Are some nations just better people? If so, why?

This is something I’ve thought of quite a bit in terms of New Zealand’s success in controlling coronavirus. Some posters here seem very insistent on attributing good portions of that success to immutable things like its island geography. Others seem just as insistent on pushing back in their belief that any major nation in the world could have easily copied NZ’s actions and had their success.

It’s my theory that this struggle is so important to some people in the former group because they think the latter group is passing moral judgment on them: “Oh, those stupid, selfish Americans, they just don’t care about other people. We New Zealanders are just better people, and that’s why we’re not dying of coronavirus right now.” It struck me how much this dynamic reminds me of debates over other things that happen in the US, health care and firearm availability being obvious examples.

I know I’ve started a past thread asking a similar question, but it was long ago, and wasn’t quite this angle, so I think I can restart it here: are some nations just made up of “better” people, morally, than others? Are the people in the United States uniquely selfish or greedy or ignorant, compared to any other individual nation in the world, or does it have more “bad” people proportionally than any other? If so, how did this come about? What can governments, or any citizens, of “bad” countries do?

I know there are a lot of nebulous word definitions here; feel free to work that into any thoughts you may have.

I’ve wondered something like this before - how guns are very prevalent and common in Switzerland, just like in America, but America’s rate of gun violence is sky-high compared to Switzerland.

It isn’t about stability - both nations are stable (even despite Trump.) It isn’t about prosperity - both nations have a high standard of living. It isn’t about entertainment - I’m sure the Swiss watch violent movies and play violent video games, too.

There is just something about America that produces gun violence in a way that the Swiss don’t, despite both nations have plenty of privately owned guns.

Well I would say people are just people, however it is true that some cultures restrain some of the worst impulses and others indulge them.

It’s not black and white. I am in China, which – though I am aware there is skepticism in western media about this – also snuffed out community spread of covid. But in some ways I could say Chinese culture tolerates bad behaviour. If someone is hit by a car in China, there is a high probability that not only will the driver not stop, but nobody else will stop to help either.
So cultures can have positive and negative points.

In general though, if I were to think of a culture that right now embraces spiteful, childish and bigoted behaviours, the US is right at the top of the list right now, IMO, at least among developed countries.

I feel it’s a cycle. There’s very little inherent difference in people (especially in a country like the United States which is made up of immigrants from all over the world). So people are essentially the product of the society they grew up in. But a society is the product of the people who make it up. I feel people assimilate certain characteristics as they grow up in a country and then pass on those same characteristics to their children in turn.

I would not say that the lack of gun violence in Switzerland means that the people in Switzerland are better. It’s just one measurement of the cuture. I know a number of people who have moved here and had to leave due to to the unfriendly passive-agressive behavior of their neighbors and coworkers.

And Switzerland is closer to the the U.S. than any other European country for suicides by guns.

His case is hardly unique. From 1996 to 2005, 3,410 suicides, or between 24 and 28 per cent of all those in Switzerland, were committed using firearms.

That percentage trails the United States, it is true, where 57 per cent of suicides involve a gun. But few European countries come anywhere near Switzerland.

Take a look at the Coronavirus numbers. Switzerland positive’s test rate is 23.9% which is down from more than 25%.

United States? Half that.

Nationally, the overall percentage of respiratory specimens testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, increased from 10.8% during week 45 to 11.9% during week 46.

There might be nations with better people. I would nominate Canada before Switzerland.

People are just people, but we’re brought up with and internalise different ideas of what is moral, how this should be enforced, what our duties to other people and society are, different world views etc - a mixture of culture and religion. And yes, some of these are better than others. There are also trade-offs where embracing one value like individual freedom means less support for another like responsibility to family and community. The idea that the US is amongst the worst in the world is frankly laughable, though. (If Americans aren’t the absolute best at something, it’s terrible and they must be THE WORST - kind of joking, but that does seem to be the attitude.

Countries are made of people. Therefore if a person can be better than another person, groups of people, which countries consist of, can better than other groups, or countries. Unless you believe in moral relativism, which many people may believe in, but often not (only) based on different geographies but in different time periods.

Of course, the best country (since its founding) has always and always will be the ‘great’ US of A. Why? By definition, since everything else is unAmerican, and we all know without America we couldn’t possibly know what is good, since Americanism = goodness. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes::wink:

As an English person who spent a year in New Zealand, I really noticed how incredibly helpful the average person was over there in comparison to what I was used to. I hitch-hiked, stayed with random people and generally spent an awful lot of time relying on the kindness of strangers- I would not have attempted that in my own country. Obviously not everyone there is lovely, but I think they do have far more of a belief in tolerating minor personal inconveniences for the collective good.

I’m no expert, but the impression I got was that you can’t fully separate the physical factors people are crediting for their COVID response- geography, small population from the social response; due to the same factors, people have had to rely on each other more. Imports, especially historically, were difficult. People there told me that- especially during the 70s- it was pretty common to rely on borrowing things, and begging lifts. It wasn’t a minority poor person thing to do, it was just what happened, because stuff just wasn’t there. It didn’t matter how much money you had, if the broken part for your car wasn’t made in the country, you’d have to wait for it to arrive, and get a buddy to help out until it did. It fostered a culture of helping out (aided, no doubt, by the Māori traditions of collective ownership), which is a good base for getting people to accept minor inconveniences for the benefit of others.

Also, the NZ population is small enough that people are used to disasters being, well, personal and real, especially as much of the landscape there is actually pretty dangerous. In the US most people watched, say, Hurricane Katrina unfold on the TV, but most people didn’t really know someone personally affected- maybe an online friend, unless they lived or used to live nearby. Same for the UK- there’s been nothing really that’s affected everyone personally since WWII. For the Christchurch earthquake a few years back, I’d guess that almost everyone in the South Island of NZ knew someone who was personally badly affected- and most people in the North probably did too. It’s harder to develop the same deep down secret belief that disasters won’t affect you or your family that’s depressingly common here at least and I certainly get the impression is widespread in the US, when your nanna was one of tens of thousands that lost their house or was injured in a disaster. I suspect Kiwis don’t believe they have plot armour against such things, hence the accepting the virus risk at face value.

It’s possible to, in some broad sense, compare the beliefs of two different national cultures and decide which one is more moral. (There are at least some morals which are objective, despite many who claim otherwise.) But I would not put that down to being “better people.”

What you actually run into are historical aspects and the system that is in place. The gun one is illustrative: the issues with gun culture in the US are largely due to our history of how we became a nation, our Civil War due to our use of African slaves, and how we dealt with that problem. Our large landmass and thus the need to defend ourselves more is also an issue. And our semi-autonomous federal system. The rural/urban divide continues to be what fuels that system. And, well, basically, our entire politics are about that.

There are also systemic issues. If you press, most people don’t accept that police should kill unless such was absolutely necessary to do their job. But then there’s a system in place that encourages unnecessary killing, and another that pushes for supporting the police no matter what. The racism that is (still!) leftover from the slave trade is why cops will often treat white people better, leading to more of them refusing to believe any but a small few cops actually unnecessarily kill.

None of it, however, can really go down to the personal level. I tend to believe the number of a priory bad people is about the same everywhere. If those people were from birth allowed to grow up in a different environment, they’d wind up the same as any native.

Now, maybe some cultures do a better job at shaping immoral tendencies and not subverting moral ones. But it’s still ultimately about the culture, not the people.

This, however, will still not stop me from calling our immorality, and continuing to push people to discover more. Even philosophical concepts such as morality have some underlying truths mixed in with the opinions. And those truths can be discovered the same as we can make discoveries in the natural world.

Some disagreements on morality are not mutually excluvive, but some definitely are. And, for the latter, we do need to discover what is best.

New Zealand has a great reputation and is widely regarded as a ‘lucky’ country. But there is a dark side. I saw the movie ‘Once We Were Warriors’ and it was harrowing. A story about the grim life of gangsters and domestic violence within the Maori community.

Society and culture, where ever you go, has two sides. There is a wonderful ideal, where everything works and people grow and prosper. But there are also places where communities are riven by dysfunction and are falling apart and it changes over time for better or worse. Sometimes they lie quite close by each other, the problems ignored by the publics tunnel vision and the usual distraction tricks politician are wont to indulge in.

NZ has a long standing housing crisis that needs to be dealt with and there are pockets of severe deprivation in some communities. Nowhere has all the answers.

From the perspective of someone in China or Angola or El Salvador is there any appreciable difference between two English-speaking advanced economies? Without the accent could they even tell an American and a New Zealander apart? Seems like if you’re looking for examples of huge cultural spread you could do better than this one.

Power corrupts. The most powerful institutions in a county (political parties, religion, media, and - most of all - business) maintain that power by manipulation of the citizenry. The larger and more influential the power bases, the more likely the individuals they manipulate are to be corrupted. IMO, the “best” people are those in countries that either have few or weak concentrations of power or actively thwart the ability of those power bases to manipulate the behavior of the citizenry.

You and the others after you have pretty well nailed it.

People are people and babies magically swapped at birth “inherit” the culture they grow up in, not the culture of their bioparents left somewhere across the ocean.

We as individuals and the civilizations we build are far more a product of our cultural upbringing than we/they are of our inherent bio-nature. Or said another way, the key feature of humans is building a culture then moving into it.

Different cultures can be “better” or “worse”. But more than that, cultures, like any other system, can be a good fit for the niche they occupy and the challenges they face. Or they can be a bad fit.

ISTM that COVID in particular is a challenge that fits well with the relatively sanguine, practical, intelligent, and high-community cohesiveness features that are the hallmarks of most NZ folks I’ve known.

Conversely, for all the reasons several others have said since, COVID is a wedge almost preternaturally well-suited to getting into the cracks in the US culture & pounding them wide open. It’s a challenge our culture is especially un-suited to face. That US culture was feeling particularly crack-ridden and under stress before COVID shows up is a huge force multiplier in the bad direction.

A separate set of arguments can be made about how the future of humanity will evolve and which cultures are best suited to that future. Progressivism, writ large, is about recognizing that culture is our home and that it’s too important to be left to random unthinking forces. And especially too important to left as a side effect or afterthought of the raw pursuit of power and wealth for its own sake.

The opening paragraph of this wiki and the two books it mentions are worth a read:

Interestingly the last tidbit of the first paragraph says

Fukuyama is also associated with the rise of the neoconservative movement from which he has since distanced himself.

Why did he distance himself? Because it almost instantly transitioned from seeking a better culture for a better human future to one seeking the raw pursuit of power and wealth for its own sake.

This may not answer your question but it might help. I had a very good Swiss friend and he had a government issued machine gun in his closet, although he never showed it to me. But he did explain some things about it. I think he could get ammunition only from the army and he was supposed to account for every round. Unless there was a war, the only place he could use it was at the army shooting range. And there was just a strong inhibition about misusing it. When he retired from the army at age 45, he was allowed to keep but only after it had been disarmed in some way. I have no idea what happened to it when he died.

Most politics was local and most people considered it their civic duty to participate. One Sunday our two families went somewhere, probably to hike, but he had to stop first at the local community office to vote. When he came out, he jumped into the air, clicked his heels together and said, “Now I have done my civic duty.” His wife wasn’t yet voting because what he was voting on was the 1971 referendum that allowed women to vote.

The office of president is so minor (and changes every year) that the average Swiss might not know who he (or she; there has been at least one woman) is. But then the Swiss Federal government doesn’t do very much.

My neighbor is Swiss and is appalled that the number one question Americans have about her country is the guns. Her stock answer is that, “No, every Swiss citizen doesn’t own a gun. The army owns them and just happens to keep them in people’s homes. If you use the army’s guns without permission, you’re in big trouble.”

No, and no.


Some nations have systems and social conventions that allow or encourage selfishness, greed and ignorance and others have the opposite. This is not because of anything inherent in the people, it’s a lot more to do with history, geography and other external circumstances. Not just the immutables, like geography, but also very mutable factors like political choices, interactions with other countries, etc. But geography is a big part of it.

The American system is worse than some, better than others.

The Swiss actually having a well-regulated militia, rather than just talking about it?

The answer to the OP is “no”.

People have similar genetics and most can become good people, whatever that means to you. Different places prioritize different values, and people internalize what they see. Surprisingly, or not, cultural values are often reflected in even the most basic elements of language.

The US is not the only country to have an ethos which occasionally may include the ideas of winning at any cost, giving too much respect to money or youth or technology, and/or emphasizing individualism at the expense of family or community. Not that this is always a bad thing, but generally a degree of balance is better.