The Influence of Culture, Ideologies, Religion and Political Boundary Determines Universal Bioethics

- Baby Joseph, Ph.D.
Loyola Institute of Frontier Energy,
Loyola College, Chennai, 600 034, India
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 152-156.


The term bioethics was coined by Van Rensselaer Potter (1971) who used it to describe his proposal that we need an ethic that can incorporate our obligations, not just to other humans but to the biosphere as a whole. The ecological crisis reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity facilitating cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains. The cognitive domain is a realm of reasonable thoughts and reflections over realities in nature with a balanced judgement. And it is a head level communication. The affective domain includes heart level communication, involving the feelings and the emotions on the biotic and abiotic realities in the nature. A healthy and desired level communication in this regard paves the way for emotional maturity and mental stability which leads to reverential feelings towards the Creator, creation, re-creator and the re-creation. The psychomotor domain reflects or recalls for a doing realm which is nothing but anthropocentric activities. The synchronization of the above three domains may foster a healthy interaction in such a way that it should lead to a 'ethico-eco-bio-anthropocentrism' which maintains a rita (order) based on the nature-divine-human interaction.


To achieve the above-mentioned goals, ecological responsibility stemming from freedom, law and conscience is a felt need and a must. Freedom from bondages, slavery, distortion and evil powers of nature may lead to freedom for higher and noble goals like eco-restoration, eco-balance and eco-harmony (eco-friendly approach). Any law irrespective of whether we refer to Natural law, Positive law, Moral law or Divine law (Spiritual law) may curtail freedom to a certain extent, but to ensure true freedom with safety and security. This enables human beings to lead a life of freedom with responsibility and responsible independence. But the conscience which is the ultimate court of ones moral decision, moral norms, values and attitudes, should deliberately guide the rational beings to lead an eco-friendly approach. For this, one should be supported by necessary policies, necessary authorities and guidance from resource persons and globally accepted ethical but scientific structures.

Influence of Culture

Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, customs and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (Taylor, 1891). This inclusive definition of culture highlights the socialization process which reinstates cultural values and traditions in the younger members of the society. Culture denotes historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed by means of which humans communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life (Clifford, 1966). From this definition it can be drawn that culture provides meaning to the thoughts and actions of the human beings. It also determines the perspectives towards individual and collective life. Thus culture is akin to a map. A map indicates various elements of a geographical region. Similarly culture depicts the varied environment of social and ethical life.

Cultural assimilation, integration and acculturation are processes through which the different groups of a society are blended into one unified whole. Cultural integration refers to the blending of cultural traits, which are originally conflicting to form a modified, integrated system. Cultural assimilation refers to the process by which individuals or groups take on the culture of the dominant society, including language, values and behaviour, as well as the process by which the groups are incorporated in to the dominant society. Acculturation is the process by which culturally distinct groups understand, adapt to and influence one another. Cultural alienation refers to 'a feeling of strangeness of separation from altruistic fellowship. Cultural alienation is an outcome of the dehumanization and political discrimination. Cultural conflicts occurs in a person or in a group when confronted with two or more contradictory cultural standards or practices both of which are partially acceptable and over which there are conflicting loyalties. Cultural conflicts also arise when cultural norms, that is the specified manner of behaviours are not conformed to or are violated.

Cultural diversity is a fact of human life. Cultural habits are shaped by geographical conditions, historic experiences and ongoing social process. Cultural habits are inherited from parents, painfully acquired through years of education and formation, thrust upon is by the media and other social influences. All cultures are imperfect human realities. Every culture needs to be healed of its dehumanizing elements. Denouncing injustice and restructuring society alone can not bring in permanent solutions to problems unless we are able to trace these evils to their cultural roots. It is pretty certain that some unfair value systems are embedded in a culture giving legitimacy to unjust structures. Such cultural aliments need healing. Good governance supports an ethical culture that promote social well-being.

Politics and Bioethics

In this age of ecological crisis the battle to save the earth will be a long drawn-out one. I believe that the forces we are fighting against are the global corporations which are wedded to a free market economy that is profit oriented, exploitative and brutal. The major agency that causes and aggravates the ecological crisis is the global capitalism operating through the International financial institutions and transnational corporations. The national as well as the regional economic and industrial powers, the media that act as disseminators of values, and political parties that derive fringe benefits from them, work to further the interests of these global powers. In the long run their short-term objective of maximum profit making is proving disastrous to the health and integrity of the earth's ecosystems. Hence a great urgency to preserve and nurture `Mother Earth' has been felt at every level of human enterprise, from politics to religion, from class rooms to parliaments. The politics of ideology and goal-oriented national and international programmes gradually gave way to politics of money, muscle power and gunpowder. Globalization clearly involves more than the transnational mobility of capital and the re-location of business. It equally involves the mobility and relocation of the people and even the entire populations. Under the pressure of the market and from the current political instabilities that cause large populations to migrate for humanitarian asylum. It is estimated that sixty to seventy million people today live outside their country of origin. They are looking for better living conditions. The inadequacy of the economic political attempts to come to grips with multi-cultural situations thus demonstrates the need also to consider the cultural and symbolic dimension of social function.

Weapon systems are among the most sophisticated artifacts our material culture has succeeded in producing. At the same time they are instruments of symbolic meaning whose social value is defined by ideologies through which statesman and ruling class claim the right to control organized force. The media today controls the minds through the broader context of the cultural hegemony exercised by the major dominant groups of society which collectively constitute the ruling elite. There is a need for an ideological and cultural environment that facilitates a movement towards total disarmament, ethical policies and peace. The ideal of a holistic and compassionate attitude to nature has not been able to transform our culture because of various factors,: dualistic philosophy, caste stratification, colonial domination, modern technocracy, corruption on the part of administrators and politicians, consumerist values, the eco-destructive idea of development and a lack of civic sense.

Ideologies in Bioethics

The field of environmental ethics deals with problems of ethics that are difficult to resolve. Various and conflicting ethical dichotomies pervade environmental problems and the policies used to resolve them. For example,

However, the ethical aspects of many environmental problems are not recognized fully by many environmental scientists, managers or public policymakers (Lemon, 1987, 1988). Environmental ethics is concerned with three areas of inquiry concerning the relationship with nature: Metaethics (clarification of key concepts and inquiry about the correct methods for answering moral questions); Normative ethics (determinations of valid moral principles and how we ought to act.); Empirical ethics (focuses on what facts are necessary and relevant to inform our moral questions). Environmental ethics seek re-unification of human beings with nature and it is both theoretical and applied. Traditions and world-views have influenced the human relationship with nature; the place of humans in nature; theories of value; the interests; rights and duties of individual; the moral standing non humans; and duties to future generations.

Paradigms of Environmental Ethics

The types of environmental ethics conform to one of two paradigms namely, Shallow ecology or deep ecology. Shallow ecology considers the values of nature to be instrumental to humans and it is strongly anthropocentric (Attfield, 1991). Because it emphasizes the relationships between individuals it is said to be atomistic includes: utilitarianism, deontic ethics, concepts of justice, concepts of freedom, theism theistic ethics, ethical egoism, Humanism and sentientism. We could define those as:

Utilitarianism: the central goal is the achievement of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Consequently, actions are said to be morally correct if they produce the greatest net balance of good over evil consequences.

Deontic ethics: emphasize the rights of the individual, and have a fundamental tenet that individual rights must not be violated, even in the interests of beneficial social consequences. Generally, theories of rights imply a duty not to violate the rights of others.

Concepts of Justice: Assumes the fundamental equality of individuals and therefore, focus on the questions of fairness in the distribution of costs and benefits when decisions are made above the environment.

Concepts of freedom: are used to minimize freedom from coercion, the presence of opportunities for choice, and civil liberties and democratic forms of governance.

Theism: Focuses on the roles of religious traditions and beliefs in guiding our environmental actions and the record of religious institutions in practicing the ideals they profess. Theistic ethics says certain facts about God determine what is morally right or wrong or right. Theistic ethics have been used as justification for the exploitative manipulation of nature, as for example when genesis attributes dominion over the rest of creation to human beings. It also suggests that humans have responsibility for the stewardship of nature. Most scholars doubt the influence of theistic ethics as a determinant of our relationship with nature.

Ethical Egoism: It is thought that it is able to serve as a guide for environmental ethics, assuming that an individual ascertains that it is in his or her own best interest to behave toward the environment according to ecological principles. Philosophers do not regard ethical egoism as a sufficient basis for environmental ethics.

Humanism or Personalism: Any duties to non humans or the environmental would be merely indirect duties toward humanity. This type of ethics holds that no way of treating the biotic or abiotic environment is morally obligatory or wrong. It does not require, but would permit, an exploitative approach to environmental management if such can be said to be in the best interests of humans. Alternatively it could require environmental protection if this is in the best interest of humanity. The successful application of this type of ethics is dependent up on humans having full knowledge of what is in their best interests, and the ability to ascertain sufficiently the instrumental values of nature and predict the impacts of their activities upon it. Such a burden of proof not likely to be met.

Sentientism: This approach maintains that the class of moral patients, include not only human beings but also all consciously sentient beings. This ethics recognizes that there are rights and wrong ways to treat human beings. The necessary qualifications are: capacity for suffering, pleasure, or consciousness. Accordingly, simple moral ground independent of ecological knowledge would confer obligation to non-humans, and hence provide additional environmental protection. The shallow ecology paradigm fosters the systematic application of technology to all levels of human activity and it inevitably leads to serious environmental degradation. This includes governmental and economic policies which favor growth as a central goal. Although it does not mandate obligations to nature per se, it does permit the protection of nature and in fact would mandate it if so doing would benefit what is alive, sentient human, personal or divine.

Deep Ecology contributes to the development of environmental ethics and it is more in tune with the biocentric viewpoint. It is concerned with the emphasize on the interdependence of the members of the biotic community, the importance of the species diversity for ecological stability , the finite limits of populations and the natural resources, and concern for long-term spatial and temporal effects. In the deep ecology paradigm everything can be considered either distributively or collectively.When living and non-living things are considered distributively, they are thought of separately and as moral patients in themselves. When things are considered collectively they are said to form a `holistic system'. What determines the rightness of our actions is said to be the effects of such actions on the character of the system. Consequently, individual moral patients per se are not considered morally relevant except in so far as they may affect the functioning of the system. Deep ecologists also believe that humans should not interfere with nature; instead, they should co-operate with it and maintain its beauty, integrity, and stability. This ethics also holds that, everything is morally relevant, but gives greater emphasis to undisturbed nature. Deep ecology attempts to establish the constraints on human activities in the principles of ecology. Maximization of the value of ecosystem components implies that the value of species is independent of their ecological roles. Fulfillment of the goals of deep ecology requires either that the human population be considerably below the ecological carrying capacity of the earth, so that environmental impact from human activities is minimal, or that techniques of holistic stress ecology be successfully applied, such that inadvertent human environmental impact is ecologically insignificant (Devall and Sessions, 1985).

Religion and Bioethics

Universal bio-ethics has its roots in religious ethical codes and scriptural value systems. All of the world's major faiths have, as integral part of their laws and traditions, teachings requiring protection of the environment, respect for nature and wild life, and, kindness to animals (Gore, 1992). Religion teaches that lack of respect for life leads to destruction rather than construction and life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be shared. Also reminds anthropogenic activity turned morality upside down and irreversible damage inflicted on creation is a scandal and a crime. Some examples of how religions might deal with bioethics include:

Christianity: There is nothing in the Bible that would justify our modern day policies and programmes that despoil the land, desecrate the environment, and destroy entire species of wild life (Regenstein, 1991). Such actions clearly violate God's commands to humans to 'replenish the earth', conserve natural resources, and treat animals with kindness; our actions also suborn God's instructions to the animals to 'be fruitful and multiply' and fill the earth. E.g., Mosaic Law speaks of the preservation of the fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19, Genesis 19: 23-25); agricultural lands (Leviticus 25:2-4); and wild life (Deuteronomy 22:6-7; Genesis 9). Numerous other biblical passages extol the wonders of nature (Psalms 19,24, and 104). The Ten Commandments says that farm animals be allowed to rest on the Sabbath. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses nature and pastoral imagery to illustrate his points and upholds the creatures of nature as worthy of being emulated. In stressing the lack of importance of material possessions such as fancy clothes, Jesus observes that 'God so cloths the grass of the fields' and cited wild flowers as possessing more beauty than any human garments ever could. 'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these' (Mathew 6: 28-30; Luke 12:27). In Luke 12:6 and Mathew 10:29 Jesus stress that even the lowliest of creatures is loved by God: 'Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. The vision of a new society by Jesus rooted in his people's sense of oneness and communication with nature and their partnership with God in caring for it. St. Paul says, 'all things were created in him and for him' (Colossians 1:14). 'God's plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth', that fullness of time when 'God will be all in all'. (Ephesians 1:10; Corinthians 15:28). St. Paul in his epistle to Romans places man as the crown of creation.

Judaism: holds ethical codes to prevent the suffering of living creatures and destruction of nature. The term tikkum olam means repairing the world indicates the reconciliation with nature. It considers animals and order of nature as manifestations of God's greatness and love for His creation (Berry, 1998).

Hinduism: All beings are manifestation of the essential Beings, called Brahman and ecological relationships unite organisms into a systemic whole (Naess, 1989). Hinduism unambiguously invites human beings to identify with other forms of life , for all life forms share the same essence. Believing that ones own inner self the atman , is identical , as an expression of Brahman , with the selves of all other creatures leads to compassion for them. The suffering of the one life form is the suffering of all others; to harm other being is to harm oneself. As a matter of fact, this way of thinking has inspired and helped to motivate one of the most persistent and successful conservation movements in the world, the Chipko Movement, which has managed to rescue many of India's Himalayan forests from commercial exploitation (Guha, 1989 b; Shiva, 1989). The antaryamin animates the entire cosmos and resides in the heart of all realities (Gita 15:15). The Bhagavat Gita advocates an integral spirituality that calls for a 'passionate' concern to bring about the welfare of all beings (Gita 12:4; 3:9-13).

The Vedic hymns and myths describe the earth as the mother and the streams of water as the life-giving veins, the sky as the father, and the air as the life-giving prana, the sun as the source of life-energy and fire as the supreme purifier. (Atharva Veda 12:1-63, Rg Veda 1-198.1,4. 40.5,3.62.10). The nourishing powers of nature are called 'gods' (deva), through which the light of the ONE is shining. The Vedic Injunctions of panch maha yagnas (five fold sacrifice) in response to the five fold debts (rna). With which a person is born, namely, debts to the material cosmos, to fellow human beings, to ancestors, to the vedic sages and to the gods, is primerly meant to remind us continually of the interrelationship of the various sectors of the cosmos and the gratitude we owe to each off these sectors. In the Upanishadic meditations one perceives the deep inter-relatedness of all beings in the one Atman that vibrates through every thing (Taitariya Upanishad 3:1; Isavasyo Upanishad 1:1) in the Isovasyopanisad (Radhakrishnan, 1971) we see that God created the visible and finite beings, and the creatures communicating themselves peacefully with the invisible in such a way that the earth or the cosmos is enveloped by God. In the Atharvaveda the earth is compared to a physician who cures the natural disorders in order to sustain the Rta of the universe harmoniously.

Islam: teaches that human beings have a privileged place in the nature. The Holy Quran speaks of the world and its beauty as the gift of God. Islamic version of stewardship based on Scripture says 'man is only a manager of the earth and not a proprietor, a beneficiary not a disposer' (Kadr et al., 1983). Also emphasize the need for a just distribution of natural resources in view of the present and future generations. And as Norton (1991) has argued, conservation goals are well served when future human beings are accorded a moral status equal to that of those currently living. God produced therein all kinds of things in due balance (Kadr et al.,1983).

Jainism: teaches that every living thing is inhabited by an immaterial soul, no less pure and immortal than the human soul. Bad deeds in the past lives, however, have crusted these souls over with Karma-matter. Ahimsa (non injury of all living beings) and asceticism (eschewing all forms of physical pleasure ) are parallel paths that will eventually free the soul from future rebirth in the material realm. Hence, Jains take great care to avoid harming other forms of life and to resist the fleeting pleasure of material consumption. Extreme practitioners refuse to eat any but leftover food prepared for others, and carefully strain their water to avoid ingesting any water-born organisms \ not for the sake of their own health, but avoid inadvertently killing other living being. Less extreme practitioners are strict vegetarians and own few material possessions. The Jains are bidding for global leadership in environmental ethics. Their low - on the -food chain and low -level of -consumption life style is held up as a model of ecological right livelihood (Chappel, 1986), And the author of the Jain Declaration on Nature claims that the central Jain moral precept of ahimsa 'is nothing but environmentalism' (Singhvi).

Shintoism: is a traditional religion of Japan that includes the worship of ancestors and spirits of nature. In Shintoism the cleanliness body and soul is respected, and this must have great hygienic value. The oldest chronicles of Japan are Kojiki and Nihonshoki which Speaks about the liberation of people and domestic animals from diseases and injuries. The mercy and benevolence of God should be shown to all creatures as a means for bio-safety based on religious codes.

Confucianism: teaches a person is not a separate immortal soul temporarily residing in a physical body; a person is rather the unique centre of network of relationships. Since His or her identity is constituted by these relationships, the destruction of one's social and environmental context is equivalent to self destruction. Biocide, in other words, is tantamount to suicide. Confucianism offers a very firm foundation upon which to build a contemporary Chinese conservation ethics.

Buddhism: All living beings are driven by desire to a life of continuous frustration and all can be liberated if all can attain enlightenment. Buddhists regard other living being as companions on the path to Buddha hood and nirvana. Bodhi (1987) Provides a succinct summary of Buddhist environmental ethics: 'With its philosophic insight into the interconnectedness and thoroughgoing interdependence of all conditioned things, with its thesis that happiness is to be found through the restraint of desire, with it s goal of enlightenment through renunciation and contemplation and its ethic on non-injury and boundless loving kindness for all beings, Buddhism provides all the essential elements for a relationships to the natural world characterized by respect, care and compassion'.

Taoism: Taoists believe that there is a Tao, a way of nature. That is, natural processes occur not only in orderly but also in a harmonious fashion. Human beings can discern the Tao, the natural well orchestrated flow of things. All human activities can either be well adapted to the Tao, or they can oppose it. In the former case, human goals are accomplished with ease and grace and without disturbing the natural environment; but in the latter, they are accomplished, if at all with difficulty and at the price of considerable disruption of neighbouring social and natural systems (Ames, 1992). Capital intensive Western technology, such as nuclear power plants and industrial agricultural, is very 'un Taoist' in esprit and motif. Modern conservationists find in Taoism an ancient analogue of today's counter-movement toward appropriate technology and Sustainable development.


As Martin Luther King states, 'we must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the greatest problems of humankind is that we suffer from a poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually'. Without the moral and the spiritual awakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments (Satish, 1999). Rising individualism goes hand in hand with lack of social responsibility and solidarity. People subordinate themselves to material forces, violence and corruption become rampant everywhere and at all levels. In a consumer and technological culture, the people become expendable. The worst impact is the imposition of a mono-culture. 'Globalization achieves much more than cultural imperialism, it foreground culture as an instrument of imperialism' (Antony, 1999). Therefore, restoration of ecological imbalance and building fellowship is needed. Earth is the universal mother where all things are bright and beautiful; where all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, find solace. But the earth is also a place where the beauty fades and loveliness decays. It is a dying earth where acres of rain forests are being leveled every second, entire species of plants and animals are being killed off, the earth is become dangerously overheated. And the atmosphere's protective layer, which is essential for all life on earth, is being depleted. In despoiling nature we are destroying the handwork of God and violating our sacred trust's caretakers of the land, over which we are given dominion or stewardship. Let us express our reverential feelings towards nature the earth is the sacrament of God and God's love. It is the great loaf of bread God has baked for us, a large bowl of rice God has made ready for his beloved daughters and sons. The Earth is our Mother, Our common body, our lives and our selves. Let us restore the broken relationship with our Mother earth. Let us try to have communion with it. Eco-Spirituality and eco-morality should pave the way for Universal Bioethics.


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