Suicide of the West?

02/11/2014 05:17 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

Is the West tearing itself apart? In the past few weeks we've looked at many arguments. But they may be boiled down to three points. First, at its best, Western civilization has attained something which no other has ever managed - an immensely rich and variegated society, where each generation surpasses the level reached by its parents, and is rich above all in freedom.

Freedom, to an extent often overlooked, is materially derived - freedom from wild animals looking for their next meal; freedom from hunger; freedom from rain, wind, heat and cold; freedom from ignorance and disease; freedom from back-breaking labor; and freedom from poverty of all kinds.

Freedom is also freedom from oppression by fellow humans - from slavery; from forced work; from involuntary military service; from thieves and violence; from parents, bosses, and government coercion; from discrimination on grounds of gender, race, nationality, social background, or sexual preference; freedom from anything that denies human dignity and the right to fair and equal treatment.

Finally, freedom is positive - to create one's own life; to choose one's friends and romantic partner; to learn about the world and contribute to new learning; to vote and help determine who will govern; to choose one's own work and living arrangements; to make life better for oneself and one's circle.

By all these standards, Western civilization is far from perfect. But it is so much better than any other civilization, past or present, as to deserve celebration and preservation. And despite all the threats to the ideals of Western civilization, it is closer today to these ideals than in 1900 or 1950.

My second point is that Western civilization resulted from a long and slow process, based ultimately on beliefs about the world and human nature, and on actions that followed. This is true of any civilization, but it is particularly true about the West, as it has placed more emphasis on the role of ordinary men and women, and on their spontaneous action to improve society.

Institutions are important, of course, but they are less fundamental than beliefs, because in a free society it is beliefs that determine and change institutions. For example, new beliefs led to the Protestant Reformation, and to new churches. In the West, beliefs are always more important than institutions because people believe they have the right to change institutions if the latter no longer fit with their beliefs. Beliefs lead to actions. When a belief is nearly or completely unconscious, it is at its strongest and most powerful.

A good example is the "Protestant ethic", which led ordinary people to view their "calling", their work, as a form of self-expression, even perhaps the most important thing in their lives. This idea arose from the doctrines of Luther and Calvin, but within a century or two had essentially become automatic and detached from any specific religion.

In the last few weeks, I've tried to define what is different about the West, and I have therefore excavated the beliefs that determined, and determine, the characteristic distinguishing actions of Westerners. You may recall that we have looked at six dominant beliefs and actions that have determined the Western character - Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism, and individualism. The six "success factors" are now baked into characteristic and routine ways of thinking and acting that do not necessarily require reaffirmation or awareness of the original doctrines behind each belief. For instance, we believe in "one person, one vote", and we would be very upset if the vote were taken away from us, but we do not need to know that the idea of democracy was given distinctive form by the seventeenth century idea of the social contract. Another example - we tend to believe in the idea of personal responsibility, self-improvement and compassion for those less well off. We do not need to be Christians to share these values, even though the ideas came from Christianity.

But now - this is my third point - we are at that treacherous, dangerous stage, where the beliefs and actions underpinning our civilization are under attack - most of all from within our own Western society. Historically, such an event has preceded and signaled a move from one civilization to another. When civilizations disappear, they either evolve into other civilizations, or else collapse under the difficulty of adapting old ways to new circumstances - usually new climates, or more powerful enemies. Yet what we have seen is that all six of the West's fundamental beliefs have, in the last century, come under vicious and sustained attack, from within the West itself. When a civilization stops believing in what makes it what it is, then we may expect some profound changes ahead.

This is such an important issue that I am going to stop here, because to launch into the issue would take too long. Next week, I will ask two questions. How far have the ideas behind our civilization been invalidated by new thinking or experience?
And, are new beliefs and new actions necessary to sustain the qualities and success of the West? I'll look at this for each of the six key aspects of our society.

And then I will attempt to answer the question - is the West about to destroy itself? I will argue that very possibly, it is. But I will say there is a way out of the impasse - a way that we are not taking at the moment, but could choose to do so. Please tune in again next week, and meanwhile have a happy and productive week!