Also see this article posted online at its original source: http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/03/25/personal-take/
I have just returned from a vacation in Spain. It was my first time
in that country, but one of two trips I typically take overseas each
year for work and pleasure. I love the opportunity to observe new
customs, visit historic sites, meet new people, and try new foods.
In order to take in the scenery and mitigate stress, my companions
and I get around on public transportation. This year, that meant cabs,
planes, trains, subways, and buses. The experiences of the last two
weeks in queuing up, paying, and seeking assistance brought to mind
other such encounters in China and a number of U.S. and European cities.
I am cautious about generalizing from a single American viewpoint
based on snapshot experiences, but over the years, I’ve observed
significant differences in respect for space, orderliness, helpfulness,
patience, and trustworthiness, even within our own country. As I
reflected on my common daily interactions in Spain, I was reminded of
the dilemma of ethical relativism and the challenges that it presents in
ethics training and decision making.
At its essence, relativism suggests that there are no absolute
standards of proper behavior and that the decision of what is ethical or
acceptable is relative to individual or societal norms. By extension,
relativism can become a constraint on action — “Who am I to judge that
behavior? It may not be right for me, but who am I to say it is not okay
for someone else to act that way?”
These questions always arise in some form during ethical discussions
or ethics workshops. Sometimes they serve as a way to dodge the
imperative of moral courage (e.g., “Well, I wouldn’t treat my child that
way, but who am I to say that mother shouldn’t spank her misbehaving
child?”). At other times, concerns about the risks of ethnocentrism or
paternalism are offered in support of relativist approaches (e.g., “Why
do we think we know best? What is ‘right’ depends on the culture.”). A
third rationale questions the feasibility of achieving common moral
standards (e.g., “How can I know the circumstances that affect others?
Only those with intimate knowledge of another can say what is right.”)
When these discussions arise, I lean on the work of the Institute for
Global Ethics and others in trying to articulate the risks posed by
relativism, while acknowledging the legitimate concerns of tolerance,
context, and respect for differences.
The work of the Institute suggests that there are, in fact, common
values across cultures, including honesty, fairness, respect,
responsibility, and compassion. While there are exceptions to these
values and differences in the ways that they are operationalized, that
doesn’t diminish the very presence of underlying shared principles upon
which the diversions are based. Authors such as those cited in the “For
further information” listing below carefully deconstruct the arguments
for pure relativism (and pure absolutism), pointing out commonly held
values on the rights to property and prohibitions against murder, even
in the midst of wide global variations in the circumstances in which
theft or homicide may be justified.
Clearly the customs associated with public transportation are less
vital concerns than life and death, but they offer an opportunity to
test the merits of culture in weighing right and wrong.
How then does one explain the differences in the way that an 18-inch
space between people in a ticket line are handled in different countries
or regions? Are these differing definitions of fairness and respect? Or
do some groups or individuals simply reject the value of fairness
When an older adult with a cane or a youngster with crutches gets on
board a bus, do other passengers offer seats to them or do they avert
their eyes? Do they vacate special handicapped-reserved seats for those
with obvious disabilities? What then is the definition of responsibility
or compassion in these circumstances?
My subway musings on relativism suggest that cultural norms are
neither irrelevant nor deterministic of ethical behavior. Instead,
individuals internalize shared values but act on them in ways that are
congruent with the people around them, based on culture, customs, and