Navigating Cultural Differences in Ethics

The Western left are often criticised for their tolerance of certain acts by individuals of other cultures, when they would not tolerate the same acts from those within their own culture. A recent example of this can be found in the reaction to the Cologne attacks on New Years’ Eve. Reportedly, approximately 1000 men of Arab and North African origin sexually assaulted women enjoying the New Year festivities. The focus on the ethnicity of the perpetrators of the crime put feminists and other liberals in an interesting conundrum: wishing to condemn the act, whilst also not wishing to fuel the rising racism that emerged due to the focus on the attackers’ origins. This fear of cultural insensitivity might have contributed to the German media’s failure to cover the attacks for several days.

The traditionally right-wing Telegraph (linked above) was astounded at what it perceived as attempts by liberals to cover the incident up – so reluctant were they, reportedly, to imply that the men’s background could have had some part in the attacks. This particular commentary puts the violence down to “…a belief system which forbids a woman to move and dress as she pleases …In order for male pride to be salvaged, the temptress can be humiliated and terrorised, thus restoring power and dominance to where it properly belongs – the man.”. However, the paper’s accusations of wilful avoidance by the left were not entirely founded; feminists did respond to the attacks, one group countering: “Sexism and sexualised violence must not be portrayed as a problem solely existent amongst certain ethnicities”. The conundrum lies here: in reporting all the facts, it is notable and interesting that all attackers were from a different culture – but would culture have been of note if they were, for instance, white Germans?

This is a question which is highly complex, and which cannot be answered easily. Of course, in Germany, a ‘western’ country, sexual assault and rape are unacceptable, always: the culture dictates that they are wrong, and perpetrators will be punished, regardless of sex, age or ethnicity. In this sense, the left are correct in saying that the attackers’ race and culture are irrelevant – because, operating within a Western arena, the act is seen as morally wrong, and its status as a crime is not up for debate. What the right seem to be highlighting, however, is a concern that certain people are more predisposed to do acts that the West condemns, because these acts of sexual violence do not meet the same levels of stigma in their cultures. These concerns may or may not be true, but what is important in thinking about these issues in a general way, is to recognise that there is such a theory as cultural relativismthat there is not such thing as universal truth in ethics; there are only the various cultural codes, and nothing more” – that is, what the West sees as wrong, could be seen as acceptable elsewhere. Right and wrong are not necessarily universal and it is foolish to argue that culture does not affect one’s world view.

Of course, it is still xenophobic to bar certain cultures from a particular area simply on the grounds of a suspected predisposition for a certain behaviour: particularly if that behaviour will be legally dealt with. Furthermore, generalised impressions of cultural attitudes cannot predict the actions of individuals reliably. However, the concern might remain if one cares about the treatment of those outside the morals and culture one personally agrees with. If, for example, the Telegraph article is correct about how Muslim/North African/Arab men treat women (something which this article will not attempt to argue either way), should a person’s compassion extend to the women in countries where this treatment is ‘acceptable’? A drive to impose Western ethics on developing countries is known as ‘moral neo-colonialism’ and often fought on the grounds of fear of the destruction of different cultures, as Heather Widdows observes. This is a problem because, as noted above, one cannot objectively judge the ‘rightness’ of their own morals. Widdows goes on to note that ethicists have found evidence of differing ethical structures across the world, thus meaning that the fear of moral neo-colonialism is not entirely unfounded. Western cultures have an individualistic ethical view that informs their ‘human rights’, in opposition to the community-driven Asian and developing world ideologies. Thus, she concludes, in order to impose a universal moral code – the ultimate solution to supposedly clashing attitudes on various acts – “radical ethical rethinking is required. Without such thinking then the dangers of ethical imperialism are unlikely to be avoided and the charges of moral neo-colonialism proved true”.

Of course, such a long-term, almost idealistic solution does little to help a person conflicted over whether they should condemn actions done within others’ cultures that they would ordinarily deem morally wrong. On an individual scale then, perhaps the easiest solution is to take a stance on issues, universally oppose or advocate them, and remain sensitive to views coming from the cultures one might criticise as a result. For governments, the situation is more difficult: they surely have the right to uphold their population’s ethical stance in their own country, but issues of sensitivity are more complex. Where an individual might apologise to someone they offended through criticism, a government might find it more difficult to take back a moral overhaul of another country. Where a person might once overlook a single offence, unsure whether they should criticise it, a government might stand by while atrocities take place, not utilising the power they have to stop them. Universal ethics might be the ultimate solution, but the possibility of creating them remains to be seen.

[Tim Minchin eloquently demonstrates how a person might choose to judge others based on deeds, not culture, race, sex, age, disability etc.]



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