How Cultural Are Personal Values


Valuing Values

In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents,
but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA.

- Gregory Bateson

We can tell our values by looking at our chequebook stubs.

- Gloria Steinem

by David Hitchcock

With regard to East Asia, David Hitchcock, the former director of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the United States Information Agency (USIA), conducted the first quantitative survey to compare East Asian and American values.  In 1994, he asked Americans and East Asians (Japanese, Thais, Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Indonesians, and Filipinos) to choose six "societal values" and five "personal values" which they regard as core and critical.

The survey found the six societal values most valued by the East Asians were:

bullethaving an orderly society
bulletsocietal harmony
bulletensuring the accountability of public officials
bulletbeing open to new ideas
bulletfreedom of expression
bulletrespect for authority

On the other hand, the six most important for the Americans polled were:

bulletfreedom of expression
bulletpersonal freedom
bulletthe rights of the individual
bulletopen debate
bulletthinking for oneself
bulletthe accountability of public officials

Despite Hitchcock's interest in discovering commonalities between East Asians and Americans, he found fundamental differences not just with societal values but also with regard to personal values.

The six most important personal values stressed by the Americans polled were:

bulletself reliance
bulletpersonal achievement
bullethard work
bulletachieving success in life
bullethelping others
bulletfulfilling obligations to others

Whereas "fulfilling obligations to others" was stressed by 39% of the East Asians, only 19% of Americans polled emphasised this; 59% of Americans stressed "achieving success in life" while only half as many East Asians did.  And 59% of Americans stressed "personal achievement" while only 33% of East Asians did.  On the other hand, 69% of the East Asians emphasised "respect for learning" but only 15% of Americans did.  And where 48% of the East Asians stressed "self-discipline" only 22% of Americans did.

Source: Asian Values and the United States: How Much Conflict? by David Hitchcock

American Values: Living with a Superpower


Europeans and Americans dispute some values and share others.  But one can do better than that.  Consider the third recent report, the world values survey run by the University of Michigan.

This survey goes back a long way.  The university has been sending out hundreds of questions for the past 25 years (it now covers 78 countries with 85% of the world's population).  Its distinctive feature is the way it organises the replies.  It arranges them in two broad categories.  The first it calls traditional values; the second, values of self-expression.

The survey defines “traditional values” as those of religion, family and country.  Traditionalists say religion is important in their lives.  They have a strong sense of national pride, think children should be taught to obey and that the first duty of a child is to make his or her parents proud.  They say abortion, euthanasia, divorce and suicide are never justifiable.  At the other end of this spectrum are "secular-rational" values: they emphasise the opposite qualities.

The other category looks at “quality of life” attributes.  At one end of this spectrum are the values people hold when the struggle for survival is uppermost: they say that economic and physical security are more important than self-expression.  People who cannot take food or safety for granted tend to dislike foreigners, homosexuals and people with AIDS.  They are wary of any form of political activity, even signing a petition.  And they think men make better political leaders than women.  "Self-expression" values are the opposite.

Obviously, these ideas overlap.  The difference between the two is actually rooted in an academic theory of development (not that it matters).  The notion is that industrialisation turns traditional societies into secular-rational ones, while post-industrial development brings about a shift towards values of self-expression.

The usefulness of dividing the broad subject of “values” in this way can be seen by plotting countries on a chart whose axes are the two spectrums.  The chart alongside (click to enlarge it) shows how the countries group: as you would expect, poor countries, with low self-expression and high levels of traditionalism, are at the bottom left, richer Europeans to the top right.

But America's position is odd.  On the quality-of-life axis, it is like Europe: a little more "self-expressive" than Catholic countries, such as France and Italy, a little less so than Protestant ones such as Holland or Sweden.  This is more than a matter of individual preference.  The "quality of life" axis is the one most closely associated with political and economic freedoms.  So Mr Bush is right when he claims that Americans and European share common values of democracy and freedom and that these have broad implications because, at root, alliances are built on such common interests.

But now look at America's position on the traditional-secular axis.  It is far more traditional than any west European country except Ireland.  It is more traditional than any place at all in central or Eastern Europe.  America is near the bottom-right corner of the chart, a strange mix of tradition and self-expression.

Americans are the most patriotic people in the survey: 72% say they are very proud of their country (and this bit of the poll was taken before September 2001).  That puts America in the same category as India and Turkey.  The survey reckons religious attitudes are the single most important component of traditionalism.  On that score, Americans are closer to Nigerians and Turks than Germans or Swedes.

Of course, America is hardly monolithic.  It is strikingly traditional on average.  But, to generalise wildly, that average is made up of two Americas: one that is almost as secular as Europe (and tends to vote Democratic), and one that is more traditionalist than the average (and tends to vote Republican).

But even this makes America more distinctive.  Partly because America is divided in this way, its domestic political debate revolves around values to a much greater extent than in Europe.  Political affiliation there is based less on income than on church-going, attitudes to abortion and attitudes to race.  In America, even technical matters become moral questions.  It is almost impossible to have a debate about gun registration without it becoming an argument about the right to self-defence.  In Europe, even moral questions are sometimes treated as technical ones, as happened with stem-cell research.

The difference between the two appears to be widening.  Since the first world values survey in 1981, every western country has shifted markedly along the spectrum towards greater self-expression.  America is no exception.  But on the other spectrum America seems to have become more traditional, rather than less.  The change is only a half-step.  And Italy, Spain and France have taken the same half-step.  But if you look at Europe as a whole, the small movement back towards old-fashioned virtues in big Catholic countries is far outweighed by the stride the other way in post-Protestant countries such as Germany and Sweden.  On average, then, the values gap between America and European countries seems to be widening.

Where evil is real

What is the significance of this?  If “quality-of-life” values have political implications, helping to underpin democracy, might traditional values help explain differing attitudes to, say, the projection of power?

In principle, two things suggest they might.  Patriotism is one of the core traditional values and there is an obvious link between it, military might and popular willingness to sustain large defence budgets.  There may also be a link between America's religiosity and its tendency to see foreign policy in moral terms.  To Americans, evil exists and can be fought in their lives and in the world.  Compared with Europe, this is a different world-view in both senses: different prevailing attitudes, different ways of looking at the world.

In the Pew and Marshall Fund studies, you can see hard evidence for this difference — and it goes beyond immediate policy concerns.  In the Pew study, three-quarters of west Europeans and an even higher share of east Europeans support the American-led war on terrorism — but more than half in both places say America does not take other countries into account (whereas three-quarters of Americans think their government does).

In both studies, Americans and Europeans put the same issues at the top of their concerns — religious and ethnic hatred, international terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons.  In that respect, America and Europe have more in common with each other than with African, Asian and Latin American countries, for whom the spread of AIDS and the gap between rich and poor are at least as important.

But both studies show differences in the balance of European and American anxieties.  In the Pew poll, 59% of Americans think the spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest danger to the world.  Between 60% and 70% of Europeans put religious and ethnic hatred first.  In the Marshall Fund study, around 90% of Americans say international terrorism and Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction are “critical”.  The comparable figures for Europe are around 60%.  In short, even if Americans and Europeans see one another in similar terms, they see the world differently.

One might object that such values-based judgments are still not everything.  The two sides of the Atlantic have long lived with a related problem: the cultural split between "vigorous, naïve" America and "refined, unprincipled" Europe.  They have successfully managed that, just as they have coped with the political awkwardness that America's centre of gravity is further to the right than Europe's.

What is different now?  Two things.  The first is that the values gap may be widening a little, and starting to affect perceptions of foreign-policy interest on which the transatlantic alliance is based.  The second is that, in the past, cultural differences have been suppressed by the shared values of American and European elites — and elite opinion is now even more sharply divided than popular opinion.  It is the combination of factors that makes the current transatlantic divisions disturbing.  And it is little consolation that, in the face of some mutual hostility, the Bush administration is insisting it is all just a matter of politics, and not of something deeper.

Source: The Economist 2 January 2003

Disputing Tastes

by John V C Nye

The American economy today produces a cornucopia of goods that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.  Where the first part of the 20th century was given over almost entirely to the expansion of the economy through improved mass production of basic goods and services, the last few decades have come to be about businesses finding ways to satisfy our demands for aesthetic value.  In the past, paying more to enjoy more beautiful goods was a pleasure restricted to the upper class.  But now that the average American enjoys riches mostly undreamt of in previous centuries, it is not surprising that we focus on having better goods and more delightful experiences, not simply on piling up more stuff.

The result is a world where Michael Graves designs stylish toasters for Target and Martha Stewart brings exotic colours to sheets at Kmart.  Virginia Postrel, in her new book, The Substance of Style, argues that the basic urge for beauty is actually as old as humanity.  The very poorest of peoples, from our prehistoric ancestors to subsistence level farmers in large parts of the world today, willingly give up substantial amounts of their limited resources of time and effort to produce beautiful things that satisfy the inner person.  And while some would not want to compare Martha Stewart's colour palette to a craftsman's work in a king's palace in medieval France, it is clear that a wide swath of the American population cares about a lot more than simply the direct utility they get from their chairs, food and homes.  The ability to indulge that desire has never been easier.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Most economists have long argued that de gustibus non est disputandum.  There's no disputing tastes.  We don't try and figure out the ultimate worth of an item or a behaviour.  If people pay for it, they must be receiving value in return.  Some social critics are not so sure.

The critics are bothered by two aspects of the choices people make in the realm of the aesthetic.  The first is that in too many instances, consumers don't truly get value from what they purchase.  Instead, they are led by advertising and social pressure to throw their money away on empty purchases that serve no purpose other than the enrichment of greedy corporations.  This is a long-standing theme of social critics.  You could fill a nice-sized library with books by authors who argue that people's consumer choices are misguided.1

A second critique of aesthetic choices made by the masses invokes the concept of externalities to dispute tastes.  My tastes affect your happiness.  My hair colour may disgust you.  My landscaping preferences may cause you displeasure as you stroll past my house to get to yours.  While the particular cereal you had for breakfast has little effect on the people around you - especially in a world where cereal makers can supply as much as people want at market prices — what kind of house you have or even what kind of car you drive has clear, obvious effects on the way your neighbourhood looks.  In few other areas are people's choices as likely to clash with one another.  Whether or not you want to mind your own business, your neighbour's choices in clothing, hair style, or music can have noticeable effects — for good or ill — on your quality of life.  This works both for those who would prefer a more homogeneous environment, and those who value diversity and spontaneity.  Satisfying one group inevitably means offending the other.

Postrel notes that some things can best be dealt with by association of likes.  Housing subdivisions are the classic example where a certain style can be imposed on all residents for the good of the whole.  Don't like it?  Move somewhere else.  By allowing people to vote with their feet, we privatise the public good of neighborhood style.

But there are limits to this process.  In the case of physical externalities such as pollution, we can often assign property rights as a way of settling disputes and improving matters.  In the case of æsthetic externalities, property rights are often impossible to assign.  While many will be willing to let you wear purple hair or a swastika tattoo as a form of freedom of speech or expression, it is much harder to imagine ways of settling disputes over larger æsthetic issues.

I may want to live in a world where people walk to work, know their neighbours well and sit on their front porch watching the fireflies on a summer's night waving at those neighbours in familiar greeting.  But that world will be hard to construct if most people have other preferences.  Here's another way to say it.  Luddites who are not Amish may struggle to find the critical mass they need to live in a world akin to yesterday's.

Should we care?  One view is that a person who wants to live in a horse and buggy world without telephones is free to live in the woods on his own.  But a person who wants that world populated by like-minded people is simply out of luck.  The problem is that many people are not content to shrug and adapt.  The æsthetic environment we live in is often determined by a weird mix of persuasion, coercion, and political competition.  Because we enshrine free speech as one of our highest values, debates about æsthetics are couched in absolutist terms.  Though there's no arguing about tastes, we always do.  And those whose values differ from the mainstream seek to impose their choices through persuasion, bullying, and sometimes, outright force via the political process, usually by arguing that some choices are simply ugly, offensive, or beyond the bounds of the acceptable.

It's not too much of a stretch to argue that the debate over urban sprawl is more about æsthetics than any number of more obvious issues regarding the environment or the cost of long-distance commuting.  To quote a young professor I know, "I just don't like all these big cars and want to see few of them."  On the other hand, I also met a (probably atypical) Parisian who told me, "I'm sick of these old buildings and tired of Paris being a museum.  We need more skyscrapers, freeways and shopping malls."  Perhaps these two gentlemen would be happy to switch places, but they cannot happily coexist in the same city.

At the end of the day, the look and feel of other people, their clothing, houses, cars, even the types of restaurants they choose to frequent, may have a bigger impact on our lives than what stocks they choose to buy or how much they pay in taxes.  Since we can only live in one country at a time - though we do our best to choose where we live and work - we can no more have unlimited choices about what type of society to live in than we can have ten types of national defence for different subsets of the country.  And while economics can help us to put things in perspective, some of these conflicts are ultimately unresolvable.


1 Stanley Lebergott examines this literature and responds to it wonderfully in his witty and informative Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1996).  Tyler Cowen, a champion of the spread of style, reviews Postrel's book here ( [NB this is an MSWord file], and wonders about whether the pleasure we get from æsthetics is ultimately unsatisfying.

John Nye is Associate Professor of Economics and History at Washington University in St Louis.  He is at work on a book which will appear under the title War, Wine, and Taxes.

Source: 6 October 2003

Do You Dispute That This Is in Good Taste?


Source: I wish I knew.  I found it on the web somewhere but I've lost the source, though I've searched and searched.  If you know anything about it, please let me know.

-------- Original Message --------

Subject: The painting
Date: Wed, 11 Jul 2007 12:44:16 -0700 (PDT)
From: Lois Chaney <>


The painting may well be by Caspar David Friedrich (1774 - 1840), but it the background is not quite as as subtly detailed as it is in his better-known paintings.  The artist may be a follower, but most definitely Friedrich is your starting place.

"Pensive foreground figures were among Friedrich's favorite motifs.  Usually seen from the back, they serve as allegories for Romantic yearning.  By placing them in or near the center of his pictures, Friedrich makes the viewer identify with their angle of vision and thus share their contemplation.  In Friedrich's works, these figures - alone or in pairs and lost in reverie, often before a rising moon or sinking sun - are usually men." - Sabine Rewald, ed. The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich: Paintings and Drawings from the USSR.  [Exhibition catalog Metropolitan Museum of Art and Art Institute of Chicago], 1990.

I'm a partially university educated & partially self-taught art historian, retired from teaching Advanced Placement art history in one of California's secondary schools.


Thanks!  You are absolutely correct.  It's called Femme dans le soleil du matin.  It was painted in 1818 and is located in the  Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Woman at Sunrise, c.1818
Date: Sun, 18 May 2008 17:09:00 -0400
From: Josef Mendoza <>

Hello, regarding the Romantic German Painter, Caspar David Friedrich's work Woman at Sunrise c.1818 - I went in search of the image that I found on the cover of the Blackwell Guide to Feminist Philosophy, ed L .Martin Alcoff & E Feder Kittay (2007).

I found your request.

Fare Well,
Josef Mendoza
Raices Edu Productions, NYC


I appreciate that.

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