Considering Ethics in Our Professional Development

Sylvia Cowan

I am delighted that we as professionals working in fields across cultures are engaged in this dialogue about ethics. Conversations between those of us committed to similar goals yet with a variety of experiences can only enlarge our thinking about this key issue. Consensus may not be the point, but rather a worthy exploration together!

Ethics is not just a matter of reason and careful consideration, but engages our thoughts, beliefs, values, and feelings. We form “habits”—habits of mind, habits of behavior and expectations, most often based on what we see around us and experience in our worlds. What we take intuitively to be “right” is often because we are “used to it,” because it seems “natural.” Intuitions and “habits” regarding gender roles, social class, moral behavior, crimes and punishments, rites of passage--all are deeply embedded in our notions of right and wrong. This makes even the best-intentioned dialogue difficult. Values are essentially contestable.

Can we develop habits of coexistence,* while continuing the conversation among those with diverse perspectives, conversations essential to increasing our understanding of our alignment in the world? The relativist position of “agreeing to disagree” stops the conversation and the exploration of what it means, in the larger sense, to be human.

How can we identify points of departure—foundational elements—to open the dialogue, without being so general as to become meaningless? I share a few thoughts for consideration.

  • A belief in the dignity of all human beings, that everyone deserves respect as a person;
  • An acknowledgment of the imperfection of the knowledge each of us possesses;
  • A recognition that diverse perspectives are not only desirable, but essential to approaching understanding of the whole;
  • Dynamic dialogue and conversation across boundaries help us “get used to each other” and find meaning in our worlds;
  • PEOPLE matter. We are a social species, with obligations to our circle of family, friends, community—and, increasingly, to strangers.

In our current work at Lesley University’s Master’s of Intercultural Relations, as we prepare professionals in intercultural fields (both experienced adults who wish to hone their skills and effectiveness, and new professionals entering a variety of fields of practice) we have identified core competencies, goals we strive to attain throughout the program. We build on the process of dialogue, exploration, curiosity, respect, dignity. We have woven throughout the curriculum both content, interaction, research, and experiential learning designed to help us all hone our skills and increase our understanding and effectiveness in a pluralistic context. As well, we confront impediments to that dialogue—limitations in our own understanding, differences in language(s), concepts of ethics, unexamined habits, fear, and how we come to understand who we are. A shared language may be a necessary, though not sufficient, aspect of constructive dialogue.

Our core curriculum expresses our best efforts toward these goals. Here I mention some of the ways we engage the question of moral differences. We reflect on our own values, habits, and worldviews. We develop curiosity about unknown “others,” real people, their histories, their contexts, the forces interacting on and impacting their lives. If it is true that “we only care about those with whom we share an identity” (Appiah, 2006, p. 98), then “strangers” must become real people—co-inhabitants of our worlds. Through experiences in and out of the classroom, we seek feedback from diverse others on our behavior. Difficult conversations raise awareness that perceived and genuine moral differences exist, and awake curiosity about the nature of our sense of moral differences with others. We seek to understand the source(s) of morality—whether religion, moral reason, traditions, universal moral instincts, learned patterns.

In intercultural worlds we are on a life-long journey of learning, through dialogue, conversation, curiosity, conflict, imaginative engagement, connection, finding shared identities and aspirations. Through that, we may continue to discover and effect awareness of aspirations that inform our evolution as human beings striving toward an elusive but visionary image of the best that we can become. The journey is stimulating, and purposeful. I am confident that these conversations will elevate our sense of ethics in our professions and our everyday lives. I look forward to the continuing dialogue.

* My understanding of ethics has been significantly influenced through the writings of Kwame Anthony Appiah (Cosmopolitanism, NY: Norton, 2006), along with conversations with faculty and students from many different backgrounds and experiences. Thanks especially to Dr. Jay Jones for his thoughtful discussion of these topics.

Sylvia Cowan is Professor and Program Director of the Intercultural Relations Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences at Lesley University, USA. She is co-editor (with Tuyet-Lan Pho and Jeffrey N. Gerson) of Southeast Asian Refugees and Immigrants in the Mill City: Changing Families, Communities, Institutions—Thirty Years Afterward (University Press of New England, January 2008). She directed training services and developed international networks of trainers for two major intercultural consulting firms serving Fortune 500 companies. She consults for organizations on intercultural management, organizational development, conflict transformation, and change processes. She is passionate about promoting life-long learning and understanding among people with different world views and experiences.

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