Morality and Culture

Dr. Bossypants in disguise, exchanging ideas about ethics with Tibetan school counselors

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As a psychologist, professor, counselor educator, author, gardener, citizen, jogger, neighbor, mom, wife, sister and daughter, I have a lot of ethical and moral guidelines to pay attention to. These different identities matter to me, and I want to be considered a good representative of each group. (Cue applause from students, clients, spouse, children, readers, carrots and onions.) I also believe life itself is a gift, and we’re each meant to live good, fulfilled lives—authentic expressions of our unique selves.

Just as ethical practices and codes define a profession, moral rules define human culture. As soon as babies are born into their respective cultures, moral instruction begins. As children (and their consciences) develop, they become increasingly aware of the rules for conduct in their family, community, and society.

When I teach ethics, I ask students who taught them about right and wrong. Who taught them what to value, what to strive for, and who to strive to be? Some occasionally cite a religious authority, but the vast majority name parents, grandparents, siblings, or other family members. Sometimes, teachers or coaches make it on the list as well. These early figures are very influential.

Obviously, human morality intersects directly with multiculturalism. If behaving morally is part of the definition of being human, and at least some moral rules vary across cultures, cross-cultural encounters might be confusing or even disturbing. We may be tempted to dehumanize others or judge them as immoral. This brings us to this question:

Are there universal morals?

Humans are, to add a bit to the psalmist’s observations, fearfully, wonderfully, and diversely made. If there’s a Creator, it’s clear the Creator loves diversity. Cultures definitely have differing definitions of morality. But…if morality is intended to point us towards the best of what it means to be human, could we hope to find agreement across cultures regarding certain aspects of morality?

There are natural tensions between diversity and commonality that parallel the intellectual tension between relativism and absolutism. As someone once said, “Everything is relative, and of that, I am absolutely certain.”

Here’s what Dr. Bossypants thinks: As ethical grown-ups, we don’t need to deny our shared humanity in order to celebrate and honor diversity, and we don’t need to fear or minimize diversity as we recognize our commonality. This might seem contradictory, but that’s part of what it means to be fully human.

A moral life will encompass many uncomfortably paradoxical or contradictory situations, such as:

  • I excuse myself for not doing the right thing, but I don’t excuse others.
  • There are two “right” things to do, or none–the choice is between the lesser of evils.
  • If I do the right thing, I will hurt those I love.
  • The right thing to do will turn out to be wrong and harmful because of an inadequate judicial system or lack of funding.
  • If I tell the truth, I will hurt someone’s feelings or even endanger others.
  • Sometimes, something is the right thing to do in one culture, and the wrong thing to do in another. Thomas Jefferson said, “The same act, therefore, may be useful and consequently virtuous in one country which is injurious and vicious in another differently circumstanced.”

In moral matters, humans use both mind and heart. Some are inclined to set their moral compass by intuitions and a deep, gut level sense of morality. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Others use the human gift of rationality. They reason their way to a moral choice. Either way, the human condition is such that we will never achieve perfect consistency. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

In upcoming blogs, we’ll take a look at Dr. Bossypants’s shamelessly simplified take on various moral philosophies and how they might shed light on the task of being fully, wonderfully human.

For now, we’ll close with this great quote by Barry Lopez from his book Arctic Dreams:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind:  how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

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