Asian Values

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World Values Survey Cultural Map of the World (2005-2008)

Any real discussion involving the concept has to start with the realization that it’s a profoundly silly term. I mean, what are Asian Values? Other than the “obvious” idea that such a thing exists and is superior to the “moral depravity” of the West, most people find it difficult to enumerate precisely what they are, or how they came to be common across such a range of countries, cultures and religions. Wikipedia suggests that the term came about

“to justify authoritarian regimes in Asia or to defense from the politically designated western concept of ‘human right’, predicated on the belief in the existence within Asian countries of a unique set of institutions and political ideologies which reflected the region’s cultures and histories”.

It then lists a bunch of values which seem rather designed for that purpose.The list is not worth reproducing but largely reduces to the elevation of the collective (family, clan, firm, country) over the individual.

The problem is, calling these “Asian values” obscures the fact that these were almost universal values for thousands of years! Insofar as the West has de-emphasized the collective and emphasized the individual (and this is by no means a universal characteristic of the West, either), this has occurred purely in the last 300-400 years, since the Enlightenment, and particularly coinciding with the sudden growth of their economies during the Industrial Revolution.Perhaps the following is a better description of what most people consider Asian Values:

TYPE *B* folks travel less, and move less often from where they grew up. They are more polite and care more for cleanliness and order. They have more self-sacrifice and self-control, which makes them more stressed and suicidal. They work harder and longer at more tedious and less healthy jobs, and are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules, which let them depend more on folks they know less. When considering rule violators, they look more at specific rules, and less at the entire person and what feels right. Fewer topics are open for discussion or negotiation.

Type B folks believe more in good and evil, and in powerful gods who enforce social norms. They envy less, and better accept human authorities and hierarchy, including hereditary elites at the top (who act more type A), women and kids lower down, and human and animal slaves at the bottom. They identify more with strangers who share their ethnicity or culture, and more fear others. They are less bothered by violence in war, and toward foreigners, kids, slaves, and animals. They more think people should learn their place and stay there. Nature’s place is to be ruled and changed by humans.

That is simply Robin Hanson’s list of “farmer values”, as opposed to forager values, which (as he notes) maps rather well to the conservative vs liberal divide in most of Western politics. There is nothing uniquely Asian about Asian values. There is nothing inherently wrong about them, either, aside from their tendency to lose out against forager values (do read that post) as people tend to get richer. But any argument -particularly amongst Asians- that attempts to draw its strength from “Asian values” should be well aware of the origin and limitations of the concept.