Ethics and the Limits of Cultural Diversity 

Alan Richter, Ph. D., President of QED Consulting

One of the most important developments in ethics for Sietarians is the emergence of global ethical standards that cut across cultural differences. Looked at across the vast era of human existence, global ethical standards are a very recent phenomenon. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for example, is a mere 64 years old. This emerging phenomenon does not eliminate cultural differences, but does place a limit on the extent to which we can argue for cultural relativity. 

This in no way diminishes the importance of cultural differences but it does provide a limit to what can be deemed acceptable under the header of cultural diversity. One common example that has been discussed in this context is the practice of female genital cutting (also called female genital mutilation or FGM). The argument goes that diverse cultural practices are perfectly fine, unless they cross the line of some “universal” principle – in this case – harm to the integrity of a girl’s body and a violation of human rights. In other words, there is no absolute freedom with regard to cultural rituals – they must fall within the bounds of universal ethical standards to be acceptable… and FGM does not. Recall also the foot-binding practice in China which was a common custom only a century ago. Today it has disappeared and would certainly be regarded as ethically unacceptable.

Rather than dwell on rituals like these, another approach to focus on the globalization of ethical standards is to examine the constitutions of the world in a comparative manner. If global ethical standards emerge from a comparative study, that would also point to the limitation of cultural diversity or total cultural relativity – again, not that we don’t want to embrace and promote cultural diversity – but simply that it is not absolute, if varied cultures around the globe share some ethical standards that do not accept that “anything goes”. So, for example, if we look at the rights of women, according to a recent study (“The Evolution and Ideology of Global Constitutionalism”, by David S. Law and Mila Versteeg, 2010, California Law Review, Vol. 99-1163) back in 1946 (just prior to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) only 35% of the world’s constitutions included that right, while by 2006, 91% of the world’s constitutions had it included. This suggests that, at least from a legal standpoint, safeguarding women’s rights (especially that of equal treatment and freedom from discrimination) has only recently emerged as a global standard. The implications for culturally acceptable behavior with regard to treatment of women worldwide has therefore narrowed.

These examples reinforce the importance of global or “trans-cultural” bodies that set those ethical standards for the world, and allow cultural variations within those standards, but are there to deal with any crossing of the ethical lines that we, as a global community, draw. Consider climate change… in the same legal study referenced above, back in 1946 not one national constitution provided the right to a healthy environment, but that right has grown from 0% in 1946 to 63% of all the world’s national constitutions by 2006. The world is struggling to establish standards around carbon emissions, given the threat to human survival. Any standards agreed upon will necessarily be “trans-cultural” – meaning that current culturally acceptable behaviors (e.g., around fossil fuel use, recycling, etc.), might need to be reformed to address this global challenge. 

Alan Richter, Ph.D., is the president of QED Consulting, a 24-year-old company based in New York. As a pioneer in the global diversity & inclusion field he has worked closely with many multinational corporations and governmental not-for- profit organizations in Africa, Asia and Europe and North America. His areas of expertise are leadership, values, culture and change.

Dr. Richter is the creator of the training tools Global Diversity Game©, the Global Diversity Survey© – a self-assessment tool which measures how we deal with difference, and the Global Leadership Survey© – a global leadership style self-assessment tool.

Dr. Richter is on the Board of the South African American Chamber of Commerce. He holds an M.A. and a B.A.B.Sc. from the University of Cape Town, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Birkbeck College, London University.

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