Asian and Western Ethics: Some Remarks on a Productive Tension

- Gerhold K. Becker, Ph.D.,

Professor, Centre for Applied Ethics Hong Kong Baptist University 224 Waterloo Rd, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 31-33.

The focus of our new journal is, I take it, on the intricacies of an emerging new bioethics which is shaped by the tension between the socio-cultural systems of Asia and the West (see: Aims, no. 3). I read its title as an ambitious program which spells out a formidable task: To facilitate research on the parameters which determine the rules of a meaningful discourse on culture-dependent versus universal values. Such a journal has long been overdue; its launch is a major achievement and an intellectual treat.

I. Probing the Foundations

Although we might have a general understanding of what is at stake here, the implications are far from clear. In a certain regard, all values are culturally sensitive since they are contextually defined and dependent on an over-arching network of socio-cultural relationships which provides meaning and significance.

Yet, there is also the powerful intuition which holds that moral choices are, above all, about what is good in itself, objectively, and for all people. There are moral rights and duties which obtain independently of race or culture, tradition or form of government. To a certain degree, these rights and duties can be understood to define, in terms of practice and action, human beings as human beings, not as citizens of this or that society.

This intuition which held sway over much of the history of moral thought in the West tallies not only with certain metaphysical assumptions about reality but also with a particular concept of rationality. Yet, this understanding of ethics which figures prominently in philosophers as different as Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, Spinoza and Kant has come under attack from various quarters, and for various reasons.

By linking issues of reason and rationality with those of culture and tradition, the debate on the cognitive status of ethics has clearly gained momentum; it has even taken on political overtones. One of its more provocative features is the claim that moral universalism is based on presumptuous and even frivolous views about human nature which, under the disguise of rationality, serve ultimately political ends. Upholding the objectivity claim for moral values, it has been argued, is tantamount to endorsing the imperialist vision of the West's superiority and to justifying the suppression of cultural diversity.

The philosophical argument is, of course, much more dialectical and operates at different levels. In Rorty's post-modern version it aims to undermine any form of foundationalism which used to understand moral claims as truth claims, thus grounding all knowledge on unshakable foundations. The underlying concept of rationality which became the model for the modern natural sciences presumed that all human experience was ultimately determined by rational principles and could be objectively described in terms of a system, i. e. a body of data ordered by (self-evident) principles (Kant). Kant's critical exploration of the limitations of reason served as a useful launch pad for many more vigorous attacks which aimed at picking holes in the concepts of reason and rationality altogether. It provoked, however, also a powerful backlash, led by the philosophical leaders of German idealism.

II. The Incompatibility Claim

It is, of course, here neither possible nor necessary to recall all the important aspects of the debate on the rational foundation of morality in modern philosophy. Yet, one argument which has been around from the times of the ancient Greeks's encounter with foreign (most notably Egyptian) traditions but has recently been revived and brought into more systematic shape deserves at least mentioning. This argument claims the incommensurability of cultures. In a seminal article Peter Wynch argued for different, and ultimately incommensurable standards of rationality which make it impossible to apply them cross-culturally (Wynch, 1964). This argument proved appealing in a number of ways since it seemed to offer alternatives to what was seen as the grey straight jacket of Western rationality which was held responsible for the stifling of an imagination which otherwise would have produced a colourful variety of lifestyles. Feyerabend bade "farewell to reason" so as to usher in the new principle of "anything goes" (Feyerabend: 284) - to which Rorty added his pragmatist version (Siebers: 55): anything goes "that works"!

Recently, the argument seems to have gained even political currency in Asia. "Many Asian governments are resentful of what they call Western attempts to dictate their culture and view of human and religious rights." (Marshall: 11) Some Asian leaders focus on the uniqueness of Asian values and emphasize the differences which, in their view, do not permit the application of moral value standards which originated in the West to their cultures. Countries such as Malaysia were instrumental in enshrining in the so-called Bangkok Declaration (1993) the notion of incompatible Western values.

There is a new sense of pride and achievement in this emphasis which appears no longer confined to intellectuals seeking inspiration from their cultural heritage, nor to political leaders turning to the past for the justification of their present rule. Cover stories on Asian values and the "The Asian Way" in magazines such as Asia Week (March 1994), The Economist (May 1994), and Asian Business (June 1994) indicate that the search for a specific Asian identity based on its own traditional moral values has firmly taken root in various Asian societies and replaced the intoxicated look to the West.

The disenchantment with the West and the disillusionment with its achievements is usually blamed on the social woes which seem to suggest the bankruptcy of the whole underlying value system. The advocacy of Asian values serves, at least to a large extent, the strategic and understandable purpose of protecting aspiring Asian societies from the host of socio-political problems rampant in the West. Yet, in view of history as well as the continuous and welcome import of Western technologies, it might be doubtful whether such a defensive strategy can indeed succeed. III. Some Useful Distinctions

In the heat of the debate there is the real danger of overlooking some simple facts.

Firstly, there is no such thing as "the" Western values which would neatly define human practice in countries from the Urals to the Rocky Mountains. The "West" too is not a monolithic entity but embraces a variety of value-laden cultures and traditions.

Secondly, when it comes to identifying the so-called different values held responsible for the woes in the West and the economic success in the East, the lists show different emphases within an otherwise widely shared or at least shareable value system. The values most often mentioned by Asian leaders such as "hard work, family, education, savings, and disciplined living" (Marshall, 1994) are certainly not alien in the Western tradition. Recently, this common basis has been confirmed even by representatives of countries which are strong advocates of an independent Asian way of life. The deputy to the Malaysian Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was quoted in an editorial as sounding a note of warning against the abuse of so-called Asian values for political ends, particularly as an excuse for autocracy and the denial of basic rights and liberties (South China Morning Post 3 Dec., 1994, p.20).

Thirdly, the concept of rationality which provided the common framework for moral philosophy in the West is much more "flexible" than its critics wish to make us believe. Its recent critique should be seen as another step in an on-going debate aimed rather at the clarification of the concept than its abolition. This applies even to the argument from the incommensurability of cultures.

Davidson has pointed out that the allegedly intractable problem is in fact just another aspect of the certainly tractable issue of translate-ability (Davidson). Taylor has argued that even if we accepted a plurality of standards that would not mean that we simply had to accept anything and abandon judgment altogether. "Plurality does not rule out judgments of superiority" (Taylor 151). And Putnam asked to differentiate more clearly between "an Archimedean point", which we don't have since "we always speak the language of a time and place", and normativity: "the rightness and wrongness of what we say is not just for a time and a place" (Putnam: 242). He states emphatically, that the "elimination of the normative is attempted mental suicide."(Putnam: 241)

Lastly, people continue to argue, to make judgments, take sides and criticize individuals and even whole traditions if they seem in conflict with their own value perception. By pointing out their views to the other party they implicitly presuppose and affirm a common ground for meaningful human interaction. Anyway, at the practical level people do not seem inclined to abandon the idea of searching for standards of morality and rationality which obtain across cultures. In all their differences cultures still share, and always will, the common denominator of being human; true incommensurability seems only to apply to what separates humankind from the realm of other creatures.

IV. The Dialectic of Moral Conflicts

The history of "Western" ethics points in a similar direction. It reminds us also of the fact that the tension between universalism versus "tribalism" (Frank J. Leavitt) in ethics has always been a powerful force in the evolution of the so-called Western ethics.

The very term "ethics" points both to the complicated framework within which we form our basic value concepts and to a particular Western tradition, the culture of ancient Greece, with Aristotle as its ingenious interpreter. Etymologically, one might recall, the "ethos" which fosters values is the "familiar place", the settlement of the family, the clan. It evokes the life-world made up of etiquette, habits, customs and traditions which shape and influence our actions, and which in turn will be influenced by them. Its individual features have much in common with what Wittgenstein called "forms of life" and which lie "beyond being justified or unjustified" as something "given".

The point is that an ethos is always contextual and itself embraced by a wider horizon of meaning; it is a cluster of practices and activities which for those practicing them are in no need for any explanation or justification. In this sense, all "ethics" is culture-based and rooted in the practical beliefs of closed societies. -

Yet, ancient Greece set philosophy also on the path towards all-encompassing principles by which we can distinguish the "good" habits, customs, and maybe even traditions from the "bad". The locus classicus here is Antigone's conflict with the decree of Creon prohibiting the burial of her brother. The most obvious conflict in Sophocles's powerful and multi-layered tragedy is derived from well-established, yet conflicting traditions which plunge Antigone into a moral dilemma which cannot be resolved within the prevailing ethos of her society.

It is conflicts such as these which make people ask unfamiliar questions about their own culture, and which will, ultimately, lead them beyond its confines. The paradigm of this approach is Socrates. Whereas Sophocles' solution seems to lie, above all, in the cathartic effect of moral failure and the resolute acceptance of a tragic view of human nature which questions the moral authority of traditions without leading beyond them, Socrates aims at a trans-cultural answer to moral conflicts which can be shared with members of different cultures. To give just one example: In Plato's early dialogue Eutyphro, Socrates' questions do not simply undermine his protagonist's confidence in his solution of the conflict between filial piety and justice but lead to (aporetic) attempts to ground human practice in knowledge by posing and pondering the more fundamental question: What indeed is filial piety (justice, virtue) in itself, not just how it is prescribed and correctly practiced within a certain cultural tradition. On this account, the moral point of view extends also to culture itself, and the principles of morality connote universality.

Aristotle's remark in Politics 1269a3 sums up clearly what is at issue here: "Generally, of course, it is the good, and not simply the traditional, that is aimed at." In Martha Nussbaum's translation, the emphasis is even more obvious: "All people seek, not the way of their ancestors, but the good" (Nussbaum, 1990: 28; the first translation as well as all other quotations from Aristotle are from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by T. A. Sinclair). Since Aristotle's programmatic statement is occasioned by his criticism of some practices "once doubtless customary", his own ethical theory is not ignorant of the tension and potential conflict between "the good" and the power of traditions. His critique of "the notions of primitive men" and his suggestion to regard "even those laws which have been written down" as "not unchangeable", underline the fact that, contrary to a rather common prejudice, his ethics is not at variance with an universalistic approach; instead, it draws on culture-transcendent moral principles which are potentially universal in scope since they can be shared with all rational beings. The tension between "ethos-ethics" and universalist ethics has set the agenda for Western moral philosophy up to now.

This approach is, however, not restricted to Greek philosophy and ethics. As Chad Hansen has pointed out, the Chinese philosopher Mozi too "makes the crucial Socratic distinction between customary mores and morality proper" by asking the question: "Why should we follow the traditional value system?" The interesting difference, however, lies in the "we" which contrasts to the Socratic "How should I live?" On Hansen's reading, "Socrates' question focused on an individual's life as the locus of moral reflection" while "Mozi asks his question from a shared, social point of view and his question focuses on social order and the nature of public guiding discourse."(Hansen: 108)

It seems there is no real possibility to eliminate the tension between universalist ethics and "ethos-ethics". Then the tension should be accepted and seen as a chance rather than a threat. What is needed is more thorough descriptive and analytical research on different value perceptions. This will help to more clearly distinguish between genuine differences and political propaganda. It might also lead to a careful removal of the various layers, old and modern, which have wrapped up and disfigured the great traditions of Asia. Sometimes it seems reference is made not to ancient traditions but to their (controversial) modern interpretations. This, of course, opens up another most complicated hermeneutical issue which is, however, part and parcel of the analytical enterprise.In an article on the ethical justification of late abortion the authors Qiu Ren Zong, Wang Chun Zhi, and Gu Yuan highlighted the problem by identifying the value conflict within contemporary Chinese society itself. Whereas the "Confucian cultural tradition ..... encourages the Chinese to have more children", the government, with reference to the "holistic social philosophy" of Marxism and its doctrine of the state, enforces the "one couple, one child" policy (Qui: 473; 475)

Once we have a more precise picture of the real differences, we ought to proceed to the stage of an open-minded, and open-ended, discourse out of which, hopefully, will emerge the "new" ethics in the emphatic sense of this term: an ethics for our age of high-technology which is neither parochial nor trivial. Such an ethics can only evolve if we draw, with creativity and imagination, on the most profound moral intuitions humankind has generated, and regard the tension between them as inevitable and necessary. Universalism without tribalism is empty, abstract and barren; tribalism without universalism blind, "unenlightened" and divisive. P.S. The above reflections are in no way intended to provide an exhaustive answer to the question but to stimulate further discussions. This is to be taken literally: If there is enough interest in the issue of Asian values and their significance for ethics, the Centre for Applied Ethics at Hong Kong Baptist University would be happy to play host for a symposium where these questions could be discussed more thoroughly. Your response to this initiative is much appreciated.


Davidson, D. "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme", pp. 183-198 in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1984).
Feyerabend, P., "Farewell to Reason", pp. 280-319 in Farewell to Reason (Verso: London/New York, 1987).
Hansen, C., A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. A Philosophical Interpretation (Oxford University Press: New York/Oxford, 1992).
Marshall, P. (1994) "Bad Company: Western Values Criticized in Asia". Areopagus 7(4), 11.
Nussbaum, M.C., "Non-Relative Virtues. An Aristotelian Approach", pp. 242-269 in M. C. Nussbaum, & A. Sen, eds., The Quality of Life (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1993).
Nussbaum, M.C., Love's Knowledge. Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford University Press: New York/Oxford, 1990).
Putnam, H. "Why Reason Can't Be Naturalized", pp. 222-244 in K. Baynes et al. ed., After Philosophy. End or Transformation? (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1987).
Qiu Ren-Zong, Wang Chun-Zhi Wang, Gu Yuan, "Can Late Abortion be Ethically Justified?", pp. 471-476 in L. May, & S. Collins Sharratt, eds., Applied Ethics. A Multicultural Approach (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, 1994).
Siebers, T. (1993) "The Ethics of Anti-Ethnocentrism", Michigan Quarterly Review XXXII: 41-70.
Taylor, C., "Rationality", pp. 134- 151 in C. Taylor, Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Philosophical Papers, vol. 2. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1985).
Wynch, P. (1964) "Understanding a Primitive Society". American Philosophical Quarterly I: 307-324.

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