A value is a universal value if it is perceived to have value by almost all people on earth. Certain individual human traits such as intelligence (IQ), compassion (kindness), bravery (sacrifice for others) and physical appearance (youthfulness and fitness) may be regarded as universal value without much dispute. But humans living in a human society have difficulties agreeing on any universal value from the society point of view. For example, morality may be considered as a universal value yet human societies have different moral standards making them difficult to be universal. Certain human rights like freedom (liberty), equality and right to make a living may be considered as universal value. But these human rights are defined differently from individual versus human society point of view. Human civilization was evolved from the ‘animal state’ when muscles were used to determine human’s survival rate then gradually elevated to human societies living together, cooperating and sharing productive outcome. The basic individual human rights such as freedom, equality and right to make a living naturally should be defined differently weighing them with society rights and within the confines of freedom and equality affordable by a human society.
Therefore, each individual’s right must be established on the basis that the human society can peacefully exist and develop. Societies are different just like individuals are different; hence, morality or cultural features or social rights often defined and accepted as a universal value by one society may not be so by other human societies as racial, religious, economic and political factors are weighed in.
Unless a human is living in an isolated jungle, he or she must define and accept universal values based on a human society’s point of view, with consideration of society culture, civilization and rights of all human societies. Of course, one must recognize that, in the human history, many human societies were developed over different time lines with different geopolitical background resulting in different culture, civilization and social rules including society governance and laws.
Culture is cumulated overtime, accepted and treasured by human society unless destroyed by wars or extinguished by natural disasters, whereas civilization is developed and exhibited by human’s collective effort applying human intelligence to learn and advance human living condition (environment) and to change human and social behaviors with self defined rules. To examine the question of what is the universal value of a human society, we must review human history, human culture and human civilization. Culture is the accumulation of human development in customs, habits, knowledge, language, creation, philosophy, etc., over a long time, whereas civilization is dynamically exhibited by human advances in living condition and productivity. Thus a cultured society may not be the most civilized society measured or propelled by technology, whereas a civilized society may not have a rich culture produced by millennia of history. One must avoid equating culture to civilization unless that society has a continuous (non-interrupted) culture and civilization.
Among all human societies, the oldest one without discontinuity in culture and civilization is the Chinese society. Its culture is cumulated over five thousand years without total disruption. The Chinese civilization has been one of the most advanced in the world over many centuries but becoming stagnant in the 19th century (in contrast to the Western societies and the Japanese society which adopted the Western civilization) and then reviving in late 20th century as exhibited by its fast growing economy, industrial development and technological advances (developing to developed country in economy and civilization sense). It is important to note that the Chinese culture had never ceased to exist; today with her advances in economy, her culture is rejuvenated, having impact all over the world.
The Western societies have become the most advanced civilization largely due to the success of industrial revolution beginning in the 18th century, merely three hundred years. Naturally, the Western societies began to promote their universal values such as freedom, equality and democracy, a governing system the West cherished and believed responsible for their advances in civilization. In the Chinese society, with her long history and rich culture, she has long established her universal values, 自由 （liberty or freedom）， 平等 （equality）and 安居樂業 （peaceful living and happy career) many millennia ago. The first two universal values are the same in words for the West and the Chinese society, but their interpretations are based on different philosophy. The West emphasizes the individual’s freedom and equality whereas the Chinese emphasizes societal freedom and equality which sometimes restrict individual freedom and equality. China has fifty six ethnic groups but they enjoy the same freedom and equality in the country. Thus no one can tell ‘who is what’ ethnic group living in a big Chinese city unless you visit the ethnic group’s home towns where the ethnic culture is richly preserved. On the other hand, American Indians and blacks in the U.S. are still socially separated in most cities and the Indian reservations are arbitrarily carved out with little Indian culture preserved. The blacks have nearly totally lost their cultural heritage.
Having long history of dynasties ruled by emperors, the Chinese society members regard peaceful living and happy career (安居樂業) as their universal value and they measure their governance system with that value. In ancient China, democracy had been viewed as a tool not a system used for decision making. Villages typically had governing systems, managed by elders selected or elevated. Disputes or matters are ruled employing ‘voting’ (limited democracy) but the elders earn their place by reputation, scholarship and seniority. The villages preferred to settle matters in front of the elders than going to the government court. So are their commerce systems, often regulated by their commerce associations managed by senior and successful businessmen rather than governed by the emperor’s court. In some ways the Chinese people prefer to have a governor to be appointed by the Emperor from another region than to elect one from the local, recognizing local interest often breeds corruption.
Of course, a bad emperor can have a corrupt government, thus the regime change in China was almost invariably triggered by a revolution toppling the bad ruler and the corrupt government. The West failed to understand that this philosophy was the reason that the current Chinese Communist Party was so conscientious of people’s opinion on its performance, not so much concern in ideology, communism, socialism or capitalism. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping Ping said: “Black cat or White cat, so long it can catch the mouse is a good cat.”, so wisely depicted the value of government and governance.
In Chinese history, all regime changes were made by revolution; people rose against a bad emperor and established a new one. The tenures of dynasties have been typically a few hundred years covering good, mediocre and the bad emperors who would be eventually toppled. The Chinese citizens were patient and tolerant people who understood that the value of political stability was the prerequisite of ‘peaceful living and happy career’. However, the democratic system In the Western societies have made the regime change so easy and the leader’s tenure so short (1,2,4 or 8 years), the people have little chance (and patience) to evaluate a leader’s performance; this is devastating in today’s complex societies and complicated world environment. Unfortunately, many scholars in the Western societies believe democracy as a universal value and eagerly promote it into other societies even though the success rate is low in terms of stability of governance, which is of course the prerequisite of the ultimate true universal values - society freedom, society equality and peaceful living and happy careers for all.
In the ancient Chinese philosophy, valuing society freedom and equality and peaceful living and happy career over individual rights did exhibit a few phenomena. Individuals tended to give in to society expectations, for example, in selecting personal career, moving away from home or family and even in committing to marriage. Thus there were more traditional family businesses or careers (trades passed on in generations and professionals, like doctors, pharmacists, farmers, traders, etc) contributing to society stability, creating more peaceful living and happy careers than dissenters. By today’s universal values promoted by the Western societies, individual freedom and equality often overrides the society values, causing more broken families, keens separation for decades and more lonely individuals and poor social infrastructure. Peaceful living and happy career for the mass can hardly be achieved in our societies, exhibited by protests demanding better government services. (Social welfare, healthcare, retirement, etc.)
What is our universal value is an important global citizenship question. We must understand it beyond an individual’s point of view. Let’s seriously think about freedom, equality and peaceful living and happy careers as our universal values truly based on a society (or nation) view, unless we want to destroy our society and live as loners.