Teaching Cross-Cultural Ethics in a Context of Pluralism and Multiculturalism: Teaching Where Religion and Ethics Intersect

By Bretzke, James T. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Teaching Cross-Cultural Ethics in a Context of Pluralism and Multiculturalism: Teaching Where Religion and Ethics Intersect


Bretzke, James T., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Introduction

Some time ago, when I was sitting in on a middle school theology class at a private Catholic school, I noticed prominently displayed on one wall a familiar poster on the "Golden Rule" as found in thirteen world religions, from Christianity to Zoroastfianism. Having some familiarity with several of these traditions, I found the poster to be essentially accurate, and certainly the more the Golden Rule is known and practiced is all to the good. I also would acknowledge that there is a definite place for some measure of comparative ethics in all levels of our curricula, but I have become convinced that this approach alone is seriously deficient on several fronts and ultimately does not advance us much beyond a certain superficial politically correct tolerance on one hand or articulating what I have termed elsewhere a "lowest common denominator" (LCD) ethics. (1) As any mathematician will tell you, finding the LCD is often a vitally important first step in solving more complex problems, but its discovery alone will hardly result in the ethical equivalent of a string theory for human rights, not to mention resolving the more modest challenges posed by the reality of multiculturalism and pluralism that exists in virtually every classroom today.

I begin then with a very brief discussion of what I mean by "cross-cultural ethics" and will then outline my own approach, termed "cross-fertilization," which builds on the metaphor of hybridization. This both helps students come together to discover the ethical perspectives of the cultural "other" and helps them to become more deeply aware of how their own "global pre-scientific convictions" (Karl Rahner) and Fundamental Values and Root Paradigms (Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, et al.) shape their ethical worldviews, which are necessarily conditioned by the dynamics of ethnocentrism. (2)

Cross-Cultural Ethics

Cross-cultural ethics differs from the established academic sub-discipline of comparative ethics in both its object and its methodology. Comparative ethics is usually undertaken in one of two ways: either as an investigation of a different culture's mores, belief systems, and the like (often done within the discipline of cultural anthropology), or as an "ethical" treatment of an issue from a supposedly "neutral' (or "universalist" or "global") stance. Thus, comparative ethics in the first version is pursued chiefly as an object of academic "interest," while comparative ethics in the second instance often aims at the establishment of some common philosophical platform for discussion and/or possibly "adjudication" of concrete ethical issues that seem to involve many if not all contemporary cultures. (3) Much of the work in the so-called globalization of ethics and human rights, as the language of universal morality, exemplifies comparative ethics in the second instance. (4) Unfortunately, these approaches and "projects" have raised a number of significant questions (5) regarding its methodology and implicit conceptions of "culture," as well as the nettlesome issue of attempting to "compare" different cultural ethics from a standpoint that itself is never "acultural" and therefore can never claim to be completely "neutral." (6)

Leaving aside for the moment the debate between "comparative" versus "cross-cultural" ethics or the viability of a globalization of ethics project, let me suggest that cross-cultural ethics involves both a somewhat different object of inquiry and a concomitant methodology. First, cross-cultural ethics stresses more the concept of culture and many of its related aspects--such as how ethos and ethnocentricity interact in particular ethical systems of moral reflection, enculturation, or socialization and the process of cross-cultural interaction termed "acculturation," which can at times become quite violent and which nearly always results in changes in all the parties involved in these interactions. …

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