Knowledge is not value-free

By Razib Khan | July 20, 2010 3:52 pm

This isn’t The New Yorker, and I’m not writing twenty page essays which flesh out all the nooks and crannies of my thought. When I posted “Linguistic diversity = poverty” I did mean to provoke, make people challenge their presuppositions, and think about what they’re saying when they say something.

I think knowledge of many languages is awesome. I am weak at language acquisition myself, but, as someone with an interest in Bronze Age Near Eastern history I’m obviously invested in people having some comprehension of Sumerian and Akkadian (not to mention Hittite or ancient Egyptian). And I’m not someone who has no interest in the details of ethnographic diversity. On the contrary I’m fascinated by ethnic diversity. Like many people I enjoy reading monographs and articles on obscure groups such as Yazidis (well before our national interest in Iraq) and the Saivite Chams of Vietnam. Oh, wait, I misspoke. I actually don’t know many people who have my level of interest in obscure peoples and tribes and the breadth of human diversity. If you’re the type of person who reads monographs on Yazidis not because it pertains to your scholarly specialty, but because you’re interested in a wide range of facts and topics, and would like to have discussions with someone of similar disposition (me), contact me with your location and if I swing through town we can have coffee or something. I’m interested in meeting like minds who I can explore topics with (and here I’m not talking about someone who is a Hakka and so knows a lot about the history of the Hakka; I’m not Hakka and I know something about the Hakka and I’m not an Oirat I know something about the Oirat, and so forth). All things equal the preservation of linguistic diversity is all for the good, and not only does it enrich the lives of humanity as a whole, it enriches my life in particular because of my intellectual proclivities. But all things are not equal.

Destruction_of_Buddhas_March_21_2001First, let me digress and admit that I do not adhere to a plain utilitarianism which does not value the cultural accretions and symbolic residues of history. For a concrete example, consider the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 by the Taliban. On a concrete material level this was simply the rearrangement of molecular aggregations. We even have the visual sensory representation of the Buddhas before their destruction in the form of photographs. Why the outrage? Naturally Buddhists were outraged because the images of the Buddha had a sacred valence for them. But the world in general was outraged, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. The local Shia Muslims who live in the region, the Hazaras, were aghast at the cultural destruction, as they considered the Buddhas to be part of their heritage. At the time the Hazaras were being subjected to genocidal persecution from the Taliban, who considered them racially alien due to their Mongolian heritage and also heretics because of their Shia faith, so they were in no position to interpose themselves between the Taliban and the Buddhas.

As for the Taliban their concept of the Buddhas of Bamyan is that they were plain stone. Additionally, the Taliban perceived that the Buddhas were blasphemous because they were idolatry, drawing upon a long line of iconoclasm which goes back to the legendary Abraham. Unlike the atheist the Taliban may have perceived in the stone something more than material, rather, the stone may have been an expression of demonic or devilish forces in the world. Even if it lacked malevolent spirit forces, if they were objects of worship by human beings then that naturally violated their conception of the proper order of things.

But there’s a more nuanced context to the destruction of the Buddhas: Afghanistan was suffering through a famine during that period. Though the proximate cause for their destruction seems to have been the influence of the Arabs who were a power in Afghanistan at the time, Arabs who had no cultural affinity for Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage, I have read that one aggravating issue may have been that the leadership of the Taliban was offended that the world seemed more focused on the potential destruction of statues than on the suffering of flesh & blood people. You can extrapolate this sort of objection pretty easily; at the same time that the Buddhas of Bamyan were under threat, tens of thousands were dying weekly in the Congo.

Here is where I must admit that my actions suggest that I am no simple utilitarian, who prioritizes the suffering of flesh and blood above stone and symbol. At the time in 2001 I specifically remember being very concerned about the destruction of the Buddhas, though I did not imbue them with spiritual value. I do not imbue the pyramids of Giza with spiritual value in a deep metaphysical sense, but I would be concerned about their destruction. I am not the only one. How many Egyptians would have to die in local violence to obtain the same world-wide media coverage as a terrorist detonation of a series of devices which destroyed the pyramids? I estimate on the order of millions (and even here, I am not so sure, as the genocide of millions in Africa receives far less coverage than I believe that a destruction of the pyramids would entail).

250px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17Human life and suffering are balanced against the aesthetic of life itself, which is more than bread and water. How many millions could have been fed with the funds which went to the Apollo mission? And yet what dollar value could we put on the photo of the pale blue dot? What dollar value on the reality that a human being has stepped foot on another planet? These are difficult questions in some ways because assessments of value and worth need to get the root of one’s implicit calculations. I know many people from the biological sciences who have little use for space exploration. And yet I know many people of marginal academic inclination who perceive much of biological research to be esoteric and without direct utility.

And it is here that biologists can respond that the domain of knowledge leads directly to discoveries in medicine and technology which will enable greater human happiness and well being, no matter what one thinks of the millionth beetle cataloged. On the margin some of these justifications for research based on plausible utility are as ludicrous as the justifications for a manned space mission. But the attempt must be made. Whether the quest for knowledge is worthy or not is not evaluated by some objective abstract criteria; even if researchers sit on granting committees the funds must ultimately come from elsewhere.

Which brings me back to the extinction of languages. The Lousy Linguist is skeptical of my contention that very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth or social amity. I outlined the theoretical reasons previously. If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtuous circle.”

A more on point response came from John Hawks:

I’m sympathetic to recognizing the real loss that accompanies the disappearance of a language from the world of speakers. The “unique oral history” and “lost in translation” ideas are true as far as they go — the value of folk art and oral history is that they enable social relationships.

But most communities of a few hundred speakers don’t have a Beowulf. Unique perspectives and unique history, to be sure — just as every Rembrandt is unique. But every Rembrandt is not the Night Watch. Most unique perspectives are about the speaker’s life. At some point we can’t learn the stories of all our ancestors anyway, because there are simply too many of them. Obviously I think we should enable people to learn about their history, yet we can’t keep communities pinned like butterflies in a cabinet of curiosities.

Human language communities in prehistory had a few hundred to a few thousand speakers. Those communities shared the same basic social lives and needs. Ninety-five percent or more of all those languages were lost — and those remaining have mostly come from a handful of languages less than 10,000 years ago.

I read in the Rijksmuseum that art historians figure more than 95% of the work of artists from the Dutch golden age had been lost or destroyed over the last 300 years.

John says it with more sensitivity and sympathy for the issue than I did, but I agree 99% with what he is saying here. The only point I might quibble over is that perhaps all groups do have their Beowulf. And yet it doesn’t matter. If the speakers of the language decided to shift to another language, then they are making the choice which increases their own flourishing. Speakers of a few hundred languages are not always in the circumstances of Native or Aboriginal peoples in North America, where they can gain sympathetic hearing for preservation of their folkways from the government and majority population. They need to make the best decision for themselves at the time, and often assimilation is the best of all choices, because the sample space of choices is limited. It is correct that bilingualism, or resistance to linguistic assimilation can persist. Hasidic Jews in New York City have communities where English is a second language and adults, of the third generation born and raised in the United States, have strong accents. But this community’s insulation comes at a cost, their relative poverty.

450px-IPad-02But for most communities the level of poverty of Hasidic Jews, or the material deprivation of the Amish, is wealth indeed. Many groups in Africa, South Asia and Australasia have not moved far up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Many of these groups live in grotesque poverty, experience radical marginalization, and some of them fear for their individual survival, not just tribal or ethnic coherency. If those in the developed world do value the preservation of these groups and the richness which they add to the world by their very existence, then a concrete program has to be offered. Perhaps a massive direct wealth transfer to targeted ethnic groups which are being assimilated (in India and Southeast Asia conversion to Christianity has been the most efficacious manner in which to preserve ethnic and linguistic identity, so perhaps one should donate to evangelical missionary groups). Or, the selective sponsored immigration of whole tribes and ethnic groups to the West, with an agreement that these groups have a sort of spatial sovereignty similar to Native Americans. In this way they wouldn’t be subject to the same dynamics as they were in their nation of origination.

I don’t care about linguistic diversity enough to support either of these programs. But that’s an expression of my values. And, I think it’s an expression of the values of most humans (granted, most humans do not value knowledge, but they do pay taxes which fund social engineering projects so their opinion counts). For those who do value linguistic diversity, to be taken seriously you need to present more than what it offers you and your own interests when you bear none of the costs of marginalization. Aggregate intangible utility may be maximized by this diversity, but it is simply unjust for that aggregate utility to be gained at the expense of the ones adding the diversity at the cost of their exclusion from the nation-states in which they’ve found themselves.

Addendum: Spencer Wells has noted that there is somewhat the same issue with genotypic diversity, as small groups are absorbed into larger groups. By analogy, one might offer up a program whereby tribal members are encouraged to marry only their own ingroup so as to preserve genetic lineages which may be of intellectual interest, and add diversity to the world. This is naturally the sort of argument many racialists present, though with a slightly different spin.

Image Credits: Wikimedia, CNN, Glenn Fleishman

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture

Comments (20)

  1. Mary

    Razib, thank you for sharing this. Wonderful writing, exquisitely developed, tidily and succinctly packaged. Much to think about here. Will look at the links. You’re the best teacher! On a personal note, my 17 year old kitty died last night and your writing is a balm.

  2. Razib, sorry if my link to your article seemed “skeptical.” Actually, I’m quite sympathetic to your position, that’s why I posted the link (I just didn’t have time to write up a more thorough discussion). I began my own blog because I was skeptical of the dominant ideology that language death is bad from a linguistic stand point and I posted a variety of thoughts here. My position on language death can be summed up by this Q&A I had with myself:

    Q: Is language death a separate phenomenon from language change?
    A: In terms of linguistic effect, I suspect not

    Q: Are there any favorable outcomes of language death?
    A: I suspect, yes (and Razib, it is you who first promoted one possible favorable outcome and I applaud you for that)

    Q: How do current rates of language death compare with historical rates?
    A: Nearly impossible to tell

    Q: What is the role of linguists wrt language death?
    A: One might ask: what is the role of mechanics wrt global warming?

  3. chris, thanks for the clarification! i understand that brevity can sometimes lead to confusion in the audience. been there 🙂

    my 17 year old kitty died last night and your writing is a balm.

    i’m so sorry!

  4. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may be based on very little.

    I suppose I’m more of a flesh-and-blood utilitarian. If the statues were a tourist attraction that brought paying visitors, then I could see their worth. But is the world really worse now without the statues? I think we just dislike the Taliban for being the kind of folks who do that. Also, I don’t think there were many Arabs in Afghanistan. The Pushtun have always been the power-base of the Taliban.

  5. Daniel I

    I agree with everything you’re saying in the post, even the little quibble over Beowulf.
    Sure it’s nice to have linguistic diversity, just as it’s nice to have a range of foods on the table. But if the plain rice (read ‘dying language’) isn’t enough to give you the energy you need to survive, you have to go out and find a more nutritious (read ‘economically beneficial’) food.

  6. I suppose I’m more of a flesh-and-blood utilitarian.

    knowing a bit about your psychology and dispositions (more than this comment might indicate) i can see where you’re coming from. in fact, yours is a cleaner more logically consistent and easily defensible position. but it also happens to be the minority position, at least as reflecting in human action.

    Also, I don’t think there were many Arabs in Afghanistan. The Pushtun have always been the power-base of the Taliban.


  7. Moshe Rudner

    In the modern age principled utilitarianism seems pretty ridiculous to me and demands too many exceptions, explanations and allowances to be of much use. Defining “human”, “life”, “pleasure”, “lack of pain” and all the rest are too complex, convoluted and contradictory to be taken seriously (by anyone not already condemned to a life in in the humanities department) and generally finds the intellectual expounder of the philosophy heading off into the wilds in the sad attempt to bring back some metaphorical catch that will explain why we oughtn’t force every woman to be constantly pregnant or, alternatively, sterilize the youth so that no humans will ever be born to suffer again.

    None of which means that we ought to pray at Rand’s tomb (does she even have one or was she sold for parts on ebay?) Our human impulses and inclinations aren’t likely to be educated away and as a lifelong opponent of education I’m pleased that this is the case, but – that said – the matter of the merits of cultural and linguistic diversity really just come down to people’s “lazy values” on the subject. When we don’t really think things through in any consistent (autistic; medieval) fashion how do we feel about the loss of unique cultures vs. (as you noted) the likely human suffering of isolation or lack of progress against various popular markers of “success” (usually material but for other advocates they can be health-related, spiritual or whatever).

    I personally happen to regard money and the pervasiveness of technology and knowledge as being vastly over-rated for the majority of mankind (who would be quite content in the bliss of ignorance provided they suffered minimal amounts of Singerian suffering) and believe that a connection with a people’s own biological past, pride in that past and preservation of traditional values is rather UNDER-rated. To this I’d add my own bias in favor of preserving these cultural practices for the continued enlightenment and intellectual fascination of myself and congenial spirits and… Walla! I want the world to leave the indigenous the heck alone.

    As you brilliantly pointed out this is easier said than done and for it to succeed a tribe would require either a local dictator of long duration, a heavy propaganda campaign saturating their thoughts and/or oodles of money (in one form or another) because, after all, we are living in a material world and the pervasive propaganda emanating from Hollywood and Wall Street gift wraps the cognitive misunderstandings that we homo sapians happen to harbor about the eventual (non-)futility of stepping onto the hedonic treadmill and into the rat race, so, well, incentives would need to be adjusted to counteract those leanings if we are to stand athwart the cargo cults’ runways to yell stop (“don’t land here”).

    I’m personally not interested in standing athwart anything moving at too great a velocity and would thus fall short of being a picketing advocate for “the village” but I’m certainly happy to sound off online against the mixed multitude of confused greed-is-good humanitarians who whine for the immediate inclusion of all peoples’ everywhere in the capitalistic dream.

    I advocate this position both for my own benefit (of above-referenced enlightenment, fascination and other forms of spiritual growth and joy) as well as on account of my vague (and admittedly slightly disinterested) notions of what benefits the locals in question themselves.

    Diversity is interesting and my humanitarian sense is quite unconvinced that it is generally harmful to the diverse themselves either.

  8. Chuck

    “knowing a bit about your psychology and dispositions (more than this comment might indicate) i can see where you’re coming from. in fact, yours is a cleaner more logically consistent and easily defensible position. but it also happens to be the minority position, at least as reflecting in human action.”

    Utilitarianism, as such, is a rather complex position; I’m surprised you see it as so defensible.

    Philosophically speaking, wouldn’t it be just as logically consistent to have a consequentialist position which swapped out the hedonism of classical utilitarianism with an aestheticism? Defining pleasures doesn’t seem easier, to me, than defining beauty. As I see it, it would be just as easy to logically defend a philosophy of maximizing the creative diversity of the world as it would be to defend a philosophy of maximizing the individual pleasures of all persons experiencing it. So this isn’t a matter of logic. It’s preference; and value. And values conflict.

    I think the issue is that utilitarianism is either more rhetorically defensible or more psychologically coherent, given some other presupposed values. Philosophical value systems work like intuitive factor analyses. Show me a system and I will show you what latent factor, or set thereof, it tries to reduce the multiplicity of human attachments too. Utilitarianism offers a relatively simple set of compelling variable. To the extent you find utilitarianism defensible, you find the values and the relations to be a compelling analysis — but as you know there are often many possible ways to organize a set of phenomena.

    Now I would make two points here. 1) This is compelling for people that like easily conceptualized value systems from which they can draw logical inferences and around which they can organize a large portion of their world. (It’s not simplistic — but not hyper-nuanced.) 2) In a system that already promotes pursuing ones own preferences (hedonism), it fits well. That’s a factor — selected by various dynamics — around which other factors need to be organized.

    “If those in the developed world do value the preservation of these groups and the richness which they add to the world by their very existence, then a concrete program has to be offered”

    I agree with this. But not from a utilitarian basis. Given the above, it makes sense that people who adopt hedonism, will adopt a form of utilitarianism — they will universalize their hedonism as the simplest moral configuration. And in doing so they will see that the hardship incurred by diversity — for enriching the world — needs to be compensated. This is one way to do it, but in that case aesthetics is a secondary value and diversity is only a pseudo-diversity. The other way, is just to reject utilitarianism, and see diversity as one of many primary values. The result will be that you will learn that second language and be less productive. (The national excess can just be given away). As a result there would be less competitive individualism — and less global growth, as so less a loss for other people to be diverse.) The lack of growth would be a problem — that’s less cures and less technology — but if diversity is a value unto itself, then that’s the trade off.)

    …..I guess that’s a backwards way of looking at it. Maybe try to accelerate technology to the point where everyone has the luxury to have their idiosyncratic groups and so forth.

  9. Chuck

    If there was an abundance of resources, are we supposing people would diversify — or homogenize? And do we expect an eventual global affluence? If we are looking at this from a consequentialist angle and trying to balance our aesthetic/hedonistic value — which is what this seems to be about — i simportant to consider.

  10. Jonatas

    Interesting. I’d agree that linguistic diversity seems to have a bad effect. Your problem with utility is taking account of long-term and useful strategies, for example, there may be unpredictably high utility increases in space missions because it makes people all over the world momentarily happy or interested; because it may develop our technology and help us with science in general, which in turn increases our well-being (for example, by having satellites deliver cell-phone, internet, and mapping services, and eventually being able to do space travel or to destroy meteors in rote of collision with Earth). On the other hand, feeding the poor may not be such a good long-term strategy, because they’d be hungry soon afterward. Better to give them condoms or vasectomies, IMO. This way you can limit the growth rate of poverty.

    Attacking “plain utilitarianism” on the grounds that it doesn’t value culture and technology is a wrong criticism, because these things are valued indirectly by the positive effect that they have in the long term. Defining the human variation in taste has nothing to do with the defining utility. Utility should be “feeling good”, whatever the individual judges it to be; there can be variation in the triggers of happiness, but the raw feel of happiness should be the same kind of stuff. Even so there is enough aesthetic uniformity for policy-making.

  11. jeet

    I have read that one aggravating issue may have been that the leadership of the Taliban was offended that the world seemed more focused on the potential destruction of statues than on the suffering of flesh & blood people.

    I don’t buy it. If Taliban was so concerned about Afghanistan’s poverty, why spend those resources and manpower on blowing up the Buddhas? It’s a bullshit excuse.

  12. jeet, again, please don’t read something into what i said. obviously the taliban don’t care about poverty as such. rather, from what i have heard/read they were pissed that outsiders cared more about statues that they weren’t too keen on than the afghan famine. and they didn’t offer it as an excuse in public anyway. the public rationale was standard islamic iconoclasm. but there were probably other factors which impelled them to move in 2001 when the issue had already been discussed a few years before and it was decided that the statues were on the net worth keeping for tourism.

  13. Chuck, I wasn’t talking about full-blown philosophical utilitarianism, just valuing craftwork by virtue of how people relate to it (and in that way can be compared to poverty) rather than on its own (artistic/aesthetic/historic?) merits. By the standard economic “willingness to pay” metric, I don’t think the space program cuts the mustard.

  14. JD

    Bravo! Courageous voices offering good sense often receive ridicule. Stay the course.

  15. emre

    “First, let me digress and admit that I do not adhere to a plain utilitarianism which does not value the cultural accretions and symbolic residues of history. For a concrete example, consider the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 by the Taliban. On a concrete material level this was simply the rearrangement of molecular aggregations.”

    This is a shallow application of consequentialism, not utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is of course compatible with culture, since culture makes people happy, and utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness, possibly while considering other constraints.

    The issue is that backwards people are selfish and easy to offend; they want to maximize their own happiness at everyone else’s expense. Don’t wear this, don’t pray to that, etc.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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