TL;DR: In previous articles I have established the fact that the nations which make up the “West” have done a great deal of damage to the world, causing mass suffering and violating their own ideals. At the same time, however, the West is by no means unique in this respect, often simply doing on a larger scale what humans have always done to one another. In this article, I discuss the ways that the West is unique in a positive sense. Among the achievements that I list include the Enlightenment ideals of individual rights and a benevolent government, abolishing slavery, and achieving a level of scientific and productive development upon a mass scale that is beneficial to all people.
Now that we have discussed the sins of the West, and dispelled the notion that the West was truly unique in its violence, we begin to migrate into the things that the West truly did do differently. This is a very general summation of movements that occurred in the West, and indeed these developments differed greatly in different parts of the West, but it encompasses very real shifts that occurred over this time.
One of the greatest developments that occurred in the West even, while it was committing terrible abuses abroad, was the concept of human rights. The Enlightenment in Europe generally promoted limited and benevolent government and basic human rights for all people. This vision was greatly hampered for long periods of time, and only slowly emerged into the full ideals of equality under the law, universal suffrage, and codified rights that we now hold so dear. While one can certainly argue that elements of human rights date back thousands of years, a strong ideology that supported them that eventually spread throughout most of the world did not emerge until the rise of modern Europe. The Enlightenment ideals that emerged in the West over this time were unique, for the first time greatly limiting the arbitrary use of power and promoting the idea that a government can be deposed if it fails to work to protect the basic rights of the people. Enlightenment ideals were a direct challenge to power and promoted the welfare of all people. The United States itself was an imperfect implementation of these Enlightenment ideals; promising life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.
It is indeed ironic, that in order to meaningfully criticize the West in any serious way, one usually has to employ the Enlightenment values of the West.* The appeal to the humanity and rights of all people is an extremely Western notion. The idea that all should be equal and that thus the subjugation of non-western peoples is immoral is very, very modern and very much rely relies upon Enlightenment principles. Classically the majority of empires have had specialized laws for different groups of people, and an aristocracy that was directly entrenched with government power. It is noteworthy that the term “privilege” originally denoted “private law”, law that was only accountable to the very few. Similarly, legal codes from the time of Hammurabi had laws explicitly favorable to the higher strata of society. Additionally, most empires explicitly favored an elite class, most notably the monarch’s court, knights or their equivalent in individuals such as the samurai, and the complex caste system of traditional India. This is anathema to our modern egalitarian views of morality and law.
Similarly, democracy was an incredibly rare form of government throughout most of human history. Most parts of the world, including the West, certainly did not hold this form of government as virtue or something even remotely desirable. Human governments have almost always been autocracies or oligarchies of some sort, and in many parts of the world this has not changed. Any kind of mass movement for democracy and the ability of common citizens to have a direct influence upon their government only came through the development of the Western Enlightenment.
Another remarkable aspect of the West is in regard to slavery, but not in the way that is commonly understood. While it is true that the West initially expanded the slave trade to an unseen extent, it is also true that slavery had periodically been a massive industry throughout the world. The West was not the first region to engage in the mass buying and selling of slaves, rather it was able to take advantage of well developed networks and practices of slaving. Slavery is one of our species’ oldest institutions and has existed in varying capacities in most parts of the world. Indeed, one of Europe’s largest exports to the wealthy Middle East for a long time was in (white European) slaves. This occurred on such a large scale that it is speculated that the term “Slavic”, as in “the Slavic Nations” obtained this name precisely because so many of their inhabitants were sold into slavery . Once the newly enslaved peoples from these areas arrived in the Islamic Empires the women were often casually used as sex slaves, and it was common for men to be castrated upon their arrival to their owner’s estate. What the Europeans did was just a more dramatic chapter in the history of a practice that dated to prehistory.
There is one way and one way only that the West’s actions with regards to slavery were entirely exceptional in human history; the West abolished it. Throughout the 1800’s Western nations started to prohibit the sale of slaves and then abolished the practice entirely. As an extension this spread throughout the colonies the West controlled, prohibiting slavery over most of the planet. In this way the horrendously demeaning practice of humans owning humans was finally put to an end after many thousands of years. If we are to include the foul contradictions of owning slaves while preaching human freedom among the sins of the West, we must also include finally condemning slavery as evil and ending it as being among the West’s greatest accomplishments.
In many modern political circles where outcomes are considered central, it is truly amazing that more attention isn’t given to the ultimate outcomes of the rise of the West in most parts of the world. The technological advancements made by the West in the last several centuries are the greatest that mankind has ever made. The improvements in medical technology alone have increased the quality of life enjoyed by the vast majority of people. Diseases which plagued humanity for thousands of years have been wiped out. Once fatal conditions and diseases can be treated out of hand. The vast majority of the world lives far better than they ever have before. For the first time ever a truly worldwide market exists where foods that many would never have known existed a few hundred years ago are now available to all but the poorest in the world. The internet and an array of media that is truly mind boggling is now available to the overwhelming majority. Never before were literacy rates so high and basic education so widespread. Never before was there such and understand and respect of the psychology of children and of humans in general. There is a reason why world population has skyrocketed in the modern day: Western advances in productivity and welfare have given us the means to do so.
Nearly all of the great innovations of the past few centuries have come about as a result of Western science. These innovations include the light bulb, easily utilizable electricity, computing, the internal combustion engine, modern aircraft, the telephone, antibiotics, vaccines, the automobile, space travel, and most of modern mathematics. This is not to say that many of these innovations were not helped in certain ways by non-Westerners, or that it didn’t draw upon profound accomplishments achieved by those outside of the West before the flourishing of Western Science. There is also no reason why many of future’s great scientific achievements could not come from outside of the West. Most of these accomplishments were simply made by Western scientists within the last few hundred years. The scientific revolution centered in Western Europe changed human knowledge forever, with the rate of scientific progress exploding in the last several centuries, with the primary seats of discovery centered in the West. The most useful discoveries and advancements in effectively every science one could name occurred in the West, and they have been able to spread throughout the world. This degree of discovery and innovation is something truly unique to Western civilization, and one that has benefited all mankind.
We live in an amazing world, a world that would have sounded like complete fantasy even two hundred years ago. While conditions are almost always the best in the West itself, they are still comparatively quite good in almost all parts of the world when compared to what they classically were. Compared to the squalor of the pre-modern world, the vast majority of people in all but the poorest countries are well off in our own day. This is not to say that there are not places in this world that are not suffering immensely, but merely that the vast majority of humanity, Western and non-Western, has ultimately benefited from the flourishing of the West.
This also does not mean that the atrocities committed by the West were justified because of the advancements described above. It is merely to say that the West did many things that were amazing and beneficial to all. There were tremendous positive steps forward along with the more negative action.
History is incredibly complex. It is rare to look at an event that is “just” good or “just” bad from any perspective. Yet if we are to begin the job of passing judgement upon history, we must be fair to both the positive and the negative. The fact is that the West has generally done an incredible amount of damage to the world in certain respects, and unparalleled good in other ways. Indeed, our entire basis for saying that they have done good or bad to the planet based upon any perspective that is not based just upon us being westerners or non-Westerners is exactly based upon a set of Western values which attempt to be objective. It is time to end the idiotically simplistic pretense that the history of the West west has been either the worst thing to occur in human history, or a tale of unchecked success and humanism. It is time to end the idiotically simplistic pretense that the history of the West west has been either the worst thing to occur in human history, or a tale of unparalleled success and humanism.
*Note that one can argue, for instance, that many actions involved with rise of the West was negative for a specific group of people. If we value all individuals, then the aforementioned act is of course an evil inflicted by Western Nations. If, however, one is seeking as part of one of these groups to criticize the West on its own nationalistic grounds without any such reference to Western values or universal rights, then this criticism falls flat. If I abuse my power over you and you are simply angry that you cannot abuse your power over me, then you do not care about fairness or the exercise of just power, you merely want to be the one abusing it. As an example, Nazi Germany could not fault the Soviet Union from conquering and exploiting Germany at the end of the Second World War, the Nazis could only regret that their initial attempts at conquest hadn’t worked. This is not the same as rejecting conquest and exploitation as inherently wrong, it’s merely being sad that that act didn’t play out in your favor. Either one must reject all forms of brutal exploitation of man by man, or one must simply be disappointed when such violence doesn’t work out in one’s favor.
This long explanation is merely an additional argument to suggest that unless you are arguing from values that at least match those of the enlightenment, then you are probably guilty of the same kind of “us vs. them” type of collectivism that lead to the evil actions of the West.