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The possibility of universal ethics in a culturally plural world

(LLCT) - The age of globalization and multiculturalism has given rise to phrases such as “celebration of diversity” and “respect for difference”(1). The possible of ethical principles applied universally has become a controversial issue. By analyzing the fundamental concepts and arguments, the article answers questions “Is it possible to have a set of universal ethics in a culturally plural world?”


Key words: Universal ethics, culturally plural world.

The word “ethics” is derived from the Greek word “ethos”, meaning habitual or customary conduct. Today this term is often used either as a synonym of morality-widely accepted rules and standards of conduct-or to label the theoretical study of those standards(2). In this essay, ethics will be interpreted in the former sense, and universal ethics will be used to describe different cultural viewpoints’ shared understanding of what is right and wrong. Universal ethics do not impose one society’s set of morals above another’s, but instead emphasize consensus and consent.

Shared moral values and the foundation of universal ethics

In Post mordern Ethics (1993)(3), Bauman argues that postmodern ethics are “morality without ethical code”, “arbitrary”, and “contingent”, because the reality of humanity is that it is ambiguous and disorganized, and existing within an increasingly multicultural world. Throughout human history, however, there has always been a tendency to appreciate several commonly held moral values, such as liberty, equality, justice, virtue, and dignity. Scholar Sissela Bok used empirical research to write her 1995 book Common Values, which recognizes three practical values that all human social groups consider vital to their survival. These are mutual support and loyalty, some form of constraint on violence and dishonesty, and “a thin notion of procedural justice”(4). Hints of a universal set of ethics based in compassion, tolerance, and kindness can also be found at the core of most major religions. Although religions can influence their followers to live morally, Sulaiman(5) contends that human beings do not necessarily follow religions to be moral. He argues that moral awareness is generated from human experience, and therefore ethical values are neither relative nor partisan; they are rooted in the global experience of humankind rather than in one religion’s particular doctrine. Furthermore, cosmopolitans like Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida,and Stephen Anthony Appiah endorse the position that universal moral principles are not the products of human reason or individual awareness(6), but are grounded in socio-psychological commitments to empathy and sympathy, which contribute to the general preconditions of social life(7).

In addition to the practical procedures that maintain human survival and development, universal ethics can be seen through the spectrum of human emotion and the response of humans to misery and suffering. Humanity has continuously been subjected to and subjected itself to emotional, mental, and physical suffering (wars, natural disasters, epidemics, discrimination, etc.), and thus there has always existed compassion for suffers and victims. For example, most of humanity would consider themselves horrified at the heinous crimes that took place during the Holocaust or Apartheid. They may also have felt a desire to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami in Thailand. This bond of sympathy is a naturally human response to suffering of fellow humans, regardless of cultural differences. Increasing globalization is leading to an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world that makes people more aware of others’ suffering, as it is now more visible than ever that affluence in one part of the world is often a result of deprivation in another part. Moreover, effective global media and communication systems boost consciousness through vivid on-the-spot reporting that may reduce indifference and strengthen empathy for people in other parts of the world. Witnessing the misery of child labourers abused in sweatshops in developing countries, for example, may raise public awareness of corporate social responsibility or even lead to an appeal for change in rich, over-consuming Western societies. These types of media have helped to inspire international solidarity around universal issues such as global warming or poverty reduction in recent decades.

The flaws in arguments of multiculturalism and ethical relativism

Multiculturalism is defined by Fowers & Richardson(8) as “a social-intellectual movement that promotes diversity as a core value and insists that all cultural groups be treated with respect and as equals”. Multiculturalism is often associated with notions of respecting diversity and difference, a belief in cultural and ethical relativism, and the resulting refusal of universal rights, standards or ethics, because, as multiculturalists would argue, this would consist of dominant cultures imposing their systems on marginalized culturess(9).

Despite the popularity of multiculturalists’ arguments, they contain several flaws, which have been addressed by advocates for universal ethics. Siegel(10), for instance, points out some of the inconsistencies in the multiculturalist position, such as the discrepancy between culture-specific legitimacy and transcultural legitimacy. On the one hand, he argues, multiculturalists insist that “educational and philosophical ideals are necessarily culture-specific” and “the legitimacy or force of such ideals does not extend beyond the bounds of the cultures which embrace them”(11). On the other hand, however, they pursue the notion that “all cultures must accept the legitimacy of all other cultures living in accordance with their own culturally-specific ideals”(12). Siegel indicates that these two positions are incompatible, because while the first statement refuses the possibility of transcultural legitimacy, the second advocates for a transcultural commitment to recognize every culture’s right to live in compliance with its own ideals(13) Siegel proposes that multiculturalists need to relinquish their culture-specific sense of legitimacy because it does not integrate well with the crucially moral principle of multiculturalism, which asserts “all persons and cultures are morally obliged to treat cultures other than their own, and the members of those cultures, justly, with respect, in ways that do not silence, marginalize, or oppress”(14). He goes on to argue that if we accept the second position of multiculturalism, we must recognize it transculturally or universally. This position is a form of universal ethics, which states that we are all obliged to respect the right of every culture to live according to its own ideals and values. 

Other prevalent arguments of multiculturalits such as the assumption that local versus universal, or the claim that there is no “God’s eye view”(15) as a ground for universal ethics also have some crucial flaws that make them weaker.

Many scholars such as Siegel, Fullinwider, Gutmann and Taylor agree that multiculturalism and a multicultural education is founded on commitments to universal values such as “the fostering of critical judgment and of equality, justice, and human dignity”(16), or “equal liberty, opportunity, and mutual respect among citizens”(17). On the contrary, some people may seek to justify their denial of core principles like equality, liberty, justice, and respect for human dignity by claiming that such principles are local, specific to a particular culture, and thus have no transcultural normative reach, and thus cannot be universal. Nevertheless, Siegel(18) posits that local versus universal is incorrect. He argues that most principles, values, ideals, and theories are first formulated and adopted only in particular places. Some of them spread across local boundaries and achieve broader legitimacy after time. When such legitimacy goes beyond the bounds of its origin and prevails among new places, the values gain both local and universal reach. Therefore, “one cannot reject universality on the grounds that all ideals are local, either in origin or in current acknowledgement and acceptance”(19).

Another common argument, which refuses the possibility of universal ethics, claims that there is no “God’s eye view” or “trans-historical”, “context-free” standpoint from which universal principles, values and ideals can be derived. For example, Rorty(20) declines to seek “an Archimedean point from which to survey culture”. He argues that stalemate is inevitable when we seek to justify our own principles to those who refuse them in favour of their own equally ethnocentric choices(21). Goldberg(22) states that “axiological concepts” and values rise from historically specific communities, and thus any emphasis on the universalism of values is by nature inclined to be the striking imposition of local values. Firstly,It may be acceptable that there are no principles, values or ideals that can be separated from historical perspective. As Siegel(23) insists, however, universal ideas generally originate from one culture and then expand outward, sometimes dynamically, but obtain a transcultural normative reach as they expand past their local boundaries. Universal values do not require an on-historical perspective, and their perspective does not rest on a “view from nowhere”(24). Secondly, Goldberg’s mention of the imposition of local values is not necessarily relevant to the sphere of culture. The imposition of values does not necessarily lead to the assimilation of values. Assimilation occurs only when native cultures determine new values to be suitable or adaptable. Observing the history of cultural assimilation and anti-assimilation in former colonies provides compelling evidence of this. Moreover, in the context of an increasingly globalized and multicultural world, most literature points to increasing homogeneity as much as it does to increasing diversity and fragmentation(25). When people are more aware of and more concerned about their cultural identities, it is difficult to impose unfamiliar values upon them. One question to pose here is what can increase homogeneity in terms of values except for a common set of ethics, which is more likely to be adopted because of globalization or the “deterritorialization of space”, as Delanty describes it(26).

Like multiculturalism, ethical relativism rejects universal ethics by arguing that moral norms and principles stem from specific cultures, and since cultural differences create distinct moral standards, it is unfair to use onecultural viewpoint to judge others with opposite perspectives(27). Ethical relativists such as Benedict Spinoza, Ruth Benedict and Edward Westermarck believe that religious and cultural traditions reinforce communities, helping them resist criticism and influence from outside cultures. Notions of right and wrong differ between societies and therefore, they argue, there can be no absolute universal moral standards binding on all, at all times(28). However, If this argument can be put in the context of the global struggle for human rights, it becomes apparent that there is a need to legitimize universal ethics in the fight for human rights. Human rights are grounded in the recognition that human beings are all equal and all deserving of certain rights regardless of location, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, or socio-economic background(29). The process of defining human rights has provided pragmatic evidence promoting universal ethics. Since the United Nations passed the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, many political agreements on human rights have been negotiated and signed(30). If human rights are valid, any cultural practices threatening these rights should be questioned. It would be unacceptable to to say that the killing or harming of inferior people, for example the practice of removal the clitoris in some African tribes, can be justified as a cultural feature. As Macklin(31) wrote: “are we to keep quiet and condone the perpetration of a ritual or tradition when it clearly violates general ethical principles? ...Are we prepared to say that oppression of men, women, minorities and children is wrong in the Western world but right in other societies?” She contends that respect for tradition does not justify the ethics of each custom and practice, but rather provides an explanation for the continuation of century-lasting customs(32). From this perspective, the ethical relativist claim about the unfairness or prejudice of ethical judgments made by outsiders does not make sense. Legitimizing ethical judgments based on principles of human rights is necessary to build a more humane world and a better future.

In conclusion, it is absolutely possible to form a set of universal ethics, even within this culturally plural world. Universal ethics are rooted in morals of humanity, which should guide human existence and social interaction. The theories presented within multiculturalism and ethical relativism are flawed, and thus the word “multiculturalism” should be thought of instead as a facilitator fostering the recognition of universal ethics that apply to all cultures. An increasingly globalized and multicultural world provides a larger appreciation for shared values, rules, moral norms, and principles.



1) Squires, Judith. (2006). Diversity: A Politics of Difference or a Management Strategy? University of Bristol. (p.11). Retrieved August 5, 2009, from http://www.ruc.dk.

(2) Perle, Stephen. (March, 2004). Morality and Ethics: An Introduction. Dynamic Chiropractic, 22 (6)

(3) Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodern Ethics. Oxford, Blackwell.

(4) Bok, S. (1995). Common Values. University of Missouri Press.(p.57)

(5)Sulaiman, Sadek Jawad. (2000). The Origin and Essence of Ethics: The Religious vs. the Universal. Middle East News Online. Retrieved August 3,2009, from http://www.alhewar.com.

(6) Erskine, Toni. (2002)”Citizen of Nowhere’ or, the ‘Point where Circles Intersect? Impartialist and Embedded Cosmopolitanisms”, Review of International Studies. 28(3). p 457-477.

(7) Linklater, Andrew. (2007). Distant Suffering and Cosmopolitan Obligations. International Politics. 44 (1). p. 19-36.

(8) Fowers, B. J. & Richardson, F. C. (1996). Why is multiculturalism good? American Psychologist, 51(6), p.1-20 (p.2)

(9), (25) Mason, Mark. (2005). A Justification, after the Postmodern Turn, of Universal Ethical Principles and Educational Ideals. The University of Hong Kong. Retrieved August 5, 2009, from http://www3.interscience.wiley.com.

(10), (11), (12), (13), (14), (18), (19), (23) Siegel, H. (2002), Multiculturalism, universalism, and science education: In search of common ground. Sci. Ed., 86: 803–820. doi:10.1002/sce.1052. Retrieved August 5, 2009, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com

(15) Goldberg, D.T. (1995) Introduction: multicultural conditions, in: D.T. Goldberg (ed.), Multiculturalism: a critical reader. Oxford, Blackwell.

(16) Fullinwider, R. (1996), The Cosmopolitan community. Journal of Social Philosophy, (p.9)

(17) Taylor, C. et al(1994). Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. The University Center for Human Values Series. Stephen Macedo, Series Editor.

(20) Rorty, R. (1982) Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, (p.150).

(21) Rorty, R. (1985) Solidarity or Objectivity, in: J. Rajchman and C. West (eds) Post-analytic Philosophy. New York, Columbia University Press.

(22) Goldberg, D.T. (1994) Introduction: multicultural conditions, in: D.T. Goldberg (ed.), Multiculturalism: a critical reader. Oxford, Blackwell,(p.18).

(24) Nagel, T. (1989). The view from nowhere. Oxford University Press.

(26) Delanty, G. (2000) Citizenship in a Global Age: society, culture, politics. Buckingham, Open University Press, (p.81).

(27), (28) Griffin, Gill. (2001). Universal Ethics - A Foundation for Global Dialogue. Bioethics Research Notes, 13(2).

(29) 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(30) Cortina, A. (ed.). (2008). Public Reason and Applied Ethics. Hampshire, Ashgate Publishing limited.

(31), (32) Macklin 1998 cited in Griffin 2001.

MA. Phan Thi Thu Hang

MA. Nguyen Luong Ngoc

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