As communication technologies advance, so does our exposure to what is going on in other cultures around the world. Most business today is conducted internationally, between different nations with different cultural beliefs. So, given a world of conflicting beliefs, how should we think about legality and morality this diverse, global context? First of all, let's acknowledge that many differences between cultures are "matters of taste," that really have no moral relevance; such as rules governing food, clothing, hair style, music, or art. However, sometimes enforcing rules that govern "matters of taste" cross over in the domain of ethics. For example, cannibalism is NOT just a matter of taste. But how do we draw those lines between ethics and taste? Let's also recall that there is a difference between legality and morality . Just because X is legal in a certain culture, doesn't mean that its moral and visa verse. So in this blog let's focus on morality...not legality. I suggest that there are three (longstanding) philosophical positions that dominate debates over moral rules in a global context: Objectivism, Relativism, and Skepticism. Let's look at them one at a time.
MORAL OBJECTIVISM: There are at least some universally, objective moral rules that comprise global morality Many philosophers call these moral universals "hyper-norms." However, exactly what counts as a hyper-norm is a matter of philosophical debate. So if you are traveling around the world, or if you are conducting business in another culture what moral rules, if any, do you obey? If you are an objectivist, your rule of thumb would be: “When in Rome, do what’s right.” But how do you "know" what's right? Historically there are two theories that are often invoked to justify objectivism: Kantian Ethics (act on universal rules)and Utilitarianism (act based on positive utility ratios).
Kantian Ethics is based on one rule, The Categorical Imperative (or the "Golden Rule"), which argues that there are some timelessly universal rules that are true (and have always been true or justified) and that those rules trump any individual or cultural beliefs that violate those rules. The basic Kantian position is that all human beings (or persons) are beings endowed with rationality and free will. Thus (at a bare minimum) all rational, competent adults deserve to be treated with dignity. One formulation of Kant's categorical imperative states that we should "always treat persons as ends and never as means." Ultimately...that's what dignified treatment entails. Thus, slavery is universally wrong because it "treats persons as means and not ends," and therefore ALWAYS is a violation of universal human rights.
So if there is a violation of universal rights, what is our duty? Kant would argue that if you KNOW that X is morally wrong (violates universal human rights), then you have positive duty to intervene, regardless of the costs of that intervention. However, some interventions are more likely to be successful than others. Kant really doesn't help us decide which intervention to pursue. Another problem with Kantian Ethics is that universal moral rules often conflict with other universal moral rules based on rationality. There are many classic conflicts that arise in the context of Kantian Ethics: beneficence v. utility, utility v. justice, liberty v. utility etc.
Utilitarian Ethics argues that cost-benefit analysis provides a timelessly, universal moral standard. Rule utilitarians argue that some moral rules (actually) express timelessly universal utility functions; that is, some rules (ultimately) lead to positive utility functions (love thy neighbor) and some rules always lead to negative utility functions (steal from your neighbor). Slavery poses a challenge to any ethical theory. A rule utilitarian would argue that slavery is timelessly and universally wrong because the costs (always have and always will) outweigh the benefits. Costs to slave-owners include: feeding and clothing slaves, training them, maintaining their health, and preventing them from escaping. In contrast to Kant's call for duty-based moral intervention, utilitarians would argue that you do not (necessarily) have a positive duty to forcefully intervene if the costs of that intervention outweigh the benefits, or if intervention is futile. For example, U.S. intervention in China over most human rights violations has proven to be (mostly) futile. One might argue that the protection of human rights in China would require aggressive intervention or warfare. But war with China may not be winnable. Therefore the best (and only) strategy for improving human rights in China (over the long run) might be to argue to Chinese leaders that specific rights violations cost more to China than the benefits are worth. For example, we might point out to China that it's one-child policy per family is too expensive to monitor and enforce, and that it has resulted in the abortion of most females. Consequently, China is now experiencing the "unanticipated consequence" of having greatly imbalanced in sex ratios. Hence, most males (especially in rural areas) will never be able to date a woman, get married, or have kids. Ultimately, China figured that out and is no longer enforcing that one-child policy as much.
The problem with utility is that cost-benefit analysis can be enormously complex, and experts often disagree over whether certain future ratios will turn out to be positive or negative. Thus, cost-benefit analysis is often invaded by both positive and negative unanticipated consequences. Are the utility ratios of capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, or the drug war positive or negative. Wars are notoriously complex and wrought with unanticipated consequences.
MORAL RELATIVISM: There are no universal, rationally objective rules that
govern global ethics. There are culturally-bound moral standards, but no
universal hyper-norms. So if you travel worldwide, and the culture that you are visiting has different moral rules, then what do you do. The rule of thumb for cultural relativism is: “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” There are three forms of relativism: historical relativism, cultural relativism, and individual relativism.
Historical relativism observes that ethics is relative to time and place, and therefore, one cannot compare the moral views of past with that of the present. For example, historical relativists argue that during the early 19th century, slavery was morally acceptable (or even good) but today it is wrong. Therefore, we can't justifiably blame plantation owners. In short, historical relativists deny the timelessness of ethics. "The Good" changes over time.
Cultural relativism states that, ultimately, ethics is a matter of cultural agreement. If any culture (at any given time or place) believes that x is good and y is bad, then that's the standard. In short, ethics is a matter of social agreement. So if I disagree with what my culture says is wrong, then I'm wrong. If one culture believes that slavery is morally acceptable...then it is (as a matter of fact) acceptable within that culture. Thus, the views of one culture cannot trump the views of any other culture. Relativists call moral intervention in other cultures "cultural imperialism." Therefore, the virtue associated with cultural relativism is toleration. So if a given culture believes that the enslavement of women and/or children for sexual purposes is morally acceptable, then relativists argue that we have a negative duty to not interfere. All culturally based moral beliefs are incommensurable. Just because Western cultures have moral rules against sex slavery, doesn't mean that all cultures must accept those rules. Ethics, therefore, is contextual. Our views on sex slavery are incommensurable with their views. So, the cultural relativist's rule of thumb is: "When in Rome, do as the Romans Do."
So if you want to own a sex slave (or two) go to another country. The problem here is that if you take a vacation in Thailand to have sex with children, make sure that the rest of us don't find out... bad things might happen to you.
Individual relativism holds that morality is whatever an individual believes it is. Therefore, there are no hyper-norms or cultural norms. If an individual believes that murder, theft, lying, cheating, and slavery are morally acceptable, and I believe they are not...there is no contradiction. In other words, ethics is entirely a matter of "individual taste".... like food. The problem here is that ethics is about living in groups and individual relativism doesn't address that issue. And, as a matter of fact, if you murder, steal...etc. other individuals and cultures will hold you morally and/or legally blameworthy. So let's forget about individual relativism for now.
MORAL SKEPTCISM: There are no rationally objective moral rules either within
cultures or between cultures. Morality is "in the interest of the stronger;" that is, the exercise of the
strong over the weak. “Might makes right.” or “When in Rome, do whatever you can
get away with.” Most philosophers that I know acknowledge that this is a real problem and that it's very difficult to disprove. For now, let's focus on either objectivism and relativism.
both objectivism and relativism pose serious philosophical problems. Does the U.S. have a positive duty to defend universal human rights all over the world, even if it entails costly military intervention? Do impoverished
nations governed by corrupt, totalitarian military regimes that harm their
citizens, have a right to exist free from external moral condemnation and/or intervention?
The libertarian view on global ethics involves all of the above. First of all, the only moral rule that all libertarians are obliged to accept is the non-aggression axiom or the "harm principle." More on this in a subsequent blog.