Ethics and Morals and Cultural Values

Ethics and Morals and Cultural Values

February 12th, 2011 // 6:27 pm @

Inspired and infuriated in equal measure by this week’s Moral Maze (BBC Radio 4, 9 February 2011) on Multiculturalism — a fact that is indicative of just how good the programme is — I have been reflecting on two aspects of the discussion that were, to my way of thinking, conspicuous by their absence — a lack of clarity between ethical principles and their moral application, and our need to go beyond pluralism and cultural integration in the UK.

The discussion reflected on the Prime Minister’s statement last week that “State Multiculturalism has failed…” because we, in the UK, have ”…failed to provide a vision of society to which they want to belong.”

The “they” in question referred to Muslim organisations in receipt of public funds, which, said the Prime Minister, do little to tackle extremism.

“We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways, which run counter to our values.”

A genuinely liberal country “believes in certain values and actively promotes them“, Mr Cameron said.  “Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights, regardless of race, sex or sexuality.

“It says to its citizens: This is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things.”

He said that under the “doctrine of state multiculturalism”, different cultures have been encouraged to live separate lives, and he argued that the UK needs a stronger national identity.

The Moral Maze called witnesses to put their points of view for and against the UK experience of state multiculturalism, and much of the ensuing polemic centred on the simultaneously conflicting aspects of fairness.  The panel had difficulty with the ethical paradox of equality — fairness for all — and equity — fairness for each — being of equal validity at the same time.

The human right to self-determination — autonomy — is another ethical principle, but it was in the area of cultural values that the Moral Maze panel also didn’t connect the simultaneously conflicting need for autonomy — individuation — and homonomy — sameness.

I understand that ethical principles are statements of absolute value and universal worth.  I believe in the list of classical ethical principles and their application in the therapeutic boundaries of transactional analysis (McGrath, 1994), and I believe that they apply equally well to coaching.  In addition to those I’ve mentioned — equality, equity and autonomy — they include:

  • Nonmaleficence — do no harm
  • Beneficence — do good
  • Fidelity — keep promises
  • Veracity — tell the truth.

Ethics are not the same as values or mores.  What I value may be different to what you value.  One organisation’s core values may be different to those of another.  Similarly, morality is a social construct that is peculiar to its culture and its acceptance by any family, community, organisation or society.  Drinking alcohol in Islamic countries, sex before marriage, homosexuality, a woman’s right to choose, euthanasia, tax avoidance, world poverty and a response to climate change are all examples of moral issues, distinct from ethical principles.  Morality is the application of ethics, and it is within a moral context that ethics can only be applied.

This semantic difference is important.  When my Muslim coachee says, “Insha’Allah” — “God willing” — at the end of every statement of intent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is discounting his autonomy — his ability to make decisions and take actions.  Rather, it means that he may be holding that autonomy in a frame of moral reference that cannot conceive of his own free will without it being granted by a higher power.

The implication of this difference for the Moral Maze discussion is that the issue is not about the rights and wrongs of why “State Multiculturalism has failed.” It is rather that we, as a society have ”…failed to provide a vision of society to which they want to belong.”

The questions that I wanted the Moral Maze to engage with were, “What is it about our need for sameness that makes the individuation of other cultures intolerable?

“Why is it that we are not content with pluralism — a diversity of cultural values — but seek integration?”

Integration ought to be the best of both.  Often, however, it is a compromise that leads to over-adaptation.

“I am I, and you are you.  If I am I because you are you, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

The challenge is to go beyond integration to leverage cultural unity out of diversity.  Perhaps we need another Moral Maze to discuss how to work towards the best of both plus?



McGrath, G., Ethics, Boundaries and Contracts: Applying Moral Principles, TAJ, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp 6-14, Jan. 1994.

Category : Featured Blogs &Intercultural

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