Global Ethics Corner: Pillars of Choice: Pluralism

May 29, 2009

How do we celebrate differences without falling into the trap of cultural relativism?

What foundations support ethical choices? Pluralism is one pillar.

Pluralism respects the diversity of human experience. Across time and geography, the variety in people's lives is limited only by imagination.

But how do we celebrate differences without falling into the trap of cultural relativism? Relativism says that what you do is okay, because you have a rationale for your choice. Do we then accept polygamy, indentured labor, or ethnic cleansing?

In contrast, is there some universality, some commonality among all people, for instance the basic human rights of the UN Declarations? Are things always just?

Here the trap is absolutism, asserting that there is only one true way, condemning other cultures, values, or behaviors.

How do we negotiate these twin traps? Accepting the need to draw a line is one condition.

Accepting that others have the same right is another. This requires dialogue, not avoidance or assertion. Hence, respect for diversity itself becomes a universal condition, acknowledging multiple views without succumbing to them.

What do you think? Do all roads lead to Rome? Is there only one path? Or, more difficult, how do I respect alternatives and choose my own direction?

By William Vocke

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