Criteria For Evaluating the Effectiveness of Cultures


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   11-22

ABSTRACT:  Within the efforts to reduce prejudice by “celebrating” all cultures, it is assumed that all cultures are “sacred” and “equal” and cannot be criticized.  Criteria are proposed for evaluating cultures according to how well they achieve the needs addressed by all human cultures.

KEY WORDS:  culture, society, nation,

In this era of cultural appreciation, with the purpose of greater comfort with and acceptance of those who are different from us, it has become commonplace to voice complete relativism with regard to aspects of culture—i.e., it is not acceptable to criticize aspects of other cultures because each culture has an internal coordination of aspects that we cannot understand.  However, the purpose of cultures is to facilitate the efforts of its members to make good lives for themselves, and we can evaluate, at least to some degree, its success in doing so.

This evaluation is, of course, a complex task, since citizens vary in their assessment of their own lives and in their allegiance to a culture’s goals and beliefs.  Subgroups of citizens also differ from other subgroups in what they think is more or less important in life.  It is also very complex—perhaps impossible for the lay person—to know enough about a culture that is not their own and the lives of its members to be able to assess many of the following criteria.  Finally, given the limitations of most people who might try to assess the following, it is wise for most people not to get into concrete comparisons of cultures but rather to use the points made here to evaluate their own culture.

To do this evaluation, we need a basis for evaluation—i.e., what exactly is to be evaluated as human goals.  Many philosophers accept the notion that happiness is the ultimate goal of human beings (although some religious believers might claim that serving God is the ultimate goal).  Materialists might claim that furthering evolution is our “purpose,” but evolution cares little for us, so perhaps it has no claim on our brief time on earth!

Another way to approach this would be to use a system of my own devising that lists our universal goals as humans.  The purpose of every culture is to facilitate achievement of these goals by as many group members as possible, so cultures could be evaluated as to how well they have fulfilled this purpose.  (It would be assumed that the measured level of achievement of these goals by group members is almost totally the result of the various roles, beliefs, and coping methods prescribed by the culture for members, and cultures could be compared with respect to these measurements.)

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and goal attainment success to enable you to meet your basic needs at least adequately and to take care of yourself and those legitimately dependent on you)

2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage (recognizing that some amount of physical pain is a normal and unavoidable aspect of human life and the human adaptation)

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in your life (including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment), mainly through—

3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings toward yourself

            (which may include loving yourself, respecting yourself,

            accepting yourself, and treating yourself well, and which in

            large measure arise from being loved, respected, and accepted

            by others in early life and from creating good outcomes for


3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional pain and

            internal conflict (though recognizing that some degree of

            conflict and pain is inherent in being human)

3c-feeling an adequate level of security

            3d-having gratifying relationships with others (see 5 below)

4-sex and procreation, including the desire to protect and raise children

5-gratifying relationships with others, including group acceptance for yourself, protecting and defending your groups (family, nation, etc.) when necessary, and helping those of your groups in times of great need

All of the activities that we engage in in life are means for reaching these fundamental goals.  This is more obvious for the activities that get us food and shelter, but even our more abstract activities serve these goals.  For example, thinking about philosophy has the purpose of detecting what makes a good life, which presumably will help us to have that good life (by maximizing success in meeting these fundamental goals).  (If thinking were simply pleasurable rather than aimed at ferreting out important principles about life, it would then serve the fundamental goal of being in a pleasant emotional state.)  Virtues such as courage, prudence, and humility all serve these goals.  Humility, for example, keeps us balanced in terms of the needs of self and others and keeps us from over-estimating ourselves, which would lead to social conflict.

Being in a positive emotional state and having gratifying relationships with others are pursued through a wide variety of behaviors that we choose relative to our abilities, our environmental possibilities, and our conditioned preferences.  We seek to be in a positive emotional state by regulating our emotions, seeking pleasurable experiences, gratifying desires, moderating or eliminating stimuli that lead to negative emotional states, and contact with objects of conditioned desire (i.e., that represent experiences that we value) such as keepsakes, amulets, money, important environments (like “home”), etc.

To be in a positive emotional state often requires avoiding or stopping emotional pain, especially fear of difference, fear of the unknown, fear of death, feeling rejected/alone, and feeling other unpleasant emotions such as shame, guilt, etc.

To be in a positive emotional state, many people seek to rise or at least to maintain their positions in applicable status hierarchies.  (Simple survival no longer requires rising in the social hierarchy in many societies.)

In order to have positive self-esteem and little or no emotional pain or conflict, we seek to have adequate amounts of touch, love, comforting, and empathy from others.

Security is often sought through eliminating threats, achieving equilibrium or homeostasis, achieving congruence or resolution of dissonance, and through seeking power over others.

To be in a positive emotional state and to feel sufficiently secure, most human beings seek to please certain others, to be “special” to some others, and to ensure that things are “fair” between self and others.

Another shorter but still useful summary of motives is that a great deal of our behavior is motivated by desires for either better self-esteem or a greater sense of security.  All of our social maneuvers to gain or maintain status and to gain or keep relationships are at least partly to maintain self-esteem, and our sense of security depends on being aware of and dealing with fears of various threats related to our somewhat dangerous environment (with fear being one of our most often felt and motivating emotions).

In terms of daily life functioning, it is useful to look at our relations with reality (knowing what is true and acting on it), our relations with ourselves (self-image, self-esteem), our relations with others, and our management of our own emotions.  (Evaluating cultures for whether and how much they help their members function better in these areas is woven into the evaluative questions below.)

In order to survive in the typically difficult physical and social environments that we inhabit, we naturally make use of our emotional and cognitive abilities to imagine the future and to understand likely consequences of our various options.  When we are aware of something that is of great value to us, and this awareness arouses deep positive emotion in us which connects our conceptions or activities to our sense of purpose, direction, or “rightness” in life, we feel what we call “meaning.”  Questions of whether one’s life has been “good” or whether it has meaning often come up for us on disruptive occasions when our expectations are upended (the death of a spouse or child, a calamitous war) and we ask ourselves whether it was “all worth it” or “what was the point anyway?”  Finding meaning is one of the many ways that we seek to be in a positive emotional state.

The motivations listed above are “fundamental” in the sense that all other motivations (to have friends, to get a job, to get married, etc.) occur to us only because they serve one or more of these fundamental motives.  When we say we want a job, we actually want a job in order to take care of other motives, such as to obtain food, shelter, good feelings about ourselves, security, status, emotional contact with others, a marriage partner, etc. (and for some fortunate people, to engage in activity that is personally fulfilling).  When we “want some ice cream,” we may be imagining the pleasurable taste of it (which would put us in a better emotional state), but beneath that and even more strong may be a desire to feel the sense of being loved (being fed) or being secure because of being taken care of by someone else. 

We don’t usually think about these more fundamental motives, but we can be aware of them if we think about why we are really doing what we do.  This awareness often allows us to get what we want even more successfully. 

These fundamental motives are neither “good” nor “bad” to us; they simply “are.”  We can see, of course, that some of them sometimes have “bad” consequences (murder to gain status, great loss of life due to protecting our primary groups), but most people never seriously consider ways to avoid these negative consequences, since they stem from aspects of ourselves that are so fundamental that they seem unavoidable.  It seems likely that all of these motives and goals are now to some extent embedded in the hard-wiring of our brains, as well as in our physiology, by evolution.

Every one of our behaviors is motivated.  In fact, it is useful to realize that everything that we do is to alter something within us, since our feelings, desires, and motives are all within us.  In this sense, our motivation to buy a car is not to buy a car or even to have a car, but rather to do something to respond to our desire for a car (to eliminate that desire which takes up our attention or torments us), which is determined by how the car relates to our fundamental goals (to help us survive better, to make our emotional state more positive by gaining status or mobility, etc.).  Realizing that everything we do is about changing our internal state, we can identify what that desired internal change is and realize that in many cases there are other ways to accomplish the same internal change.  For example, we could perhaps do more to improve our emotional state (at less expense) by making music or making new friends than by buying a car.

It is also important to note that we only know what is desirable in life through our emotions and not through our cognitive activities.  Most people assume that since they describe their values and goals in words, those values and goals must derive from thinking, but that is not the case.  Without needs and emotions we are like ships without rudders.  When we become aware that we want something, it triggers cognitive activity to imagine ways to fulfill the desire.  The results of each of our desires (gratification or not) is stored in memory.  When we try to think about our values or about choosing our lives, our emotional response to those groups of memories (about how we have lived or not lived according to our values and about the quality of our lives) tells us whether our efforts stored in those memories are worthwhile and worth trying again.  The strength of our various pleasant or unpleasant emotional responses allows us to rank-order or prioritize goals and goal-attainment methods that are more likely to result in pleasant outcomes (which we then re-order based on cognitive assessments of the effort needed and the barriers to success of each behavioral option). 

If you can imagine thinking about what is the best way to live without having any feelings as you are thinking, then you will realize that those thoughts, alone, are sterile and cannot tell you whether anything is “good” or “bad” for you.  Even if they could tell you that some goals and methods present a greater chance of dying than others, without an emotional reaction to those thoughts you will not know if dying is good or bad.  You can cognitively “know” that dying is bad, but that cognitive knowing has no force without an accompanying feeling, and you could not “know” that cognitively unless you had had previous contact with dying which aroused emotions that were then stored in memory and could inform your thoughts about dying.

What is “adequate,” “reasonable,” “sufficient,” “tolerable, and “minimal” in the goal statements above will vary somewhat with our individual differences (both physically and emotionally) and with differences between societies (particularly values and economic situation).  An adequate level of happiness and a tolerable level of pain are probably not specifiable in measures available to us currently, but each of us can report at any given time which side of that vague standard we are on.  Some societies promote more self-abnegation than others, and some put relationships with others above one’s relationship with oneself, but all people would naturally seek a positive relationship with the self and fulfilling relationships with others if they were permitted to do so.  (To promote self-denial and self-injury as a method of controlling behavior leads to greater unhappiness in a society.)

Many activities serve more than one goal.  Having sex is pleasurable, and it also serves the goals of security, good feelings about self, gratifying relationships, and, in a larger sense, survival!   

Here are some brief examples of cultural differences that could be evaluated.

Some cultures expect that the group will somehow provide for every other person in the group, since vagaries of food-finding and production can vary wildly according to circumstances.  Other cultures support the expectation that everyone will provide for himself or herself and use it as a prod to get people to work.

Currently many developed cultures ensure that healthcare is provided for all, while in the U.S. people are expected to provide their own healthcare or go without.  How these different approaches succeed or fail can be evaluated in terms of health outcomes.

Some cultures accept visions and voices as legitimate sources of information, while more science-committed cultures deny that these sources can be valuable.

Some cultures are more concerned about truth, while others are more lax about what is true.  The “word” or promise of persons from cultures that are more lax in this regard will not be as trustworthy as those of persons from cultures that are more demanding for adherence to truth.

Cultures vary in their acceptance of randomness as a factor in events that are outside the control of the group (deaths, weather catastrophese) and in their explanations for such events (myth, religion).

Cultures vary in their acceptance of pain, with some being skeptical of reported pain and others more accepting.

Some cultures are more accepting of happiness and pleasure in members, while other cultures are more suspicious of them.

Some cultures are accepting of self-esteem in their members, while others view it as socially destructive.

Cultures vary in the amount of identification of children as “bad” for misbehaving that parents use to control behavior (rather than identifying certain behaviors as “bad”).

Cultures vary in their acceptance of the basic equality of all members, rather than having subgroups that are explicitly identified as inferior (e.g., caste systems, prejudices).  They also vary in the emphasis placed on status and on rising in status.

Cultures vary in the burdens placed on men and women separately in terms of their roles.

Cultures vary in their tolerance of varied sexual behavior and gender identification on the part of members.

Cultures vary in their emphasis on viewing members as primarily individuals or as primarily members of families or other subgroups.

Cultures vary in their tolerance for public verbal expression by members (free speech).

Cultures vary in the strength of their conviction that their cultural forms–language, religion, customs, etc.–are superior to those of other cultures–and that they are therefore “better than” other peoples.  Persons from cultures that believe they are superior will be less able to be flexible in interacting with those of other cultures (since they are themselves “right”), and they are likely to be less trustworthy, because they will view people from “inferior” cultures as not deserving equitable treatment as much as those of their own culture.

Cultures vary in their xenophobia, or fear of outsiders.  Persons from more xenophobic cultures are likely to be more fearful and less trusting of persons from outside the culture, and they will be less likely to establish close, comfortable relationships with outsiders.

Some cultures view any questioning or contravention of established customs as a serious matter, perhaps even a crime, as illustrated in the opinion of some Muslims that any questioning of the prophet Mohammed is disrespectful and should be severely punished.

Fear of consequences is the primary mechanism of self-control, but cultures vary in the severity of consequences prescribed for various violations, as well as in their acceptance of failures of self-control.

A technique for comparison of cultures could be to use one of the following ratings:

“To what degree does living as part of the culture enhance citizens’ ability to and likelihood of fulfilling this goal to their satisfaction?”

5   unusually high degree of enhancement

4   above average degree of enhancement

3   average degree of enhancement, compared to other cultures

2   below average degree of enhancement

1   no or almost no enhancement  

5   most citizens achieve satisfactory degree of fulfillment of this goal

4   (between half and most)

3   half of citizens achieve satisfactory degree of fulfillment of this goal

2   (between half and few)

1   few or no citizens achieve satisfactory degree of fulfillment of this goal

Either of these “scoring systems” could be used, and each has its difficulties.  To use the first would require a sound and comprehensive knowledge of most cultures in the world in order to make comparisons, and the second depends on what is “satisfactory” in each culture, which could be different, depending on other aspects of the culture (e.g., how much does the culture value being satisfied with what one has rather than striving for more).  There would be so much variation in scoring as to make either system inappropriate for making a ranking, or something like that, but perhaps the greatest value would be within each culture, as members evaluate their own culture on how it affects their lives.  The same comparison problem arises here (citizens would have to know other cultures intimately in order to compare), but the discussion in scoring could still be useful for helping individual citizens to zero in on aspects of their own culture that could be improved (i.e., could be more help in enhancing the lives of its citizens).

The questions and criteria that follow are aimed at evaluating how much and whether cultures help their members (1) achieve the identified universal human goals, (2) have good self-esteem and feel secure, and (3) function adaptively in their relations with reality, with themselves, with others, and with their emotions.

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and goal attainment success to enable you to meet your basic needs at least adequately and to take care of yourself and those legitimately dependent on you)

1-1  The culture provides opportunity for all citizens to earn enough to have a decent life

1-2  The culture provides appropriate assistance for those disabled or ill

1-3  What are the culture’s touchstones for reality perception?  Are there explicit standards for what is “real,” such as scientific standards, or are people relatively free to determine reality for themselves?  How common are superstitious and supernatural beliefs in the culture?  Can reality perceptions be questioned and discussed, or is that considered to be insulting?  Are the opinions of authority (parents, priests, teachers) taken as truth, or are they open to question?  If everyone in the culture believes one thing, is that assumed to be true?

1-4  Does the culture support complete honesty and objectivity in some areas (such as the courts), or are reality perceptions expected to be colored by a person’s emotion and belief, regardless of the circumstances or arena? 

2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage (recognizing that some amount of physical pain is a normal and unavoidable aspect of human life and the human adaptation)

2-1 The culture accepts recognizing pain rather than discounting it or pretending not to feel it.

2-2 The culture does not demean those legitimately in pain simply for that pain.

2-3 The culture provides appropriate medical care for all citizens.

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in your life (including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment)

3-1  Does the culture make adequate opportunity for members to be happy and to seek happiness?  How does it do this?

3-2  What percentage of members report that they are happy or generally happy?

3-3  Is happiness recognized as a good thing or viewed as a suspect goal—as one that tempts members to harm others or stop contributing in order to feel happy?

3-4  What is the culture’s attitude toward pleasure (which can help us to be happy)?  How are pleasures restricted in order to avoid dissolution (e.g., drug and alcohol use, over-eating, excessive indolence)?  Is the culture accepting of or suspicious of pleasures?

3-5  What motives, goals, and purposes does the culture encourage in its members?  What does it say to its members about what is important in life?  (For example, is it more important to accumulate wealth, to reproduce, to be happy, or to keep one’s honor unblemished?)

The following are the main arenas in which we attempt to have pleasure and pleasant emotion.

3a-Having a good relationship with and good feelings toward yourself

            (which may include loving yourself, respecting yourself,

            accepting yourself, and treating yourself well, and which in

            large measure arise from being loved, respected, and accepted

            by others in early life and from creating good outcomes for


3a-1  What percentage of members report that they feel good about themselves?

3a-2  What percentage of members report feeling love for themselves?

3a-3  What percentage of members report feeling respect for themselves?

3a-4  What percentage of members report that they accept themselves?

3a-5 Are people encouraged and permitted to feel good about themselves, or is this considered too prideful?  How much is personal denigration, criticizing, or devaluing (making the child feel bad about himself/herself) used by parents to get the child to “behave”? 

3a-6  Does the culture encourage basic acceptance for all persons?

3a-7  Does the culture encourage all members to view themselves as basic equals?

3a-8  Does the culture expect all citizens to treat each other with respect and courtesy?

3a-9  Does the culture provide equal opportunities in life for all persons regardless of color, ethnicity, cultural background, religion, gender, and sexual orientation?

3a-10  Does the culture provide similar total happiness and gratification for men and women regardless of the differences in their roles?

3a-11 How salient are superiority-inferiority issues in daily life?  Are social interactions structured through behaviors prescribed for persons at each level of status?  Do the culture’s ideals focus on equality or on status differences?  Are there areas of complete equality for all members of the culture, or are all areas subject to status level or other considerations? 

3a-12  What characteristics are thought to be inherent in men as opposed to women?  What are the typical gender roles?  How broad are the acceptable roles of men and women?  How tolerant is the culture regarding homosexual and cross-gender behavior? 

3a-13  What thoughts and feelings are viewed as unacceptable, even for the individual privately? 

3a-14  What characteristics are emphasized as being inherent in all members of the group (expressing the values and ideals of the culture) (e.g., bravery, cunning, friendliness, piety, attractiveness, etc.)?  How do individuals feel about themselves if they perceive themselves as not having these characteristics?

3a-15 Is honor given to the person who manages his own life well, or is it given to persons who make the best interests of certain others (usually family) their first priority? 

3a-16  Who are the culture’s heroes (e.g., parents, military, artists, sports figures, etc.)? 

3a-17 Do people in the culture consider self-awareness and self-knowledge important, or are these unimportant because behavior in most situations is already prescribed?  Is it considered interesting or relevant for one to probe deeply into one’s motives, thoughts, and feelings?  Are the things that make individuals unique considered important or are they viewed as detracting from fitting in and behaving properly? 

3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional pain and

            internal conflict (though recognizing that some degree of

            conflict and pain is inherent in being human)

3b-1 What painful emotions are used by the culture for behavior control and conditioning (shame, guilt, etc.)?  How does this affect feelings about self and others?

3b-2  Are there methods of avoiding painful emotions that are characteristic of the culture?  Are there typical ways of pretending not to have certain emotions or denying that one has them? 

3b-3  Does the culture permit or encourage exploration of the deepest aspects of our individuality (e.g., through psychotherapy) or is this viewed as being too private to share with anyone else?

(See #2 above)

3c-feeling an adequate level of security

3c-1  Is the culture organized to provide adequate defense against attack from other groups?

3c-b.  Does the culture provide adequate enforcement of laws to prevent citizens from harming each other?

3c-c. How does the culture view and control aggression?  Is aggression exalted or viewed as sometimes necessary but inherently dangerous?  Does might make right in the eyes of the culture?  Are people in the culture likely to present themselves aggressively, even when they mean no potential harm?  Are there mechanisms in the culture by which less aggressive persons can protect themselves against or find redress regarding aggression against them by other group members?  (For example, Western cultures have slowly progressed from “might makes right” to relative equality of everyone before the law.)

            3d-having gratifying relationships with others (see #5 below)

4-sex and procreation, including the desire to protect and raise children

4-1  What sexual mores are common in the culture?  What sorts of bodily display and behavior are permitted?  How stringently is adultery punished (or are extra-marital liaisons “understood” in the case of males)? 

4-2  Does the culture have similar tolerance for violations of sexual mores and marital fidelity by men and women, or are women punished more severely?

4-3  What kinds of physical contact are acceptable in public (between members of the same sex and between members of opposite sexes)?

5-gratifying relationships with others, including group acceptance for yourself, protecting and defending your groups (family, nation, etc.) when necessary, and helping those of your groups in times of great need

5-1 (same as 3a-6)   Does the culture provide basic acceptance of all citizens?

5-2  (same as 3a-8)  Does the culture expect all citizens to treat each other with respect and courtesy?

5-3  Does the culture encourage citizens to help each other and to view each other compassionately?

5-4 (same as 3c-1)    Has the culture organized society to provide adequate defense against attack from other groups?

5-5  Is the individual expected to identify and function primarily as a separate entity or as a member of the group?  How much autonomy is expected of or permitted to adults?  What is the nature of the connection between adult children and their parents?

5-6  Does the culture support putting one’s own needs first or those of others?  How are needs of self and others to be balanced? 

5-7  What physical distance between individuals is considered respectful? 

5-8  Is the free seeking of all kinds of information permitted, or are people enjoined not to seek certain kinds of information (political information, sexual information, etc.)?  Are most people eager for more information or afraid of information? 

5-9  How much “free speech” latitude is permitted in public?  Are there topics that are never to be mentioned?  What subjects (e.g., sex, religion, politics) are forbidden for members to mention?

5-10  How do people in the culture express emotions, and how freely are they expressed in public?

5-11 Is it acceptable for people to feel and express fear?

5-12  How aware are people in the culture that their own customs are not more logical, sacred, or necessary than those of other cultures?  Do people in the culture consider themselves and their culture superior to other cultures?

5-13 How afraid of and suspicious of people from outside the culture are members of the given culture? 

5-14  Are people permitted to openly question the motives of others, or is this considered discourteous?

5-15  Is conformity to cultural norms greatly valued or lightly valued?  How much is non-conformity or unusual behavior punished?  How much freedom of activity and action is permitted in the culture (for people to do unusual things in public, whether idiosyncratic or creative)?

5-16  What level of self-control is expected of members by the culture?  Are there culture-specific psychological or behavioral mechanisms of self-control (e.g., the idea that the deity knows all of one’s transgressions and will punish one for them, the custom of requiring women to hide their bodies in public)?  

5-17  To what degree does the culture expect members to manage their own emotions?  What degree of expression of emotions is allowed?  Which painful emotions are used in the culture to create fear of transgression of cultural norms?

5-18  Does the culture expect that standards of various kinds will all be followed strictly, or are standards seen as aspirational or as being guidelines?

5-19  How much is open competition between members encouraged?  How often does competition lead to conflict?  Does this competition interfere with cooperative efforts between members?

5-20  Do people in the culture generally assert that everything that happens is “caused” by an agent, whether that is a person or a supernatural agent?  Is every unfortunate event blamed on someone or something or is there tolerance for causes being unknown?

5-21  Are there certain relationships within which members can expect to be completely trusting?  What is the level of suspiciousness in the culture generally?