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Lecture 13

4.7 Discourse and Culture

The world has become smaller, closer connected, that is: more global. Cultures that have been more or less separated over centuries are now interacting on various levels: in politics and governance, science and technology, environmental and social development, and in the fields of arts and cultural exchange. Many of the contemporary issues in Applied Ethics have a global character: Ethical and social impact of science and technology is not restricted by regional and cultural boarders; progress in medical techniques and methodologies pose the same critical questions on patient autonomy and freedom worldwide; environmental justice and protection are an issue of international importance; collaborations of corporations and economic enactors from all parts of the world give business ethics an intercultural dimension. There has been a call for global ethics to master the big challenges of our times: climate change, poverty, war, humanity, and many more. However, this endeavour is a big challenge itself: In view of cultural diversity that is manifested in different languages, different worldviews, values and belief systems, different customs and traditions, inter-cultural ethics faces existential inquiries: Moral relativism or pluralism, particularism or universalism, principlism or common sense? Is there a minimal ethics that each and every culture and its members share? What kinds of disagreements are merely misunderstandings based on different wordings or simple translation errors and unclear communication? What happens when the ethical convictions of one cultural realm are subjected onto the society of another culture – will they be contested, rejected, or refined and accepted?

At first sight (or thought), ethics should be expected to be culture-independent. Ethicists and philosophers often claim that valid ethical statements must be universalisable, as such acceptable by all humans. Intercultural conflicts, then, should not be different from intracultural conflicts. The reality, however, looks different! We can observe clearly that normative discourses in practice are conducted and instrumentally applied in very different ways across cultures. Cultural customs and worldview have a strong impact on what counts as respectful or rude in communicative actions, on the role of expertise and competence, on the role of hierarchies and social status of discourse participants, and on the social significance of values and principles. We will see an example that compares a typical daily-job-life situation in Germany and Taiwan. These differences as such are not ethically problematic, as long as the discourse conduct represents the ideal way of interaction in each case. Problems arise when cultures meet and when it comes to intercultural discourse. There are strong challenges for the discourses to be ideal, for example linguistic differences (and sometimes the untranslatability of expressions from one language into the other), misunderstanding of communicative acts and gestures, lack of knowledge and understanding of the cultural, historical, philosophical and social background of the discourse partner, or improper imposition of values by one culture onto the other culture.

4.7.1 Cultural Differences

When talking about cultural differences, we have to be aware of the fact that many statements are highly generalised claims that are by far not covering each and every situation. Not all Westerners and not all Asian people show the same culture-specific characteristics. When talking about “typical German” or “typical Taiwanese” behaviour, we generalise a trend that can be confirmed by various experiences and sometimes even by empirical studies. However, we must always remember that we don’t want to prejudge people, think in stereotypes and with prejudices, and that the diversity of people does not allow us to put them into categories. For the sake of simplicity, in the following I will not always remark this again and again whenever talking about “Western” and “Eastern” style.

Imagine this situation: In an office, a co-worker is obviously inefficient, not co-operative and sometimes absent. After several complaints have been filed by other employees, the boss approaches the co-worker to talk to her about the situation. Apparently, this case can be solved in very different ways in different cultures. Common experiences and observations allow to state these trends:

In Germany, such a conversation is typically very direct and open. The boss explains the problem that she heard of, asking the employee to state her own point of view. The employee explains her improper work management with private problems, health problems, menstruation, etc. The boss understands and tries to find a solution together with the co-worker, trying to motivate the woman not to hide her problems but to get support from the other co-workers (instead of pissing them off).

In Taiwan, the conversation might be dominated by hierarchy and professional expectation. The boss reminds the employee of her duties as a responsible co-worker in this office. She expects her to fulfil her duties. The employee does not dare to explain her actual situation since she believes that her private problems are not the business of the boss. She just promises to try to work harder.

While in German culture, people prefer a very direct conversation, coming straight to the point (“This is the problem…!”), showing honesty and uprightness (standing in for one’s decisions and mistakes), goal orientation and pragmatic trouble-shooting, East-Asian cultures (at least those impacted by Confucianism) focus on the concept of face (面子), not to lose it, never to let others lose it by one’s action, respect for hierarchies and social status, and – if necessary – use indirectness and dishonesty as rhetoric tools to achieve the goal of harmony. None of the discourse conduct strategies is better than or superior to the other! Within their original cultural framework, they work just fine! Superficially, it seems the Western way of dealing with this problem is somehow more efficient and successful than the Taiwanese way. Looking deeper, however, it should be clear that cultural norms and customs can’t be ignored. There would be big conflicts between German boss and Taiwanese co-worker, or between Taiwanese boss and German co-worker.

I’d like to illustrate these differences with two sketches from a Chinese artist living in Germany, Yang Liu, who compared German customs and trends to Chinese ones (also applicable to Taiwan, I believe). The first is about the role of the boss in a team:


In Germany, the boss is one of many co-workers, and his task is to be the team leader. He has more responsibility and, therefore, has a higher salary (probably), but that doesn’t make him deserve more respect than anybody else who brings in his or her skills. In my supervisor’s group, our Professor also went for lunch with us students – unimaginable in Asia! Here, the boss is much bigger than other co-workers, asking for (and getting) more respect. Employees are much less likely to complain to the boss about their situation or even about the boss himself. Feedback is rarely given “bottom-up” (from employee to boss). This, of course, has big influence on the discourse conduct!

Another illustration is about how to deal with problems:


German people grow up in an environment that supports direct feedback and straightforward problem-solving. When something goes wrong, we are used to address it, communicate it with involved or responsible people and figure out a solution. In professional interactions, this helps making processes go smoothly and to improve them over a period of time. Taiwan, same as most other Asian societies, is a “problem-avoiding culture”. People tend to turn a blind eye to occurring troubles, hoping that there is a way around facing it. These things are important to know for both bosses and employees (or generally: mentors/supervisors and subordinates/inferior)! A German boss should know why his Asian employees always keep a certain distance to him – it is not their shyness or impoliteness! German people working or studying in an Asian country should be prepared for the inappropriateness of consulting their supervisors with direct critical feedback!

4.7.2 Intercultural Discourses

As pointed out, intercultural discourses occur in the arenas of politics, business, technology, global environmentalism, etc. A good example is the frequent criticism raised against China concerning the situation of human rights. We may imagine a meeting between German and Chinese diplomats (for example at a UN assembly). The German diplomat was asked by his delegation to address the topic of human right violations in the bilateral talks with the Chinese delegation. This topic is frequently discussed in Germany, and Chinas reputation is very damaged because of it. The German public wants to see that human rights are better protected in China, especially the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religious and political view, abandoning death penalty and torture, freedom for social activists, artists, bloggers, etc. The Chinese diplomat accuses the German diplomat (gently) of not knowing the background of Chinese culture and politics. The integrity and political stability of the huge country China can only be secured by the unconditional support of balance and harmony. Individuals should not have the power to threaten the life quality of millions of people. It is the task of China’s policy-makers to keep the Chinese system intact and functioning smoothly.

The conflict source is the different understanding of the human rights concept. In German thinking, it refers to individual protection rights (freedom from) and personal development rights (freedom to). In Chinese thinking, the overriding human right is that of living in a harmonious and balanced society. We may call it a collective right that is outweighing most of the individual rights. It is, of course, possible to engage in an ethical analysis of the legitimacy of each view and find good reasons for supporting one or the other. In practice, it will be difficult and probably fruitless to convince the representatives of one culture that their convictions (culturally rooted) are somehow wrong or inappropriate and should be changed.

An example where exactly this has been tried is this: The EU urged the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to take steps to stop child labour. EU policies applied pressure on the South Asian countries by allowing only certified child labour free textiles to be imported. The idea is noble: Child labour is violating human rights and just another form of slavery. We (the EU) need to free those poor Kids from their burden! In effect, the new regulations in Bangladesh and Myanmar caused huge social problems! The local textile industry serves as social institution, supporting whole families (offering Kindergarten facilities, accommodation, etc.). When a new worker is employed, it is usually the whole family that does the work, sharing shifts, benefitting from meals, accommodation, etc. The new laws put families into trouble as long as there is no substitute state support! The government does not provide sufficient support, so that most families are poorer than before and many children live in more miserable conditions than before. The ethical ideal of European politicians (representing the public views) simply don’t work in different cultural and social frameworks, because too many factors besides the purely moral ones play a role for the evaluation of the particular cases. Here, cultural knowledge and competence are a necessary condition for ethical discourse!

In a globalised world, we can observe many cases of ethical imperialism: Either one culture inflicts convictions onto another culture, or cultures – voluntarily or unconsciously – “import” ethical frameworks from other cultures. An example for the latter is the regulation of new technologies such as nanomedicine or power grid management in Taiwan: The Taiwanese government refuses the view that normative aspects of the discourse matter in view of public acceptance and social sustainability. Technological progress is not evaluated in terms of social and environmental impact. Instead, it is a common practice to translate American or European laws and regulations into Chinese and adapt them slightly to the Taiwanese situation. Thereby, it is forgotten that Western laws are rooted in Western normative convictions, commonly protecting important values like privacy, (individual) freedom and autonomy. Cultural studies have shown that Asian people set different priorities. The legal framework that the Taiwanese government creates, however, enforces priorities that represent the European or American worldview. Here, it might be the job of Taiwanese philosophers and sociologists to induce a change towards a stronger implementation of ethical frameworks that are rooted in the Taiwanese society! This is another example for culture-specificity being an important factor in ethical discourse.


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