In this day and age, people feel reticent about saying that some Western values are universal. Very reasonably, it brings back unpleasant memories of missionaries and other Westerners traveling the world to enlighten the local savages in our civilized ways.

However, there are aspects of the Western world, and the values for which Ukraine fights, that I argue are universal.

For a start, despite the repudiation of the West and the criticism of our apparently untraditional values, it is an irony that Russia commits much effort to convincing its people that it adheres to one of the central precepts of modern Western civilization – an accountable executive branch of government determined by elections.

Indeed, Russia aside, it is a telling characteristic of many present-day autocracies that they clothe themselves in the garb of Western-style presidential elections. This is an explicit and unambiguous recognition that people want to choose who their leaders are, even when it is blindingly obvious that only one candidate is on offer.

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In the old days, dictatorships didn’t bother with that façade. I am your Emperor, get used to it. Then Western society came along, embraced the democratic ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, and some others besides, and built governments whose executive branch could be dismissed by the will of the people.

If you can’t criticize the structure of your democracy, it’s unlikely you have a functioning democracy at all

In the modern relatively educated world, there are very few people who will look you in the eye and tell you that they prefer to be ruled by a despot with unlimited power and who is never beholden to their authority being withdrawn. Democracy is accepted so ubiquitously that even modern dictatorships realize they must pretend to be doing it. In so doing, they negate themselves, but that doesn’t stop them from putting on the spectacle anyway.

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Beyond democratic principles, the ideas of freedom of conscience, speech, and religion, I would be bold enough to say, are universal. Of course, the extent to which they are implemented, where we draw the line in those freedoms, and what we even mean by them, is always something to debate. Yet most people agree that constructing an environment where we can argue about these issues makes for a better society. To put it simply, one of the most fundamental freedoms is the freedom to disagree on what we mean by freedom.

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The reason why this is an ironclad concept is that society cannot advance unless we are willing to engage in discussion about its purposes and goals. We cannot open the field to improvements in social conditions unless we are keen to hear out people’s ideas. This is neither controversial nor an especially complicated thought.

In the legislative sphere, there are broad propositions that seem to meet a criterion of being universally agreed upon by reasonable people. One of them is that people who transgress the laws laid down by the democratically elected powers, which I have already mentioned, should receive humane treatment.

I can’t speak for others but let me say that not at a single time in my life has anyone said to me: “If I was to be arrested by the police, I’d like to be tortured and treated as a political prisoner.” It seems to me trivially the case that all members of the public, if they find themselves under the glare of society’s disapprobation, would at least like to be handled fairly.

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Western society’s legal systems are hardly utopian, but in a general sense, our societies do make a conscious effort to strive towards impartiality. Any law student in a Western university, if they are worthy of their institution, considers the purpose of their education to be to learn how to become an impartial lawyer and to advance improvements in that tradition.

Indeed, I don’t think it would be hubris to say that the construction of such a legal system, assembled from the juridical branch of government, law courts, university training in law, and so forth, is one of the most stupendous achievements and intellectual edifices of Western civilization.

We have the Romans to thank for a lot of inspiration, but let’s not be demure about our own hard work to bring into being a system that, with all its imperfections, we should cherish and defend. Its ambitions in legal decency are as admirable as they are fundamentally universal.

Yet another tradition of the West is allowing the introspective criticism of the political and economic order. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently gave a speech in which he said: “We will no longer tolerate criticism of our democracy. Our democracy is the best.”

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However, one feature of democracy, and one of its purposes, is to question itself and to discover whether it is indeed the best. 

If you can’t criticize the structure of your democracy, it’s unlikely you have a functioning democracy at all, let alone discover impartially whether it is the best.

If you want proof of the universal reach of Western ideas, the evidence is in autocratic states that reject Western society, yet at the same time do their best to offer their people a mirage of Western-style democracy.

Western society isn’t a liberal, flower-festooned paradise. But largely, we do try to encourage critique; and it is noteworthy that this ability to self-criticize was one factor that led to the abolition of systematic slavery, a curse that blighted all human societies. Western society, in its imperfect and haphazard manner, does at least create educational institutions that allow for self-deprecation of its own systems of power.

I suggest that the foundations of Western society and the girders that hold it up are not especially Western. They have been designated as “Western” only because they have been trenchantly, and quite robustly, built here. But there is nothing intrinsically Western about them.

Seen at the larger geopolitical level, a belief in these things is what unites the democratic world, politically and militarily. When asking: “What is common to Western societies?” the answer is not: “We dislike this or that country.” It is that we place a high value on the ideas that I have suggested and we wish to defend them, without reference to other countries. We feel moved to help other countries aspiring to these ideals.

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However, ask the same question of the alliance of the world’s current autocracies. If the answer is: “We oppose Western values,” then this is a non-answer. You must say what it is that you stand for, not what you are against. Other answers, like “We believe in a multipolar world” are equally nebulous.

These are veiled statements of opposition to the West rather than any manifesto for a better society with clear goals and unambiguous and honest arguments about the freedoms on offer.

I think the West should be less reticent about stating a view that many of the things we stand for are universal, not Western. This isn’t presumptuous. It’s the product of many centuries of trial and error and the result of much sacrifice and fighting to secure liberties and the dignity of the individual. We have sought to throw off the old habits of absolute rule and build open societies.

If you want some proof of the universal reach of so-called Western ideas, don’t look to Western society. The evidence is in autocratic states that reject Western society, yet at the same time do their best to offer their people a mirage, a palimpsest, of Western-style democracy.

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The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

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Hope
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At least , despite western imperfections , you can question the rule of the government and political leaders and discuss freely ...
There are imperfections in the capitalistic world too but at least if you do not like the laws, you can ask for changing the rules , regulations or laws and speak your mind . You are free to think and speak for yourself without fear...You can ask for a new system or a social contract as the old European renaissance thinkers mention ...

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