Reflecting on the Eye on Ethics Series

Sandra M. Fowler

It is rare that the conflicts, difficulties and challenges in our work so clearly present themselves as ethical dilemmas that we know immediately that we must make an ethical decision. However, if we don’t see an issue as an ethical dilemma, we won’t enter an ethical decision making process. While character and virtue figure more prominently in an Eastern approach, deliberation is a more Western approach. For persons raised in a Western way of arriving at a reasoned ethical choice, circumstances and other people are very much involved. Values, an ethical sensitivity and moral intent inform the step-by-step, rational process to an ethical solution. Awareness of a set of guidelines, standards or aspirational principles such as the ones SIETAR USA is discussing can lead to better understanding and better solutions.

What is the difference between a Code of Ethics and a set of Aspirational Principles? Ethics Codes are rules of conduct whereas aspirational principles are linked to values and standards and behavior. Both Ethics Codes and Aspirational Principles address expectations of professional behavior. Developing a professional code of ethics almost always includes an adjudication program and enforcement process. It can take years to develop either a Code of Ethics or a set of Aspirational Principles so patience is paramount. And when it is finished, the next question: Is it time to make changes?

This set of essays by SIETAR members comprise a conversation—a dynamic way to keep ethics alive and well within the realm of interculturalists. They enhance the education process that is the foundation for a set of Aspirational Principles for interculturalists. SIETAR USA joins many other professions which have worked through this conversation. The American Medical Code of Ethics dates to 1847, the Hippocratic Oath with its famous “first do no harm” was the first true code of ethics (early 5th c. BCE) was predated by standards of practice written by ancient Egyptian physicians and the Code of Hammurabi with its 282 laws governing the behavior of occupying troops. These early codes had several concepts in common: be accountable (especially to those who taught you), tell the truth, and obtain consent. Despite a long history of ethical codes, as pointed out by Alan Richter in his essay, global ethical standards (exemplified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948) are a much more recent phenomenon. Working internationally as interculturalists do, means ethical considerations are vastly more complex.

These essays on ethics—a first in the history of SIETAR USA—raise more questions than they provide answers. These lively discussions about ethics and the thoughtful responses included in this body of work hold the potential to advance the field. Some of the inherent dilemmas or tensions that face interculturalists are addressed in these essays such as: certification, cultural relativism, diversity, client demands, and issues of power.

Are we ready to highlight ethical behaviors and standards for the intercultural arena/field? Robert Hayles comments that the lack of formal “Certification” is not a barrier to establishing a benchmark of ethical standards necessary for the field. Michael Tucker concludes that “the intercultural community and SIETAR are not prepared at this time to engage in a comprehensive process like the [Institute of Management Consultants]” however he offers four suggestions that SIETAR USA may be willing to do at this time.

What is the ethical responsibility for the outcomes of our work? Deborah Orlowski makes the point that much of the work we do is transformational and uses the metaphor of the mobile where everything moves when you touch one part. Laurence Romani and Betina Szkudlarek point out the familiar dilemma of selling an imperfect (too short) product versus not selling at all. They ask a series of questions ending by asking can we produce short and impactful training “without falling in the trap of a ‘doing business in China/ two-hour session’—and perpetuating what most of us fight against: clichés and over-generalized, stereotypical knowledge?”

Should we have a national voice? Christopher Deal asks us to tell our own stories to challenge what we are told by the media. We have an ethical obligation to educate people to the concept that they do not have a reason to fear or hate people simply because they are different. Alan Richter reminds us that “any standards agreed upon will necessarily be ‘transcultural’—meaning that current culturally acceptable behavior (e.g. around fossil fuel use, recycling, etc), might need to be reformed to address” global challenges.

Where do ethical principles come from? Some people look to their faith as a source for ethical principles. Sumaya Khalifa reminds us that ethical standards can derive from religion. Her Muslim faith provides a set of standards that support her work and that she feels are universal.

How can we honestly rid ourselves of bias? Self awareness and ethics are explored by Yoko Hisano. Her primary ethical foundation is knowing who she is and acknowledging that her past experiences and biases affect her interactions with others. Greater self awareness and a great deal of patience are the foundations for intercultural practitioners. This concept is echoed by Charmilla Kasper who also believes the paramount ethical principle for guiding intercultural practice is self awareness and “our own default worldview.” She feels that power imbalance is linked to critical self reflection. She concludes that “in continuously aspiring to be more inclusive via our approach, we hope to challenge and encourage those in the field to also become more self-aware, resilient and open to appreciating and navigating difference.”

Why does the intercultural field need a set of principles—what it would mean to interculturalists and to their work? Karen Haggerty and Michael Tucker both point out that ethical standards communicate to our clients and the general public what they can expect and that they will receive the highest levels of professional and ethical service. Potential clients want to know: Is this interculturalist knowledgeable and current? Is the person honest and trustworthy? Is the person ethical, sensitive, respectful? Is the person reliable and does what h/she says?

How can each of us address the hard ethical issues that are ubiquitous today (and historically) in intercultural relations? Kathryn Sorrells suggests that ethical intercultural praxis is “an on-going, situated process of self-other dialogue, reflection and action that is grounded in social justice.” She reminds us that the cultural frames of the intercultural field are rooted in Western, White perspectives. She asks for an “ethical praxis grounded in social and economic justice—not some abstract universal notion of justice—rather, a living breathing praxis situated in intercultural dialogue, reflection and nonviolent action.”

What is next? Sylvia Cowan and Naomi Ludeman-Smith in particular draw attention to the importance of holding conversations such as the ones begun in these essays. These two authors (among others) specifically challenge SIETAR USA members to join the rewarding conversation.

Each essay is a gem. Read them, ponder their ideas, become part of the conversation.

Sandra M. Fowler was a founding member of SIETAR USA, has served as President of SIETAR International and on the SUSA Board of Directors. She is a published author and widely known speaker. She chaired a SIETAR Ethics Task Force several decades ago and has retained her passion for ethical issues ever since.

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