A Prospect for Intercultural Ethics


Intercultural ethics is still an object of study that is undertaken only by a few scholars worldwide.  In spite of its pressing importance, the concept is, unfortunately, not yet a topic of widespread interest in the global academic arena. However, the concept is critical for practical reasons (environmental sustainability, the endeavor for peace and rights, the fair distribution of economic resources) as much as it is for theoretical reasons: an openness to shared universal patterns, the expansion of the concept of rationality, the implementation of value diversity into the understanding of practical norms, and the improvement of the transnational availability of practical philosophy.

In the debate surrounding multiculturalism, Bilbeny defends a philosophical perspective that takes into account intercultural ethics. He, therefore, rejects both monoculturalism and differentialist multiculturalism as potential ethical framework.

Bilbeny believes that dialog and cooperation among citizens and between cultures should be possible on the grounds of the existence of universal cognitive and emotional patterns of the human mind and behavior. As a result, an at least minimally common morality, which is more than ever necessary in our frenzied world, could grow out of these shared human dispositions. It is our ethical duty to educate one another and to and transform these shared human dispositions into common moral values.
*See a critical introduction to his work in “The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 2005)

1. The Main Obstacles

Despite the importance of intercultural ethics, its related philosophical goals are faced by at least three different kinds of obstacles. All of them deny, in fact and in theory, the existence of any kind of cross-cultural moral pattern. The first of these obstructions is, of course, the hard reality of social misunderstanding all around the world. Worse than hatred and prejudice is, perhaps, the oft heard faux-naïf question, “Why should I respect other cultures and other people?” Or even more tragically, “What does it matter to me?”

The second main obstacle usually emerges from within academic circles and often presents itself in the form of an unquestionable scientific theory: strong relativism. This particular obstacle supposes that there is no possible comparison between cultures and no feasible way to contrast their cultural patterns. As such, there can be neither cultural exchange nor, in fact, confrontation between one moral culture and another. Like strong relativism, soft relativism believes in cultural discontinuity, but it admits, on the contrary, that there is some room for comparison among different cultural patterns. Neither soft nor strict relativism should be used as arguments against intercultural ethics and common cultural values since strong relativism and its very opposite extreme, essentialism, which claim cultural unity and mixed relativistic arguments still serve as academic pretexts for the so-called “politics of difference” and even for racism. There is no doubt that real confrontation as well as real convergence needs be possible between cultures and their respective moral values.

The third main opposing force is ethnocentrism, that is to say, the explicit or implicit narrow-minded speech that is behind the works of a large number of scholars when addressing issues of culture, particularly when they speak of their own. We still too easily talk about the supposed “Asian”, “African” or “Western” values. Broad patterns do obviously exist, but not as independent kingdoms of values. No civilization, no culture, and no individual moral identity have ever existed in the world as closed, unchanged substances, always equal to themselves. Despite this, ethnocentric perspectives conceive of both domestic and foreign cultures as being based on inherent and self-centered realities. A direct consequence of this, then, is that when it comes to seeing other realities, and reality as a whole, it is done solely from one point of view: our own.

As a result, we can find in almost all Western discourse a large number of the aforementioned ethnocentric characteristics. Westernization also finds its way in Western ethics and many Western cultural categories are still present in so-called “universal” Western ethics. Many of these conceptions of ethics are clearly biased in their way of determining cultural representations and they, therefore, contribute to moral prejudice. Let me check: we have a soul/body antithetical culture, speech-centered communication, abstract cognition, a rationalist self, logic-centered or quantitative rationalism, theoretical knowledge, a self-interested economy, individualistic liberalism, secular tolerance, male humanism, a European-centered Enlightenment, a theistic and missionary religion, white Christianity, puritan morality, self-sustaining and formalistic citizenship, a technocratic idea of progress, and the well known Western-liberal parameters of modernity. Because of this, we Europeans and North-Americans have very Westernized conceptions of science and thought. To be Western is surely good, but to confuse the West with the World is wrong, and maybe even bad.

In conclusion, a pretty large number of Western scholars still continue to idealize their own culture, making it more uniform than it is, thereby giving other cultures a standardized, ethnocentric vision of themselves. For example, in the 19th century westerners romanticized Orient and the global South, while now we stereotype African values, the Islamic world and Islamic fundamentalism. Ethnocentrism is still at work, which is why the search for intercultural ethics must continually detect and remove this ethical impediment.

The Copernican revolution in ethics as moral philosophy was the Kantian one. Because of it we can assume that moral objects turn moral knowledge around instead of practical reason turning an established moral world around. But the time is coming for there to be a second ethical revolution which is to make individual reason turn the cross-cultural universal patterns of reasoning around, not the universal moral knowledge concerning any particular assumption of reason.

2. Empirical Sources

Despite all of the kinds of obstacles to such an universal ethics (such as social misunderstanding, theoretically strong relativism, and both scholar and folk ethnocentrism) there are at least two basic empirical sources for sustaining intercultural research in ethics and making sense for this project.

I am not, in fact, a naturalist when it comes to ethics, nor am I even a transcendentalist. I am a cognitivist, that is to say, a universalist who criticizes the narrow “rationalist” meaning of the present-day cognitivism. But as cognitivist I acknowledge the empirical description of this ethical orientation no less than the critical scrutiny.

The first empirical source that has sparked my interest in intercultural ethics is human nature; the second one is human culture. On the one hand this interest is informed by Biological Anthropology, especially by Edward Wilson and other sociobiologists who teach us that cooperation is a characteristic of the human species. On the other hand, this interest is informed by Social Anthropology and functionalist scholars such as Donald Brown who describe a set of cross-cultural moral patterns, such as balanced reciprocity, commitment to the truth, and the prohibition of incest.

However, human culture and human nature are not my only arguments in support of intercultural ethics. I think that the ethical universals sink their roots into a nature of the mind, more than merely into “nature” or, conversely, into “culture.” In fact, we do not have a nature that is separate and independent to culture. Nature and culture interact within our mind and they develop together in a co-evolutionary way. The mind creates our natural culture and our cultural nature at the same time. The ethical universals could have found their empirical grounding in the human mind and its cognitive processes, more so than in the so-called “human nature” and “human culture” by themselves.

My point is that there is a close relationship between the ethical cognitivism and the ethical universalism. It supposes that moral principles and values could be cognitively justified. This justification should depend on the cognitive processes of the human mind, which is, so to speak, on our general faculties of knowledge and skills used for obtaining and rebuilding information. Meanwhile, contemporary neuroscience, like neurophysiology and cognitive sciences of behavior, increasingly shows us that cognitive processes have a universal nature. I particularly value, among other cognitive theoreticians, the works of Stephan Kosslyn and Paul Churchland. Because of all of this, moral patterns should also be universal. This is probably not valid for any features or any standards of behavior, but I think that this cognitive argument is especially suitable for the moral patterns that we call intercultural. In any case, I believe that learning about the brain, mind, and cognitive behavior, which interact very closely among themseleves, allows us to reach the main empirical source of a non-transcendentalist and non-naturalist first approach to intercultural ethics.

This empirical knowledge of nature and culture of our mind is perhaps the only one that could explain the statistical and implicational universals concluded by some natural and cultural scientists in their respective fields. At any rate, this knowledge assumes: first, that the brain works the same way across all cultures, and, second, that it works as a single and integrated whole of neural networks, mental processes and connected subjective experiences. These two assumptions are very stimulating in relation to intercultural ethics, especially the second one. Since these brain-mind subsystems are considered to be in narrow and reciprocal interaction, we then can avoid on the one hand the body-mind dualism, which cuts short the empirical investigation of the mind, and, on the other hand, behaviorism, which restricts intellectual theorizing. Both extremes obstruct, in my point of view, the quest for intercultural ethics because a disconnected human mind subtly leads to a fragmented human culture.

On the contrary, the new picture of mind provided to us by cognitive neuroscience supports cross-cultural standards of human judgment and perception, which are needed to promote any development of ethics in an intercultural way.

3.The Path of Full Cognition

Let me expand further upon these points. As a result of these new sciences I suspect that we could also obtain a completely new philosophical concept of cognition, even a new picture of the human self.

If the mind works by connecting all the brain subsystems, then cognition should be integrative, not only a representational intellectual activity in a narrow sense. As such, our self, that is, the reflection of the mind on itself, which is one of the most specialized results of human cognition, should also be understood as a kaleidoscopic image where subjective experiences, both intellectual and sensitive, remain connected one to another.

This kind of cognition and reflective activity of the mind facilitate, in a practical sense, our quest for intercultural ethics. I will try to further explain my standpoint on cognition. There is no reason for opposing one general pattern of human cognition to another. Intellectual or representational operations interact with sensitive or perceptual processes at every level and every function of cognition. Abstract thinking as well as tactile or visual perception, for example, shows us this relationship. Therefore, we should not conceive of there being a purely rational mind in front of a merely emotional one. Of course, “emotional intelligence” and “intelligent emotions” are only folk psychology talk because they are contradictory terms. Intelligence has to become intelligence, and emotion has to grow as emotion. However, every concept has a touch of perception and every feeling has a touch of thought.

Intellectual and sensitive features are mutually related in our mind, although I do not have the space to describe them in detail here. Thinking about ethics reminds us, for example, of the links between consciousness and subjective experience or between verbal and non verbal behavior. We could say something similar of speech interaction in relation to sympathetic communication as can be done for thought and memory, will and imagination, self-reflection and empathy, or acting and caring. These pairs of features fall under cognition or, in a broader sense, knowledge, and clearly intelligence as well. The two features are manners of cognition, because there is, in fact, a connection between them in the workings of some common biological and psychological elements and active reciprocity, as well as evolutionary cogeneration. For example, where do we put categories like “interest”, “valuation” or “belief” between these two cognitive manners? Why should that be done in the so-called rational mind and why not in the emotional one and vice versa?

Similarly, most of ethical principles and values, and probably those that are cross-cultural, emerge at the same time from intellectual and sensitive mental processes. Reason is not a self-generating faculty of the mind. It can certainly fix the field of its objects and methods, but not the conditions for both its generation and its applications. We should not forget that the human brain has not been created for its own understanding, but for human survival. Even from a physical point of view we know hardly anything about it. As such, we must not separate brain and mind, nor should we separate the rational mind from the sensitive mind. Especially if we are to arrive at intercultural ethics, cognition must be acknowledged and improved as full cognition, that is to say, pushing both reason and sensitivity, intellect and perception. Otherwise we will still be using an ethical discourse that is disconnected from real human judgment and strong moral motivation.

Even though intercultural ethics must be discovered from a rational perspective, rational arguments have shared rules of moral judgment and alone are not enough to inspire moral attitudes. According to this train of thought, any moral culture needs reason and consciousness to learning and explaining its rules, but it also necessarily makes use of perception and subjective experience to interpret and transmit those rules. Consequently, for intercultural ethics we luckily have the intellectual mind that allows us to appreciate cultural differences and to remain in dialog with one another. But we also have the emotional mind in order to appreciate these differences and to continue desiring dialog.

4. An Intercultural Interpretation of Kant’s Ethics

The full cognition hypothesis, based on the unified theory of the mind, allows us, in my opinion, to clear the way for the recognition and development of cross-cultural universal moral patterns. However, such a kind of cognitivism, as is probably true with any other empirical ethical theory, still does not resolve the question of what kind of shared moral values or principles should be the overriding among all of their class.

That is very important to clarify, since moral dilemmas are, in fact, the rule, and not the exception when it comes to the intercultural moral debate. Nonetheless, I have already rejected both ethical naturalism and transcendentalism for intercultural ethics. Meanwhile, someone could possibly think that my only way out is choosing between ethical decisionism and ethical emotivism. Nevertheless, I have to refuse them because they still support some kind of cultural particularism. Given the fact that certain overriding cross-cultural rules must be assumed, I realize that I have continue defending full cognitivism and explore all of its philosophical possibilities further.

The neurocognitivist philosophy of Paul Churchland and others has, for the moment, no explicit ethical implications. Which is why I choose Kantian practical philosophy to continue with my inquiry. Kant is perhaps the first Western philosopher who outlines some general rules for a full cognitive mind and society. I am not referring to the three very well known “categorical imperative” formulas that are found in his ethics, but to those that appear later in his last anthropological philosophy in which he sketches three new supposedly “pragmatic rules” for all kinds of circumstances in which human communication could be present and should be trained. First, “To think for oneself.” Second, “In communication with men, to imagine oneself in the place of every other person.” And third, “Always to think in agreement with one’s self.” He scarcely says anything else about these general rules.

At any rate, note that each of these commands is procedural. They do not advocate nor suggest any substantive moral belief. Moreover, may I remind readers that each of these rules could be used and developed on the basis of a full cognitivism, that is to say, on the assumption of an integrated perceptual-intellectual mind. Although Kant’s philosophy divorces aprioristic reason from ordinary sensitivity as well as duty and desire, he traces in his criticism no essential separation between mind and body: between the natural reason and the natural world. The former division is merely a procedural dichotomy forced by the Kantian transcendental method, that is, by that philosophical standpoint which freely supposes that reason must shape experience a priori, not the contrary.

Nevertheless, this metaphysical point of view has been necessarily taken by natural reason. Thus, there could not be any substantive dichotomy between mind and nature. This is how Kant may be recovered in the fully cognitivist perspective, which in my opinion is required for intercultural ethics. According to this perspective, and whatever should be most of our moral options, two main presuppositions have to be acknowledged in this choice. One of them is theoretical: reason and emotion, although in different proportions, are both influenced by our moral resolutions. The other assumption is practical: whatever the moral option may be, we must be aware of the excluded rational or emotional share of our choice and we must also question this exclusion.

5. Three Procedural Rules

It seems that the three aforementioned Kantian rules embrace very similar proportions of rational and emotional trainings. As such, they can reflect the full human cognition and the integrated self. Let me further explain this as follows:

Think about the first statement: “To think for one self.” This rule commands us to deliberate and act in an autonomous manner and to reflexively distance ourselves from tradition, personal beliefs, and speech. That means, of course, that a critical perspective of human understanding enables us to grow and change in terms of knowledge and behavior. However, that also supposes an invitation to further insight, which is allows one to examine, reform and become conscious of our values. Therefore, to think for one self requires and enhances ones personal and concrete self, not only an abstract mind.

Let us now the second rule: “In communication with persons, to imagine oneself in the place of every other person.” This is, in other words, the rule of reciprocity in human interaction. Then, we have now complemented the former reflexive distance to oneself with a reflexive proximity to others. Put in other words, autonomy has to be balanced with a kind of heteronomy. Therefore, we must focus on a complementary and not merely formal reciprocity. Within the new boundaries, the more the self is concrete and not only abstract, the more the other appears as an individual other, not only as a generalized one. Reciprocity requires openness to others.

So that includes receptivity, no doubt, but also curiosity when it comes to differences. Complementary reciprocity, according to the sense suggested by the second practical rule, can promote this curiosity. Moreover, observe that this practical rule of reciprocity belongs to a broad rule of reversibility in social human action. This rule says: act in a way that the consequences of your actions are reversible. Obviously, we are faced with a consequentialist rule for action. Then, the complementary reciprocity, which is to take into account the concrete other, should be allocated in the right way for a full consequentialist human reciprocity.

Let us now consider the third practical rule: “Always think in agreement with one’s self.” Reflexive proximity at this level has been moved from the relationship between one and the other to the connection between one and one’s self. We still deal with reflection and proximity, but the object is now in one’s self. Unlike the preceding rules, the present one implies both personally concerned reflection and abstract deliberation. And more than ever, we now have to emphasize our ability to be as consistent as individuals with our own cultural background and emotional constitution.

The three rules that we have seen are full cognitive because they encompass reason and emotion and connect one to another. The three are also procedural because none reflect any particular moral belief. Consequently, they are to be considered for the development of intercultural ethics in this era of cognitive revolution and cultural multiplicity. In conclusion, all of these rules seem to say: proceed carefully. No moral culture and no religion exclude this kind of behavior or reflection. Reflection, in fact, brings us closer to ourselves and makes us committed to others.

In other words, I think that these suggested rules are not in contradiction with any existing moral culture or religion. Moreover, we can find these rules at the core of great religions and standard moral visions. One Chinese proverb states: “The same moon has different reflections in different streams.” Thus, if we explicitly develop these cross-cultural universal moral rules we can also progress in the main civic virtues of tolerance and mutual respect within the multicultural societies and the global world.

6. Two Prudent Measures

Nevertheless, whatever the rules of intercultural ethics should be, two supplementary prudential measures have to be taken for that purpose. First, when we speak of cross-cultural universal moral patterns we should avoid, at the same time, monocultural and biased adjectives such as: basic, essential, preferential, substantive, intrinsic, fundamental, central, primary, transcendental, invariant, or even natural values or principles. Instead of this, we must choose neutral qualifications such as universal, intercultural, cross-cultural, shared, common, or merely public civic patterns.

The fact is that neutrality is the only true engagement for cultural pluralism, except for those cultural claims that clearly are in contradiction with cross-cultural universal patterns. Interculturality stands on universalistic pluralism, not on a relativistic one. In addition to that, we can observe that there is no exact correspondence between the so-called “basic” and “universal” values, and between the supposedly “secondary” and the “particular” values. Some of the basic ones can be particular, and some of secondary ones can become universal.

The second prudential measure that should be considered for any quest for intercultural ethics is to avoid considering the world through the filter of bipolar terminology. We must use dichotomies carefully. For example, the yes/no opposition is clear, and the woman/man distinction can be useful. However, bipolarities like these can also limit our understanding of both the present and potential cultural reality, and more usually predispose us to a hostile “either/or” value confrontation. In fact, most of the typical cultural dichotomies, such as the Western/Eastern opposition, are still expressing the binary logic of the cultural domination. It is the case, among others, of the pairs Western world/Islamic world, Dar al-Islam/Dar-al-Harb, or Asian values/European values. All of them run in parallel. Therefore, the Aristotelian principle tertium non datur does not work well in cultural conflicts since equilibrium and non-contradiction are required in order to justly manage problems.

We can currently count at least thirteen civilizations in the world and almost two hundred national states, more or less five thousand cultures, and a similar number of different living languages. However, from an ethical point of view there are only two cultures in our small planet: “Us,” the in-group culture, and “Them,” the culture of the others. Rather, there is perhaps only one culture, “Ours,” and the way that we reflect upon it comes mainly from when the others arise before us awaiting our reaction.

7. Ethics as a Matter for Human Beings

Ethics, unlike most rules, is never functional or merely suitable. The basic rules of moral behavior are not functions of any organ, but constituents of a special organ in nature that we call the human being. Thus, even an intercultural ethics is tied to the question of what kind of human beings we want to be. That said, we can know who we are only after having answered to the question “Who do you think you are?” as asked by a stranger.

Now it is time to summarize and get ready for questions and commentaries. Courtesy is free in any situation. I have given my arguments in support of intercultural ethics, one of the main keys for democratic citizenship and social involvement in multicultural societies. I do not support any specific universal value or moral norm. Not even “human rights” or “responsibility” have been quoted in my speech. I am only trying to specify certain universal conditions in order to assume these patterns and select from them, whatever they may be. The point is that cross-cultural universal claims can exist because cross-cultural patterns of mind do also exist and are able to be trained. My concern, then, is not idealism. I particularly dislike the sanctimonious rhetoric of most globalizing and humanitarian moral discourses.

As such, my program is, or can be, intercultural, no less than interdisciplinary. According to this, the foundation and normative development of intercultural ethics, and obviously its practical applications in public life and in the professions, correspond at least to a tripartite division of studies, including neurocognitive and behavioral sciences, cultural anthropology and ethnic studies, and, finally moral philosophy, which are necessary for the critical scrutiny.

In other words, research in intercultural ethics is not feasible by one single specialist. I could not imagine it without the contribution of several scientists and thinkers working together in an international project.