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Ethics across cultural lines

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There is something that I've been doing a great deal of thinking about lately, and I don't know of a bunch of guys more likely to answer this kind of question seriously than you guys. I suppose it's a bit abstract, but I've been stuck on it for awhile, and would welcome some input.

Let me start with a story: I'm sure most, if not all of you, heard the story that was circulating a while back about an arabic woman who was accosted by six men, dragged out into the desert and gang-raped by all six. When she returned to her town and complained to the authorities, she was arrested, incarcerated, and then publicly lashed...the rationale being that good muslim men would never have raped her if she had not incited them to the act, thus causing them to sin.

Whether this tale is true or not, I don't know. But it's a good place to start my question:

If an act that is ethically repugnant in my cultural view is acceptable in another cultural system, is it wrong and does it need to be corrected? How much should I allow my own cultural biases to dictate my views of the actions of those who live under very different cultural value systems? Is there an absolute set of ethical standards which apply across all cultures? Are we, or anyone else, justified in imposing what we view as correct on someone else if they don't share our cultural values?

:icon1:

cheers!

aj

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This is indeed a very basic if not difficult question.

There are whole disciplines devoted to such questions in ethics and cultural boundaries.

Before anyone starts expounding their own personal horror at the atrocity of such acts, we should remember that we do not have any right to tell others what they should and should not believe.

That much said, there are however certain Universal truths that are thought to be self-evident.

How culturally dependent or independent are these truths?

How do they affect aj's question, or perhaps more precisely, his concerns.

Is there a code of ethics, a system of thought or even some doctrine that can enlighten us as to the action, reaction or non-action we should consider when we hear of beliefs or actions we judge as an atrocity as measured by our own culture?

This question was raised during WW1 and WW2. The allies were warned that if they adopt the same tactics as the Nazis then they risk becoming fascist themselves.

Religious missionaries judged natives in many lands as barbaric and all but destroyed their 'primitive' cultures.

Civilised communities are no safer of course. Look at what the Nazis did to Germany. Look at what authoritarian cultures have done throughout history.

But culturally speaking it is more difficult.

Zen Buddhists spend much of their lives regressing their cultural conditioning. Yet even so they are subject to not achieving much more than detachment from it, except for rare individuals.

Violation of the first rule of "First do no harm." is actually pretty difficult to keep. (When is doing nothing more harmful than doing something?) However bearing it in mind when trying to judge someone else's culture, certainly helps to keep things in perspective from the other person's point of view, IF you will let it.

It is possible to come to terms with your own set of ethics from which you can then apply morals as needed to situations you encounter.

Becoming aware of your own cultures' conditioning is very important if you want a more universal understanding of life.

It is also very difficult to achieve. You may simply come to the conclusion that some cultures are not going to abide by humanitarian rules of conduct anytime soon. The best you can do is try to be true unto yourself, to your own values and be willing to reexamine them continuously.

As for one culture imposing its values on another, I am sorry to say it happens, and not always for the better.

As authors we can write stories about such injustices and inhuman acts with a view to exposing them and maybe even helping the humanitarian cause if such is your bent.

Lest anyone think my remarks are intended to make me look like somekind of enlightened person, I assure you I am just as human as the rest of us. I just have had a lifelong interest in the subject. Sadly the above summary is the best I could manage.

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Thank you Des. You addressed this complicated question with a short response that shows both reflection and a broad understanding of comparative studies of culture. As regards the example cited by AJ, I would remind readers that women, young persons, children, gays, ethnic minorities etc. all over the world (including many civilised Western democracies) still complain about not being taken seriously when they take cases regarding rape, sexual harassment and gender harassment to the courts (and in some cases to the police or their own families). Blaming the victim is a well-known phenomenon in sociology, and has been for decades.

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Okay, I?ll take a stab at this. What a way to start the day!

This is such a complex subject, just trying to write anything at all about it seems insufficient, as there is no hope of not leaving so much untouched.

Are there absolute rights and wrongs? I think we believe there are, but we are a compendium of our upbringings and the society mores that influenced us. How could we help but be? To people raised within the Western Judeo-Christian belief system, we have an entire code to follow that tells us various things are proscribed, various rights are absolute, various acts are wrong.

But are these acts wrong because we decided they were, or are they absolutely wrong? How can we start to answer that?

There is a famous case history of Christian missionaries visiting a South Pacific island where food was abundant, survival wasn?t ever a struggle, and the small community of natives lived collectively and happily together in complete harmony. Sexual promiscuity in youths wasn?t only tolerated, it was celebrated and encouraged, and so universal for teens on the island. It was a closed society, there was no disease, pregnancy was a mark of honor, not shame, and it was felt there would be less sexual shenanigans in adults if they could have their fill of flings when in their hormonal years. So, every night, large groups of teens would go off onto the beaches and into the trees and learn the age-old lessons.

The missionaries came and were aghast. They quickly decided these very happy people were shameful. So they started preaching, visiting their own brand of right and wrong on the innocents. They introduced shame to a society that hadn?t had it. They stopped nudity, they stopped causal sex, they managed to change an entire society. They thought they were doing good. They were sure of it. They were doing God?s work.

With their changes came jealousy, thefts, scheming against one another, pride of possession, even murders, aspects of society not known there before. I don?t know how the missionaries responded to this change. Probably they thought, with their teachings of proper behavior, they?d only come in time because this stuff would have happened anyway, and their work kept things from getting even worse. Scholars and teachers, like the rest of us, are good at justifying and excusing their acts.

I think most of us would say casual sex among teens should be controlled at least to some degree. Perhaps we feel that way because we live in a society where all pregnancy isn?t wonderful for all involved, where disease does exist, and where complete sharing of all things isn?t the norm, where competition is the norm and understood by all. So, are we right? Are our prohibitions, our knowledge of right and wrong, our mores, correct?

If we live in a community of people, there has to be a community ethic, and that spells out what is right and wrong for that society. The problem then comes when separate societies meet. Their values and understanding of right and wrong differ. If one society tries to force its will and values on the other, most assuredly disagreement leading all the way up to full warfare is likely.

If the ways of a society seem wrong to us, but that society is living with them in internal harmony, if its members understand and accept those ways, we should think long and hard if we think we have an obligation to try to change them. It?s so easy to think like the missionaries, to be filled with goodness and delight that we can bring our better, our higher and more moral ways to a benighted people.

That never does seem to work well for us.

Cole

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Thanks for your answers, guys. It helps to hear from others about this. I recognize that there won't likely be a black and white answer to this question...there rarely is when this kind of thing is discussed. It's good to know that I'm not the only one who thinks about and struggles with this question.

cheers!

aj

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I had a friend whose family were medical missionaries in Africa.

He told me the local definition of good and evil: good is when I steal your goat. Evil is when you steal my goat.

Apparently there are quite a lot of privative butt-heads out there that haven't progressed much past that. The country that they were in was the Congo and the tribe that they were serving was rich beyond the dreams of avarice with oil money.

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Part of what puts us (americans) at odds with a lot of other cultures around the world is a difference in priority in assigning and protecting rights. We, as a culture, value most highly the rights of the individual. We weigh them equally with the needs of the society, under the theory that a strong society starts on the individual level.

Outside of Europe, most of the rest of the world finds this a very strange concept. From Africa to the Middle East to Asia, the harmony of the society as a whole is far more important than the rights of the individual. Every crime and punishment and all the privileges extended to the society are based on creating and maintaining harmony and peace within the society. If a few noisy, obnoxious troublemakers who insist on defying the rules that create peace and harmony get it in the neck, so be it. In terms of social utility, those people don't matter anyway. No one has the right to place their own needs above the needs of the group. The pitfall of this kind of thinking, of course, is that it is much easier to define individual rights than it is to define societal needs, and that can lead to abuses.

We, as americans, are so indoctrinated in the primacy of the individual that it is hard for us to imagine a society run any other way. That basic difference is what I have to keep in mind when I look at ethics across cultural lines, I guess.

cheers!

aj

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Gee aj, I am not all certain that I agree with the idea that only Americans champion individual rights.

By definition, democracy at its core, is based on allowing and accommodating dissent of the minority view, of the opposing political ideology and primarily the individual view.

That much said, it should also be noted that persecution and assassination of the individual occurs in all communities, some more than others.

In a perfect world there would be a balance between the one and the many.

The individual would make contribution for the greater good of the community, the community would in turn support the individual. -The one for the many, the many for the one. Sadly this concept is corrupted more often than not.

Individual rights are compromised everyday, in every country, by many means that remove equity from the individual's world of possibilities.

I think there are many instances where most cultures, including America, subjugate the individual by bullying and coercion to needlessly conform to the ideas, to the rules of the culture with no recourse to freedom for individual expression.

I am not here denying that America has, at its core, a desire to preserve and encourage individual freedoms, but I do think it is definitely not alone in this pursuit, and neither are any of the achievements in this, without sacrifice, of principle or many individuals and sub-cultures.

Also at times, it seems to me, that those (many) countries which pursue those conditions for individual freedoms as a basis for their culture have a very strange and often paradoxical way of practising them.

To my mind, it is not how a country supports (controls) individuals to be 'good citizens', but how the country supports the individual in their pursuit to live without domination or need to conform, particularly where the individual is in dissent with the majority.

I therefore see America as one of many cultures which seek to protect the rights of the individual and in all fairness, doing as bad and as good a job of it as most.

The difference is for me in the way the good and the bad occur.

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I think AJ makes a valid point, however. I think fitting in, being a team player, being a member of the community is much more important in many countries than it is here in the U.S. We celebrate our independence, our rights, our ability to take care of ourselves and fend for ourselves and live without anyone bothering us or us bothering them. I think one thing that separates us from the English is?and this is pure supposition and please correct me if I?m wrong?they?re brought up to be a part of something bigger than they are, and they have a need to work within that. I see that ethic underlying most of the English stories I read. We?re not brought up that way at all, and it makes the two countries different. Boys here are taught to stand on their own two feet, fight their own battles, and be entirely self-supportive, dependent on no one. I think in China and Japan, they?re taught not to make waves, to let the group decide, and to fit in.

I wonder if this has something to do with the size of the country, and the number of people in it? The more densely packed the population, the more necessary it is for neighbors to be in concert with one another for harmony to reign. England and Japan and many European countries are small, at least relative to the U.S. and Australia and, say Brazil. I wonder if that has something to do with this?

Moral codes and an understanding of right and wrong develop to suit the population?s needs. If one society is built on a single person?s independence, and one is built on the society functioning as a single mass, there?s no question these codes would be different.

C

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Is there an absolute set of ethical standards which apply across all cultures? Are we, or anyone else, justified in imposing what we view as correct on someone else if they don't share our cultural values?

I'd slightly reword this question so it says "...absolute set of ethical standards which should apply across all cultures..."

I think so. A simplistic view of this proposition could be: If there's no harm, there's no penalty. If there's harm, then there will be a penalty. This has to be coupled with laws that demand proof of harm.

Using this view, the woman said she was harmed, there was no proof that she harmed anyone, she should not have been punished without that proof. The question of what should have done to the men who raped her is similar: is there proof, and if so they should be punished.

Colin :hehe:

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Colin, the problem is that you have applied ethics (on harm) which are foreign to the country in which the woman lived. The human values in this case were overridden by the local rule of law. That rule of law is indeed foreign to our tradition of justice.

Looking from the realm of Australia, I would see the Americans as being raised to be part of of something bigger than they are. The English as being encouraged to pursue independance of thought, aloofness and objectivity, once for for King and country, now for the individual, yet both borrow from each other for a related tradition of ethics and justice. Australia has our own sense of right and wrong still very much based on those traditions.

Given the American War of Independence however it is easy to see how the idea of freedom arose in America as American.

The later freedom and emancipation of women and slaves was a battle fought in many lands. Sadly "cultural slavery" still exists everywhere.

If we consider the idea of how an individual regards himself in relation to his country, we might say (with our tongues somewhat in our cheeks);

An Englishman asks what work needs to be done for my country and thus myself?

An American asks what work can I do for me and America?

An Australian asks what work can be avoided so I can be myself?

This is very much a matter of perspective.

Perhaps we humans are on the brink of learning to ask how we may contribute to a fulfilling existence for all of us, for all cultures, without harm, while sustaining the rights of the individual to be true to himself?

The correct answer will not be realised through warfare.

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Gee aj, I am not all certain that I agree with the idea that only Americans champion individual rights.

By definition, democracy at its core, is based on allowing and accommodating dissent of the minority view, of the opposing political ideology and primarily the individual view.

Another example of my unintentional and still prevalent cultural filtering. As much as I want to be able to stand outside my culture and try to see it from the outside, I'm still very indoctrinated in its precepts - one of which is the bias that you responded to. *sigh* I still have a very long way to go.

cheers!

aj

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Another example of my unintentional and still prevalent cultural filtering. As much as I want to be able to stand outside my culture and try to see it from the outside, I'm still very indoctrinated in its precepts - one of which is the bias that you responded to. *sigh* I still have a very long way to go.

cheers!

aj

No problem, aj. Becoming aware of cultural filtering and indoctrination is one thing, keeping it from controlling us is, I think, a life long job.

:hug:

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AJ brings up an interesting subject when he broaches the topic of cultural ethics and should we condemn practices we find repugnant based only on our own view of the subject. The problem with trying to apply our own views is that, as the old saying goes, there is more than one way to skin the cat?meaning that it is very possible that practices you or I might find deplorable can work very well in a society that views itself differently than we do?and so I would say it depends, but in the example he used I would say that yes we should condemn the rules that brought about the incarceration and lashing of the women who was raped.

To explain, as I see it the fundamental reason for having cultural ethics is to promote the welfare, continuance, and harmony of all of the members of the society having them. If an ethical rule meets all of those conditions there is no reason to criticize it even though a person of a different culture might find parts of it repugnant. The problem is that some rules may meet part of those conditions while failing to meet all of them. For example, I would argue that it is never right to have or promote slavery because it does not promote the welfare of all people under it even though it may be beneficial to the state at a given period in time. In short, the rules of a society need to be for the benefit of all member of that society, not a select few. In the case of the woman, the rules within that society were structured to benefit only part of the members of that society (males) and are therefore open to criticism. Anyhow, that is my view on that part of the thread and anyone is free to disagree or offer criticism of it.

To move on to the subject of the American attitude towards individual rights. It is my view that yes, Americans do tend to promote individual rights more than other members of the free world. While Cole makes a point in his explanation of American attitudes about individual rights, I?m not convinced that he is right in his suggestion that it may be a function of population density. While population density may have some influence, I think it is more likely due to our belief in our founding documents. To my knowledge America is the only country in which the belief in individual rights flows from God to the individual and from the individual to the government. Now of course you do not need to believe in God in order to accept and believe in those rights, but our Declaration of Independence says, <i>"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.?</i> In other countries the rights of the citizens are granted by the government. For example, the rights of the citizens of the England were first granted by the Magna Carta and have been added to on a number of occasions. Off the top of my head I think it was in the early eighties when Canada adopted their Charter of Rights but have no idea when other countries adopted their equivalent. Anyhow, when you couple America?s Declaration of Independence with the way our constitution is written you come up with the belief that the people hold all rights except those they grant to the government and I think that is the reason that Americans hold the attitude they do towards individual rights. Again this is only my opinion and everyone is free to agree or disagree.

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Not that I'm defending the Muslims, but I think that they became used to thinking that a man is always superior to a woman, and therefore with most of man-vs-woman conflicts, it would always be the woman who is at fault regardless of whatever the circumstances are BECAUSE good Muslim men can't sin. Unlike man-vs-man conflicts, where investigations tend to be impartial, most of the time. I'm not sure if what I said is an accurate definition of the Muslim way of thinking, but if it is, then I can understand why it was the woman who was condemned in the example AJ gave. It's almost like the story of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute. She's a prostitute; therefore, the men who "goes" with her pays her and should have been considered as sinful as she was. But it was only her that was almost stoned to death.

I don't think it is an "American attitude" to promote individual attitude, or to promote it more than the rest of the world. For me, it is a basic human attitude, because at the end of the day, no matter what one society says, an individual only has himself and would do everything to protect his interests, whether it be a pet dog or his entire family. Though sometimes, one's interests are totally different from what we think is right, and that's not all; he also finds a few who shares his views. But are they wrong? I think they are. But they also think I, too, am wrong with my views.

To go back to AJ's questions... for me, no one has the right to impose his views on another -- we already had Hitler for that. And if there is an absolute set of ethical standards which apply across all cultures, I hope it would be "respect". I think respect alone -- for every individual -- is enough to live in harmony with anyone. Sadly, that seems to be too hard for some people.

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I remember reading something from a cultural anthropologist/bio-ethical/evolutionary philosopher about the idea of a universal morality.

The gist was that, in order for any society to survive past a few generations, certain standards had to be met, simply because, otherwise, they would die out. These standards became "morals". The three examples he gave were the following:

-Assumption of honesty, rather than constant paranoia. If everyone suspects everyone else of trying to cheat, steal, kill, or otherwise harm them, there would be no real interaction between people, meaning little to no reproduction. No interaction = no sex = no babies = no society.

-Prohibition of murder. Murder must be generally considered to be undesirable. Specifics can change, culturally - what's murder? Can I kill people from another country? Another tribe? Another town? What about putting criminals to death? - but overall, if it is considered completely permissible to off anybody who annoys you, the society's going to wipe itself out.

-Protection of the young. Simply enough, little kids and babies can't take care of themselves, so unless a society places importance on taking care of them, they're going to starve, wander into traffic, get carried off by wolves, etc. No babies = no future adults = no society.

His basic idea was that all long-lasting societies must adhere to at least these three moral views. Those that do not get wiped out. As such, most (if not all) modern cultures follow these basic moral guidelines (or, rather, evolutionary imperatives that have been mystified into moral guidelines).

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I can see what you say EleCivil and agree, but with an exception to the terminology.

It is an older school of thought these days, but we were taught that first come ethics.

For example an ethic would state, to kill is bad. From that ethic we would extract a moral that killing is wrong. As a moral we would further extract a law that murder is prohibited and is a punishable offence within our culture.

I'm not good at explaining it but the link runs, Ethic (universal) from which comes the applied moral (as required), then the Law which is cultural.

As I hope you can see the ethic is the principle from which the morality is extracted, followed by the law.

The moral may change as needed to suit a situation. This is called 'creative Morality' and comes from the application of the ethic, subject to the circumstances of the moment. Thus the ethic remains stable but the nature of the morality applied can change.

The Law is thus drawn from the ethic but should allow for the applied morality of the moment. (The obvious example being self defence in the killing of another, though there are many much more subtle situations in life.)

Today the words ethic and moral are used as interchangeable, which really doesn't help to see the difference between ethics, morality and the law.

This is further compounded by people adopting religious law as the ethic, whereas in secular society the cultural law can replace the personal morality and even override the universal ethic, as can occur under an authoritarian regime. This is perhaps at its most insidious when the regime appears to be a democracy.

From this it can be understood that many of humanity's past greatest thinkers encourage people to seek universal ethics upon which the individual will build a personal morality to be used in their daily lives. (First know thyself and To thine own-self be true. Do unto others...etc.)

Externally imposed morals and ethics should thus only be useful until such time as they are replaced by the individual's developed personal code of ethics, from which he applies the morality needed for a given situation.

Of course this is a very philosophical point of view almost totally mistrusted in today's societies.

Business ethics have become something of an oxymoron.

Management morality is simple defined as doing whatever it takes.

And laws have become lies to live with, or used to sue.

Our hope lay with individuals who are sufficiently positive about life and living, to dare to be compassionate. That would be a most worthy morality derived from the ethical principle of, to live is good.

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Part of what puts us (americans) at odds with a lot of other cultures around the world is a difference in priority in assigning and protecting rights. We, as a culture, value most highly the rights of the individual. We weigh them equally with the needs of the society, under the theory that a strong society starts on the individual level.

Outside of Europe, most of the rest of the world finds this a very strange concept. From Africa to the Middle East to Asia, the harmony of the society as a whole is far more important than the rights of the individual. Every crime and punishment and all the privileges extended to the society are based on creating and maintaining harmony and peace within the society. If a few noisy, obnoxious troublemakers who insist on defying the rules that create peace and harmony get it in the neck, so be it. In terms of social utility, those people don't matter anyway. No one has the right to place their own needs above the needs of the group. The pitfall of this kind of thinking, of course, is that it is much easier to define individual rights than it is to define societal needs, and that can lead to abuses.

We, as americans, are so indoctrinated in the primacy of the individual that it is hard for us to imagine a society run any other way. That basic difference is what I have to keep in mind when I look at ethics across cultural lines, I guess.

cheers!

aj

I concur with what aj has said.

Growing up in Indonesia -and went through its education system- we were always told that the difference between us (later I found out that virtually ALL Asian culture are like this) and the West is between Individualism & Cooperation. Cooperation here means Harmony & Peace, and those two are above all. The all-important.

"If a few noisy, obnoxious troublemakers who insist on defying the rules that create peace and harmony get it in the neck, so be it..." this is laso true. The miscreants are either ostracized or thrown out of society altogether.

If Americans are indoctrinated in the primacy of individual, then Indonesians are indoctrinated in the primacy of Harmonius Society.

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