives”.

    But what had actually happened was that the British conceded effective control of the city to Islamist paramilitaries affiliated with Moqtada al-Sadr. This didn’t happen all at once; but the initial decision to avoid fighting and back off confrontations set the precedent. Whenever the British forces tried to enforce Coalition policies or protect other Basrans from the Sadrists, the Sadrists threatened war and the British backed down. As the Sadrists gained power, they expanded their forces and acquired more weapons.

    The Sadrists harassed the British with repeated small attacks, with the tacit threat that any significant response would mean all-out war. This continued until the British were practically confined to their compounds and the Sadrists ruled the streets.

    This was finally reversed after the British forces pulled out and US (and Iraqi national forces) came in and defeated the Sadrists.

    British forces did a lot of useful fighting in various times and places in Iraq, but they failed strategically in Basra.

  84. Whether there can be a universal morality is neither here nor there. There is not a universally accepted one, which means people who disagree sufficiently strongly must fight. I think that the general interest in vampire novels these days has arisen because vampires, unlike terrorists, really are an existential threat to humanity, and indeed themselves. What happens the month after the world becomes 50% vampire? Zelerod’s Doom….

    But fortunately, in the world of reality existential threats don’t exist. “Many have spoken of fighting to the last man, but none have ever done it; and there has never been any question of fighting to the last woman and child.” (I forget who said this, and Google isn’t helpful.) When the fighting is done, the diplomats have the last word. Nowadays they sometimes get the first word too, and that’s better for all except greedy powermongers who think themselves superior in kind to the rest of humanity: vampires in another sense.

  85. >But fortunately, in the world of reality existential threats don’t exist.

    Yeah, tell me that again after you get your second assassination threat.

  86. But fortunately, in the world of reality existential threats don’t exist.

    How many historical examples are you going to need before you rethink?

  87. Of course existential threats to individuals exist. I will die and so will you and you and you. But there are no existential threats to groups of size larger than a few tens of thousands, with the exception of the world’s nuclear arsenals, which are irrelevant to this conversation.

  88. >Of course existential threats to individuals exist. I will die and so will you and you and you.

    Yep, that’s why I didn’t mention that. Existential threats to individuals are trivially common.

    >But there are no existential threats to groups of size larger than a few tens of thousands,
    >with the exception of the world’s nuclear arsenals, which are irrelevant to this conversation.

    Do you honestly believe this, or is this just something you’re trying to talk yourself into? Exactly how many deliberate massacres and genocides (even in just the past century) would be enough to convince you that existential threats to entire groups are very real? How many such attempted/ongoing campaigns would be enough?

    And why the magic number ‘few tens of thousands’?

  89. “Many have spoken of fighting to the last man, but none have ever done it; and there has never been any question of fighting to the last woman and child.”

    Bulldust.

  90. @Jessica Boxer

    (sorry about the late reply)

    Your argument about sacrificing your own needs for the sake of the group only holds up if you never have any more interactions with the group. Perhaps you chose your example hastily, but if you’re going to be a long term member of a group it’s important not to tick everybody off.

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