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In our political philosophy reading group yesterday, we read Samuel Scheffler’s new essay “Immigration and the Significance of Culture” published in Philosophy & Public Affairs 35(2) (2007). It can be downloaded here.

There was quite a lot that colleagues objected to in the essay, but a major worry concerns a summary of his views at the end of his essay. Scheffler says:


“….The implication of my argument, then, is not that all of the political claims advanced under the heading of cultural rights or cultural preservation should automatically be dismissed, but rather that those claims should be redescribed in such a way as to make clear the values, ideals, and principles that are at stake. Ver often, I believe, these will turn out to be moral, religious, or philosophical values or ideals, so that the appeal to cultural will turn out to have been redundant … it may in some cases turn out that there was really no value at all at stake, and that the appeal to culture was sheer bluff: that it was simply an appeal to the brute fact that some people behave in a certain way, which by itself has no normative force….” (p. 124).


I would be interested to hear what others make of this statement, but let me first offer a few observations. In essence, Scheffler’s argument is that what is of value about culture is not culture itself, but certain values that may (or may not) be present in a given culture. The suggestion is that rather than honour claims from culture, we should honour claims from values: “culture” should then drop from view.

This is a very curious understanding of culture. If I am a part of a culture and find significant a particular way of life relating to this culture, then it is unclear which parts of the culture I honour (or do not honour) based upon which foundational values are worthy (or not worthy) of recognition. It strikes me that “culture” comes to us as a package, perhaps as a package of values rooted in a distinctive way of life. It is a whole, rather than a variety of unconnected parts. Thus, a claim from culture does not pick and choose amongst a variety of values, but takes them together. As a result, Scheffler’s view of culture then strikes me as a bit too fast and loose in its efforts to set culture aside.

Again, I would be very interested to hear what readers think of what is surely an important essay.


  1. 1. Posted by Guy Kahane | November 15, 2007 6:12 pm

    I’ll confess right away that I am writing without having read Scheffler’s article. So my remarks relate strictly to the passage you cite, and are likely to be seriously off target.

    You are worried about Scheffler’s understanding of culture. But the claims he makes in this passage don’t presuppose any view of culture. They are claims about the value of cultures, or more accurately, they amount to a denial that culture has any independent value.

    This is compatible with allowing that, for a person attached to a culture, things come as a package. It just might be that not everything in the package is equally valuable or valuable at all. The fact that some people perceive their attachment to a culture as an all or nothing commitment would make an instrumental difference, but it doesn’t in itself force us to ascribe any further value to that package.

    In any case, is it really true that most people who belong to (or value) a culture see it as an undifferentiated organic whole? And when they explain their attachement, do they think the argument ends when they say ‘but X is part of my culture, and that’s it’, rather than cite some further independent considerations? (These remarks are compatible with thinking that cultures do have some measure of value in their own right, but as I understand it the issue here is whether this value should be given any (or much) weight in political discourse.)

  2. 2. Posted by Thom Brooks | November 19, 2007 11:55 am

    Many thanks for your excellent post, Guy. I am not sure I will have even an adequate reply.

    You are absolutely right to say (if I understand the main thrust of your message) that Scheffler’s view of culture does not automatically discount our seeing culture as a kind of package of values, practices, etc. I would then be wrong to say he discounts this as of right—and, if this is a fair representation of your argument, I am happy to concede my mistake.

    So what then is driving my worry if Scheffler can overcome this? I suppose it amounts to his claim we can jettison “culture” and just stick with (liberal) “values” (that we can all reasonably accept) instead. Leaving the bracketed material aside, we might think of culture in at least two different ways:

    *Culture as a set*
    Culture comes as a set of values that are interconnected.

    *Culture as meaningless*
    There is no need to speak of culture, not least as what is valuable about any culture lies in the values it promotes. Instead, we need only speak of values that are independent, not “culture.”

    I think Scheffler is best placed in the second camp. This second camp need not deny that an identifiable group in the community share a range of values (consistent with the *culture as a set* view). What troubles me is that it holds that there is no need for any connection between different values in a culture: we can add/remove without worry.

    In brief, I think then that Scheffler’s view of culture is perhaps a bit odd. I am not suggesting that the appeal to culture claims that all values in the culture are equal (however defined). I am not making any claims about whether we should honour any cultural claims either. Instead, my worry is that people for whom cultural attachments are of importance at least appear to see their culture as not just one or two values, but several values and values that interconnect. If so, this latter –perhaps minor– fact of life seems missing in Scheffler’s account.

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