What does it mean to be civilized? And why is it important?
One would think that people generally understand the idea of civilized behavior. However the day-to-day interaction with people in general shows that this is not the case. At least, if they understand it, they do not follow it. Perhaps the lack of civility is something that has developed in recent times. Perhaps it has always been that way.
I have probably talked about it several times, but I will probably talk about it over and over again, because I think it is important. So, let me explain what it is and why I think it is important.
The notion of civilized behavior is something that emerged in the early evolution of cultures. It was (and still is) a requirement for people to live together. People need to get along with one another in such circumstances. The idea is that if everybody accommodates each other then each person will experience a positive environment. On the other hand, if you treat everybody around you like an enemy, then you end up having lots of enemies. People with lots of enemies tend to have very difficult lives.
The idea of civilized behavior has far-reaching consequences. When people work together, they achieve much more then what an individual can achieve. Therefore, when we see the great works of people from the past then we see the evidence of civilized behavior. In fact, these achievements are so closely associated with civilized behavior that it is often recognized as civilization itself. In a TV series called “Civilisation” Kenneth Clark said that while it may be difficult to define civilization, it can easily be recognized in the artifacts left behind by a culture. While the collection of artifacts of a civilized society gives evidence of the level of civilization of their culture, it does not in my view represent civilization itself. Fundamentally, civilization is the way people behave toward one another within the culture.
Why is it important? It is one thing to say that civilized behavior can lead to cooperation among people and therefore lead to great works of art. But how cares about great works of art? It that what it is about? No. That is only an indication of civilization, a symptom. Of more importance are those things that are not primarily done for the sake of fame and glory. One such mundane product of cooperation among people is the establishment of infrastructure. In ancient cities, one can find evidence of water distribution systems, markets, schools, etc. all of which required some form of cooperation. These cultures also need to develop some form government and legal systems, together with all the other cultural structures necessary for the organizational aspects of a large number of people living together.
Well, today these cultural structures are all in place in all the nations of the world. If these structures are evidence of civilization, then clearly there is nothing to be worried about. Why should we then be concerned about the civilized behavior of people? The problem lies with the complacency. It seems to be taken for granted. While most countries seem to be able to maintain their level of civilization to an adequate level so that basic infrastructure can be maintained, there are countries where the level of civilization has deteriorated to such an extent that the infrastructure is starting to deteriorate. Many of these cases are so-called “developing” countries. However, even in developed countries signs of the deterioration of the level of civilization is starting to emerge. These signs include the rising level of crime and violence among the citizens of such countries. These manifestations of uncivilized behavior can be traced back to the fundamental notions of how people should behave toward one another. If left unaddressed, this rising uncivilized behavior will eventually lead to the fall the civilization.