Ethics and Culture

May 1, 2013

Ethics and culture
People who are challenged about the ethics of their conduct, sometimes respond by claiming that “it is my culture”, and the culture at issue may, for example, be “African culture”, “Afrikaner culture”, “Zulu culture”, or “Western culture”.

Can the ethics of our conduct be justified by an appeal to our culture? Does culture as such make something right? Is conduct ethical because it is my culture?

Emphatically not. We should ask quite the opposite question: Does our particular cultural belief (or culturally embedded conduct) pass the ethics test?

In other words, the ethics of my conduct should be judged in terms of the requirements of ethical values, and nothing else, certainly not a group’s cultural beliefs. And this is hardly surprising since ethics is about promoting individual and collective well-being.

Of course, a cultural belief may harmonise with the requirements of ethical values. Thus, my culture might not allow me to discriminate unfairly against people on the basis of irrelevant characteristics, such as gender in the selection of candidate airline pilots.

But then such non-discrimination would not be right because my culture says so. Rather, my culture would be right because it conforms to the ethical value of basic equality.

Consequently, if we consider cultural beliefs and practices that militate against ethical values, it becomes quite evident that culture alone could never be the arbiter of what is ethical.

Here are some random illustrations.

We now take a dim view of people who, in the past, appealed to their culture to justify slavery, or treating women as inferiors, or, for that matter, to justify apartheid.

In some cultures, in parts of northern and west Africa, female genital mutilation (cutting) is still prevalent. 

Customarily, an appeal is made to culture to justify this cruel and inhumane practice, thus affirming male superiority over women.

Pres Jacob Zuma may appeal to Zulu culture to justify ritual killings of animals that are accompanied by pain and suffering.

And, finally, there are some who justify tolerance of corruption because their culture requires loyalty to their brothers.

These practices are wrong, because they amount to cruelty against women, cruelty against animals, or condoning corruption. No appeal to culture can justify the ethically unjustifiable.

Those who, nevertheless, support such practices should ask themselves three questions:

• Are those practices consistent with the ethical values embedded in our constitution?
• Do you wish to build, or live in, a society in which those practices are the norm?
• Would you be happy being on the receiving end of those practices?

WA Landman, April 2013


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