Universal Values in the Postmodern Era

The Elusive Nature of Universal Values

Many arguments have been put forward for the existence of universal values. But do such things really exist and are they defined with sufficient clarity that we really understand what they encompass? Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations in a speech on Global Ethics in 2003 cited inter alia “peace, freedom [and] social progress” as being universal values which he upheld. Nonetheless he goes on to acknowledge that

The values of our founders are still not fully realized.  Alas, far from it.  But they are much more broadly accepted today than they were a few decades ago.  The Universal Declaration, in particular, has been accepted in legal systems across the world, and has become a point of reference for people who long for human rights in every country.  The world has improved, and the United Nations has made an important contribution.

Kofi Annan, “Do We Still Have Universal Values?” (2003)

So the values he cites are by his own admission not universally recognised and respected. The reason for this is not difficult to understand when we start to probe just what is meant by each of these. For example, peace defined as the absence of war is surely a desirable thing. But in relation to the current war in Ukraine, how do we believe the Ukrainians should behave after having been invaded by Russia: sue for peace or fight back? And should they have been willing to cede territory and/or autonomy to appease Russia and prevent or forestall the invasion?

Similarly with freedom, this is something that usually resonates strongly as something we would be reluctant to give up, but it is not uncommon these days to hear the freedom of speech upheld in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights derided by progressive leftist commentators:

freedom of speech is no longer a value. It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates.

Nesrine Malik, ‘Hate speech leads to violence. Why would liberals defend it?’ The Guardian, 22 March 2018.

And could anyone seriously suggest, given their track record, that the Chinese Communist Party is interested in promoting freedom?

Similarly, social progress is declared to be the goals of the proponents of protagonists on all sides of the Culture Wars and indeed all political parties, but the prescriptions of what they see as conducive to progress are often antithetical to those proposed by their opponents.

I would suggest that to address the issue more adequately we must distinguish between two different concepts:

  • Universally agreed values
  • Values which are believed should be universal.

It is clearly the latter which Kofi Annan has in mind. Such values have been justified in various ways:

  • Kant’s categorical imperative (Do unto others as you would have them do to you.)
  • Inherited wisdom (religious or otherwise)
  • Self-evident truths, e.g. the Constitution of the United States.

The problem is that none of the above justifications are universally accepted or agreed. See for example Kant and Humbug and Social Morality from Kant’s Categorical Imperative to Transcendent Individualism for discussions of issues with implementing Kant’s proposal. In this light, can we claim that universal values really exist? Only, it would appear, to the extent that those who accept the justification are entitled to impose their views on those who don’t.

Legal Activism

Not surprisingly attempts by powerful minorities to impose their views on the reluctant majority have always been commonplace, no less today than in antiquity. Such is achieved in practice through laws and regulation. Thus was born the notion of a “social contract” whereby all are constrained to live according to the established mores of the society into which they are born as a necessary condition for a stable societal framework to exist. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the purpose of regulation these days is increasingly seen as being to change a consensus of what is considered good behaviour by obliging people to behave in a manner contrary to their belief, rather than to encode and enforce an established view of what is considered right.

Using law to change rather than reinforce a social consensus is referred to as legal activism. It is noteworthy that such appears to be on the rise in the UK (and indeed in the Anglosphere generally) at present. I have sought to illustrate in Is “Positive Action” a Legitimate Means to an End? how the UK Equalities Act (2010) has been a game-changer, introducing a new conceptual framework:

  • Protected characteristics which extend human rights into controversial areas like gender reassignment, where clearly no social consensus exists, nor any prior legal framework.
  • Diversity requirements for employers and other institutions on a “comply or explain” basis.
  • So-called Positive Action allowing the pursuit of equality/fairness to be cited as a justification for otherwise protected rights being selectively overridden, in particular condoning race- and gender-based discrimination.

This has consequences:

  • The responsibilities conferred no longer relate to human rights but to aggregated group rights.
  • This leads to identitarian factions with “champions” and “allies”.
  • Rights and values asserted by such factions are of course unlikely to meet with universal approval, so have to be enforced.

To shore up the concept of group rights, those sharing a common protected characteristic are frequently referred to as “communities” with a shared identity and so a common interest, e.g. Blacks (capital `B’), Asians, LGBT+ (with the “+” facilitating a highly elastic definition of scope), Muslims, etc.. Dissident views within factions are of course ignored, marginalised or suppressed as they undermine the concept of a unified community. This leads to so-called Culture Wars, whereby differences are highlighted, then reinforced and problematised.

The Deeper Malaise: Dialectical Epistemology

But the legal framework is not ultimately what is fuelling the culture wars. A deeper malaise is the implicit adoption and propagation by postmodern activists of a universal value perspective based on a dialectical approach. What do I mean by this?

The idea of the dialectic in modern usage can be traced back to the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the early 19th century. He saw it as the fundamental principle controlling societal development and progress. This idea was developed in the latter half of that century by Friedrich Engels in collaboration with Karl Marx into a philosophy they termed dialectical materialism. As set out in his Dialectics of Nature, Engels saw the dialectic as being at work not only in a socio-economic context but throughout the entire natural world. In his representation it encompasses three laws:

  • The law of the unity and conflict of opposites
  • The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes
  • The law of the negation of the negation (leading to a new synthesis).

As has been detailed in a comprehensive, extended podcast on the subject by James Lindsay, the idea of the dialectic has been developed since by numerous writers and political movements, often highly critical of one another (as might be expected when one identifies a law of conflict of opposites as the driver of all change/progress). But there is general agreement amongst all proponents of a dialectical approach that, however one understands or deploys it, it is what facilitates progress in society and the world, and our understanding thereof.

In practice these days, the dialectical approach has, following its long period of evolution, given rise to a critical perspective which problematises normality, portraying the Western world (in particular) as maintained by structures of oppression which need to be exposed and systematically dismantled. As Murray [1] and Pluckrose and Lindsay [2] have intimated, the War on the West is being fought on many fronts:

  • Race (Critical Race Theory)
  • History (Decolonization, Anti-Slavery)
  • Education (Anti-Racism, Decolonization, Social Justice Theory)
  • Culture (Decolonization, Queer Theory, Anti-Appropriation)

The undermining of societal values is amplified and accelerated by diverse means:

  • Capture of the educational system (primary to tertiary) and increasingly the broadcast media, including the BBC, by applied postmodernists.
  • Ideological capture of HR departments and governance function of corporations and other institutions, subordinating commercial purpose to politicised social goals (under the banners of EDI and ESG).
  • Reinforcement of the above by capture of regulatory bodies.
  • Viral transmission of biased information and virtue signalling through social media, particularly among the young.

The capture of the educational system is addressed by Pluckrose and Lindsay [2] and of the BBC by Aitken [3]; that of corporations by Ramaswamy [4], and of other institutions by Don Trubshaw in Understanding How Institutions Become Radicalised and What Can be Done. The reinforcement by regulatory bodies I have touched on in my essay on Is “Positive Action” a Legitimate Means to an End?, mentioned above. At the same time, dissenting opinions are increasingly attenuated by the Cancel Culture which had its origins in student unions but has spread in recent days to social media and society generally, as has been documented by Lukianoff and Haidt [5].

It is proposed that in striving to establish universal values, the problem is that the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Instead we should resist the temptation of universal values and acknowledge instead the context-dependence of all valuing.

The Way Forward?

To this end Don Trubshaw, in concluding a detailed survey of the history of this problem, entitled The Axiological Turn in Epistemology, Part 4: The Concept of “Engagement” and the Societics of Knowledge, has proposed a new epistemological paradigm of engagement as a philosophical response to the problem of subjectivism.” Knowledge is in this view seen as distributed across nature, society and culture and accessible through the four forms of engagement:

The four modes of engagement can be summarised as follows:

Embeddedness – the immediacy of nature and our experience of it;
Participation – the interaction with other minds through the culture and institutions of society; 
Immersion – the interaction with and transformation of nature through the culture and institutions of society, augmenting and changing them in the process; 
Reflection – narrative theory of self, other selves and world.

These modes have associated axiological aspects, by which is meant that they contain implicitly, or give rise to, methods or standards of valuation. I have sought to illustrate the use of the engagement paradigm to address the specific question, much debated these days, of the legitimate boundaries to free speech in my essay on The Culture Wars and the “Right to Offend” . The universalist perspective of left liberals is that “offensive” free speech or other behaviours should be prohibited, but then they seek to apply this criterion in a highly partisan way. From an Engagement perspective, this would be classed as an argument in the realm of “reflection.” But there are also arguments in the realms of

  • “immersion”: we can inquire more objectively into the degree of the offence, whether it is real or purported and what wider negative impact might flow from the curtailment of free speech.
  • “participation”: trust and community cohesion can be damaged when, say, a vocal minority gets to determine what all children are taught (or not) at school.
  • “embeddedness”: in relation to diet, should others be prevented from enjoying the consumption of food we disapprove of?

As can be seen, the multi-dimensional perspective provided by the engagement paradigm on epistemological questions (“How do we know things?”) gives rise to a more nuanced multi-dimensional perspective on axiological questions (“How do we decide what is right?”). So, rather than there being a single right way which we can elucidate and seek to impose or enforce, we should recognise the context-driven nature of all valuing and engage with the issue at hand on the basis of the most appropriate mode (or modes) of knowing and valuing. It may be that you are dissatisfied with the fact that we cannot in this way deduce one-size-fits-all rules and so facilitate the suppression of dissenting voices. But surely a world where more than one legitimate way of valuing is recognised is likely to be a kinder, more inclusive world and this has to be better than persisting in winner-takes-all Culture Wars, which on the evidence to date seem increasingly to divide (between victims and oppressors) and to exclude (through Cancel Culture).


[1] Douglas Murray. The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason. HarperCollins, 1st edition, 2022. ISBN 978-0-00-849249-6.
[2] Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity. Swift Press, 1st edition, 2020. ISBN 978-1-80-075004-3. A review of this book by Don Trubshaw can be found here.
[3] Robin Aitken. The Noble Liar: How and why the BBC distorts the news to promote a liberal agenda. Biteback Publishing, 2021. ISBN 978-1785906008.
[4] Vivek Ramaswamy Woke Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam. Center Street, 2021. ISBN 978-1546090786.
[5] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Penguin Publishing Group, 2018. ISBN 978-0-7352-2489-6.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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