Friday, May 27, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - the basis for ethical choices

“The third assumption of this model [the “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”] is that ethical choices can and must be made for intercultural sensitivity to develop. However, these choices cannot be based on either absolute or universal principles. Rather, ethical behavior must be chosen with awareness that different viable actions are possible.”
Milton Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism”

So how does this fit with Bennett’s idea of developing a “meta-ethic” (based on “life itself”)? Isn’t he saying, here, that ethics are only and totally rooted in a sociocultural context?

How do I as a person of faith in God, respond to this statement?

To a certain extent, I agree with Bennett. I think he’s probably right that if you take a wide spectrum of people, from different cultural backgrounds, you will not be able to reach agreement on “universal” ethical principles. One dividing line is that between people who believe in God and those who don’t. Those who don’t, admit that they have no “absolute” or outside-a-human-context basis for ethical values, whereas those who do, believe that there are ethical values rooted in the existence and nature of God. (I think that among people who do believe in God, it may be possible to come to some agreement on “universal” ethical principles.) To talk about ethical choices, among people who are from different backgrounds, we must take into account the fact that we will have different perspectives based on our different backgrounds.

On the other hand, I believe that a person can be ethnorelative / interculturally sensitive, and believe in ethical values that are rooted outside of human culture, e.g., in the existence and nature of God. Jesus, for example, taught that the guiding principle of life is love – love of God and love of neighbor. If God exists, and if Jesus came from God, that would be an “absolute” or “universal” principle, whether people recognized it as such or not (though how it is worked out, would depend on the context, and would be shaped by worldview, culture, etc.).

In other words, I don’t believe it is an either/or choice – either you accept cultural difference, an ethnorelative perspective, and Bennett’s model of intercultural sensitivity, or you believe that ethical values and choices can be rooted in absolute principles. For Bennett to insist on this choice, is to extend his model beyond its limits (and he himself points out, at the end of the article, that there is growth beyond the model, and that the model itself is only one more construction of reality).

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