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Emotion: A Gateway to Intercultural Ethics

in Current Issue/Views

by Salim Mustafa

The philosophical and sociological literature shows that there are three major approaches to intercultural ethics. Absolutist approaches try to impose an absolutist view on other cultures; these approaches are impractical as there is no wide agreement as to what is absolutely religiously authoritative, natural, historical or reasonable. Further, the problem worsens when absolutists try to claim their own culture and values are “universal”. It favours a unilinear model of cultural and ethical development. This is one of the major problems of absolutists approaches as it presumes all cultures pass along a single ray of development and meet on an absolute set up of norms and values. The next conception, i.e., cultural relativism, holds that different cultures have their own beliefs and norms which are incommensurable and, therefore, it is not possible to formulate any ethical principles that are acceptable and valid across all the cultures. It holds that different cultures follow a multi-linear and separate model of ethical conduct and development which cannot be united (Evanoff 3). But, all these approaches are insufficient in dealing with cultural differences and in establishing a cross cultural ethical principle. There are loopholes in each of these theories as shown above; their principles turn out to be incompatible with cultural plurality and universal ethical standards. When particulars are considered, universal ethics becomes impossible and when absolute criteria are formulated the diversity is ignored. Hence, these approaches fail to promote an ethics valid across cultures which do not ignore but respect diversity.

What kind of ethical setup makes these dialogues possible? What are the relevant factors that contribute to this cross cultural dialogue? How are the differences and similarities among different cultures dealt with in such a framework? Such questions can be answered through the pattern of emotions because ‘Emotion’ is the key concept that can make intercultural dialogue and a common ethical principle possible across cultures. I believe that emotions, culture and morality are intrinsically connected to each other and are necessary to formulate an intercultural ethics.

Culture can be understood as a dynamic system of constructed and inherited values and norms that are expressed in symbolic forms. It facilitates development, communication and acquisition of knowledge about and towards the ways of life. There is a need for a basic ethical deliberation that points towards the need of “intercultural” ethics that can recognize both the ‘sameness’ as well as ‘otherness’ across differing cultural lines. Therefore, it can be said that human beings are formed by culture, but human beings also form and shape cultures (Deifelt 112). This reciprocity between humans and cultures suggest a need for a link. According to this research, emotion is the common link that makes this interconnectedness possible and facilitates a cross cultural ethical discourse that considers and respects the ‘same’ as well as the ‘other’. A very influential ethical interpretation of the ‘other’ is provided by Levinas who argues, “The other is absolutely other, not the same, not the self. The other is an infinite reality that cannot be fully grasped by knowledge.” For Levinas, dialogue between the same and the other initiates by the ethical interpretation of the other, he further argues, “There is no self outside the response to otherness, to the claims posed by the other, the ‘face of the other’ the other who is ‘infinitely foreign’ (Deifelt 117) needs to acknowledged before using reason or forming judgements about the other. Levinas stresses that to acknowledge differences and validate the experiences of others are the core notion of ethics, he develops a form of ‘ethics of responsibility’ that highlights a very important point that not being same or not belonging to one’s culture must not be interpreted as being weaker or less valuable. Thinkers have argued that we recognize and understand the emotional and intentional states of others because we can enact and approximate others’ perspectives automatically (Hollan 70) due to our evolved embodied senses and perceptions. But still it is in need of detailed analysis of how this tendency is contributing to cross cultural dialogues. Emotions can alter relationships in a given direction and also contribute to remaining in their current state. In this way, they appear to be consequential to the individual’s social environment (Mesquito 2-3). Therefore, it is possible to come up with cross cultural universal ethics apprehending and exchanging emotions is must because without it, dealing with similarities and differences is not possible, emotions are important as it has the potential to address, connect and reveal various forms of life, by disclosing the manifest as well as the deeper layers of one’s ethical and social aspects of life as it shares something with sensations, beliefs, desires, perceptions and moral judgements. There are intentional, cognitive, evaluative and phenomenal aspects of emotions and they are related to the interactive complexes of bodily feelings, evaluations or moral judgements, attention sets, desires and inclinations to act in a particular way. Oakley says, emotions are complex phenomena that involve dynamically connected elements of cognition, desires and affectivity. All the three elements are morally significant. It is significant to focus on ‘how’ emotions influence morality and culture rather than how it originates and where it resides.

Emotions are seen as a necessary link between the constituents of self and society. According to the constructionist view of emotion, it is implicit in the network of values, norms, beliefs and social relationships. “Emotions presuppose values and values presuppose emotions.” Judgement and appraisals are involved in emotions and they act like moral ways of understanding and making sense of the world. In this sense, emotions can be said as active engagements with the social world which is intrinsically linked to values: the moral appraisals which are grounded in “moral order” regulate both meaning and use of emotion ascriptions. I am mainly concerned with a cognitive view of emotion. A cognitivist view can be traced in the works of Aristotle, and in numerous thinkers who follow him. The cognitivist interpretation is crucial for cross cultural dialogue because ‘apprehension’ is central to both the things, how we apprehend other’s culture and value is extremely important in promoting ethical universalism in intercultural ethics.

In order to answer the two major problems—‘how an intercultural ethics is possible that recognizes as well as respects the cultural plurality’, and why and how human emotions are a necessary component of such an intercultural ethics? One needs to understand what culture and morality are, and what they are about. It is important to examine the approaches proposed by thinkers in order to relate the cultural plurality and ethical models. I argue that approaches such as cultural absolutism, cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are inadequate approaches by highlighting the gaps and drawbacks of these approaches. I believe the cross cultural ethical dialogue that is influenced by human ‘emotions’ and ‘behaviour’ provides a more constructive approach of intercultural ethics. Second, we need to focus on elaborating and examining the problems in conducting this form of intercultural dialogue and ‘how’ such an ethical dialogue is possible. How ‘emotions’ are related to one’s belief, desire, cognition, judgements and apprehensions, and influence the moral judgements, and can provide a common ground for an intercultural ethics by respecting and communicating through these patterns. Third, there is an urgent need to work on how theory of ethical cognitivism provides abstract as well as empirical evidence to support the above explanation. A researcher should also discuss ethical and cognitive views of thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, R M Hare, Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg to explain ethical and moral development of humans.

I suggest a scholar/thinker reconsider all the above arguments and highlight its implications in promoting global justice and peace by exercising the cross cultural ethical discourse both at conceptual and practical level. 



Deifelt, Wanda. “Intercultural Ethics: Sameness and Otherness Revisited.” Dialogue: A Journal of Theology 46, no. 2 (06 2007): 112-19. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6385.2007.00316.x.

Evanoff, Richard. “Integration in Intercultural Ethics.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 30, no. 4 (07 2006): 421-37. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2005.11.001.

Hollan, Douglas. “Emerging Issues in the Cross-Cultural Study of Empathy.” Emotion Review 4, no. 1 (01 2012): 70-78. doi:10.1177/1754073911421376.

Mesquita, Batja, Michael Boiger, and Jozefien De Leersnyder. “The Cultural Construction of Emotions.” Current Opinion in Psychology 8 (04 2016): 31-36. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.09.015.

Salim Mustafa comes from New Delhi, the city of diverse languages and cultures, and the capital of India. He, at the moment, is studying English Language and Literature at Masaryk University, Czech Republic. His work (poems, short stories & articles) is published in India, Bangladesh and Ireland. His main interest lies in the drama and fictional writing.

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