Intercultural Ethics

A Concept of Ethics

For a moral understanding of intercultural common values it is convenient to have a common perspective regarding that which is moral and that which is ethical.

In brief, that which is moral refers to the patterns of human behavior that are conditioned by freely adopted social guidelines (customs, usages, norms and rules), given that the basic interest of individuals and groups is to adhere to these guidelines in order to further their existence and identity as social subjects. That which is ethical refers to the ability to reflect upon and argue over the moral guidelines of human behavior, as well as to act having taken them into account.

The first concept stresses the voluntary nature of action; the second reminds us that one must take responsibility for one's actions, the justification being found in the chosen relevant guidelines. Thus, it is possible to find people with different moral standards who nevertheless share the same ethical way of justifying their moral stances. Aside from that, we can also see other people behaving in a similar moral fashion but that are in disagreement when it is coming time to discuss the principles and consequences of their acts. It is essential to admit that a pluralist society must understand itself in terms of this second perspective, that is to say, that of the ethics of responsibility. Such an understanding can only be consolidated if it is achieved devoid of deeply personal morals, even though its very purpose is to ensure this in the midst of moral diversity.

Given that the concern is to develop certain principles of intercultural ethics, not just any theoretical justification is equally sustainable. To begin with, we should probably leave aside the question of whether ethics is born out of our “cultural heritage” or, on the other hand, a result of “human nature.” It is better to assume that ethics are derived from the predispositions of the human mind (taking into account both biological and cultural elements) toward thinking and acting according to certain kinds of social behavior. This allows us to avoid, on the one hand, the relativism attached to the first option, which prevents interculturality, and, on the other hand, the reductionism that is supposed by the second option, which renders ethics meaningless.

A theoretical assumption consistent with the aims of interculturality could, therefore, be that of ethical cognitivism. Its basic premises are: 

1) The principles and laws of morality are not unknowable, just otherwise within the limits of human knowledge.

2) Ethical laws and principles can be justified cognitively.

3) This justification depends on general faculties of human knowledge (including the representational and perceptual aspects of cognition in general), as well as the processes of acquiring and rebuilding information (i.e. criticism).

4) Cognition and information processing are basically universal in nature.

5) Given the aforementioned points, ethical cognitivism is, therefore, compatible with a universalist vision of ethics, but at the same time it is also sensitive to the particularities of culture. Philosophers belonging to this trend would be such as Socrates, Spinoza, Kant (interpreted as criticist of morals), Piaget, Kohlberg, Hare, Tugendhat, Morin, Changeux…


Excluded from this theoretical perspective are all other conceptions of ethics. There are, however, two distinct kinds:

1) On the one hand there is ethical “naturalism” in a broad sense, which argues that ethical premises depend upon knowledge of the natural world. Here one should include ethical naturalism as such - which today forms part of sociobiology and the neurosciences - and embrace philosophers such as Aristotle, Hobbes, D'Holbach, Spencer, B. Williams, Ph. Foot, Bunge, etc. Parallel to this emotivism must be also included, which involves, among others, Hume, Ayer, Stevenson, Gilligan, Singer.  

2) There are also, by way of contrast, “non-naturalist” approaches, such as decisionism, which argue that ethical premises are independent of natural knowledge (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, as well as pragmatism, historicism, or contemporary communitarianism, among others), or, as is the case of transcendentalism, that ethical premises are to be found, in one sense or another, outside of the mind or human nature because they “transcend” experience. The extent of the latter is such that it includes at least three types of theoretical justification of ethics, the theological or mystical justification (Augustine, Aquinas, Maritain, Wittgenstein, Küng, Lévinas, etc.), the metaphysical justification (including thinkers as different as the transcendental Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Rawls, and even Habermas or Apel), and the intuitionist one: Moore, Ross, Prichard, Scheler, Jonas, etc.

All of the above-mentioned “non-cognitivist” conceptions of ethics are, for the reasons indicated, largely incompatible with a truly intercultural universalist ethics. Some emphasize the “content” of knowledge whilst others stress that which they believe to be “independent” of it. And they all assume that ethical principles and ideas are “not always” justifiable cognitively. However, ethical cognitivism starts from the notion that ideas and principles can always be justified according to the bases of knowledge. Thus, emphasis is placed on knowledge itself, as well as on its processes and methods (reflection and critical examination included within), an emphasis that is much more favorable to intercultural universalism.

Nonetheless, cognitivism as it is understood here is not the same as the traditional rationalist conception of it. Human cognition consists of representational and abstract processes (including “reason”) as well as perceptual and symbolic ones, which in philosophy are generally known as, respectively, ”intellectual” and emotional or “sensitive” domains. In other words, what we are referring to here is a full, integrated cognition, not partial, which integrates the two kinds of mental processes. Therefore, it is consistent with the contributions of neurosciences and with what is known as “interconnectionist theory” of mind.

Finally, let me bring up that morality, in spite of it only being of concern to humans, does not only include human beings. It is managed by humans, but it is also in favor of all other beings in the cosmos: animal and not animal, living beings or merely objects, existing in the present or in other times, past and future. Thus, a description of morality could be, in my view, a settlement of human actions and attitudes considered appropriated in relation to all beings to which we have a meaningful relationship. The discussion about what it means to be “appropriated,” for example good, right, honorable, correct, fair, useful, prudent, wise, even though a human discussion, is only the starting point for ethics; it is the start of a common and philosophical reflection concerning morality.

Norbert Bilbeny

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