Can we Ever Find Truly Universal Ethical Guidelines?

A TFN exclusive by Soraj Hongladarom (Edited by Jared Bielby)

The attack at the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris a few months ago reignited a debate which has engaged philosophers for millennia. The debate centers on whether there exists the possibility of finding a set of truly universal ethical guidelines, the type of guidelines that would settle once and for all universal ethical “truth” to which every nation and culture worldwide would then have to subscribe.

Rafael Capurro has written a very good piece on Charlie Hebdo, published herein at the Freelance Netizen. In summary, Capurro contends that there must remain a continuing debate and discussion around the issue where all parties involved are allowed to voice their view equally. I certainly agree with his assessment. Perhaps said parties might be able to come to terms with “truly universal” guidelines towards the end of such debate and discussion. In a utopian situation we would not need trouble ourselves with the search for truth; we would have established our universal ethical guidelines and the only remaining task would be to apply those established principles to actual day-to-day life.

However, even if in the end we fail to establish such guidelines, it does not follow that ethical discourse remains altogether unattainable. We must learn to make do with what discursive resources we have, collectively, in order to co-exist. Such goals do not completely elude us, and we are not helpless in the matter. After all, we human beings are intellectually resourceful creatures. We would not have survived all the vicissitudes that nature has thrown at us if the case were otherwise. The Charlie Hebdo incident is indicative of a larger conflict and is only a tip of an iceberg, a manifestation of a hugely complicated set of related problems that span centuries of human-to-human interaction. The typical way we humans deal with difficult cultural conflicts such as those represented by the Charlie Hebdo incident is piecemeal. A focus is placed on making gargantuan problems manageable, but there is no effort given to solving the problems at their root cause. Such “Band-Aid” approaches to conflict, where we address issues piece by piece rather than holistically, are based in a collective denial that perpetuates a false belief that our differences will eventually work themselves out. History, however, proves otherwise. Differance defines humanity at its core whether in regard to the differances that divide two individuals or those that divide cultures. The real question is whether or not a successful elimination of these differances, and indeed of conflict itself, is even desirable.

A big obstacle toward understanding the conflicts of epistemological diversity lies certainly in the conceptual issue of the possibility of universal ethics. Perhaps instead of looking for a common language that some hope will cover all the divergences of normative thought based on diverse cultures, we might do better to search for a kind of language that actually belongs to the foundation of all cultural tradition - that common language being mythology and tradition - and let it develop in such a way that the process earns respect among the global community of cultures and nations. Such a venture will inevitable be fraught with dangers and pitfalls. How shall we begin the task? Do we once again go along piece by piece? Do we play it safe?

Such piecemeal and safe methodologies seems to define our current attempts at intercultural communication. And what of our seeming inability to reflect on our own culturally engrained presumptions? Take for example the usual presumptions that underscore conversation around human rights, a conversation usually couched in putatively universal language where the suppositions for the existence of human rights are neither questioned nor affirmed. To make matters worse, we anticipate that the whole world needs accept this language; that all cultures should fall under the thumb of our unquestioned and presumed “universal ethics”. Certainly we are more clever than that. We must, of course subscribe to the intent of the language of human rights; the language was drafted for the best interest of everyone in the world. But when we attempt to incorporate the idea of human rights into language that is endemic to each particular tradition, we falter. The task is not an easy one to sort out, though many scholars and philosophers are, all the same, attempting the approach. I think they are on the right track.

How is such a task accomplished? In the same way, for example, that western legal systems are prejudiced by, and founded on, western mythologies and belief systems, and indeed even secular westerners are partisan to those traditions without realizing it, so too must we all recognize that all cultures are built similarly on their own mythological foundations, foundations that are equally subsumed by law. Instead of talking about human rights in assumed (unquestioned) legalistic terms, rather a recognition of tradition as foundational to all understanding might achieve the same goal. By couching our conversation about human rights in an understanding and awareness of the influence of traditional narratives and myths as the only true foundation to ethics rather than a belief in an elusive “universal”, we open ourselves up to an informed dialogue. And while of course our traditional myths must be somewhat tempered by prudence, we must also be careful not to lose our cultural identities or to remove ourselves from the connections to our myths, cultural origins and traditions. If we can do this, then we can find a way of achieving an equitable pluralism among cultures without having to abandon our roots and identities.

This brings us back to our original question: Can we every truly find a set of universal ethical guidelines to govern a global citizenship? Perhaps, someday, far down the line. But we cannot hedge our bets on such possibilities since we have to co-exist together now. We are forced to live alongside each other in an imperfect and increasingly borderless world where we must devise ever new ways of mutual edification and cultural coexistence where together, as a species, we thrive, just as we have in many ways already done for tens of thousands of years.

Soraj Hongladarom

Department of Philosophy

Chulalongkorn University

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