Ethics and culture in world politics

Intermediate Examination Paper 2007 3 Pages

Politics - International Politics - General and Theories


Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.

Isaac Asimov

Contemplating ethics, culture and furthermore their interplay in world politics might be a perpetual impasse devoid of a teleological clarity. Disregarding the two concepts on the other hand, as irrelevant to the study of International Relations (IR), as it is best carried out by Realpolitik and studied with scientific sterility ala Kenneth Waltz, would be myopic on a number of levels. Before framing the meaning of ethics and culture, and discussing their possible interplay in world politics, the following question is proposed to perhaps establish a conceptual link between the two: Can we find a fruitful starting point by perceiving morality as a connector of ethics and culture to world politics?

Of all the areas of philosophy, ethics is the one that seems most significant to people, and it is no overstatement to say that everyone is engaged in ethical deliberation at every turn in life. Ethics, as a major philosophical branch, is derived from the ancient Greek term ethikos, or the meaning of living. Its primary focus is to discern between right and wrong ergo it aims to understand the ‘nature of morality’.[1] Or put differently, the ‘social quality’ of ethics ‘forces each of us to feel that our identity is also defined by our relations to others’.[2] In a world which is transformed by a growing ‘interconnectedness and intensification of relations, among states and societies’[3] summarized in the buzzword of globalization, the social quality of ethics calls for refinement. The veil of ignorance has been vigorously lifted from our eyes by the effects of global transformation, and it becomes an imperative to avoid limiting ethics to kin relationship or confined to territorial bounded Westphalian sovereignty. In short ethics is about ‘humanizing the experience of the other’[4], which is in its logical extension an individual moral choice to be righteous in a global as well as national and even local context. Thus sound moral values raise tough choices; and tough choices are never straightforward especially in the prevailing anarchical system of world politics.

Just like ethics culture is not a ‘singular thing’, but rather a ‘loose collection of [assumed] characteristics’ of a community.[5] Kroeber and Kluckhon compiled more than 200 definitions of the slippery concept of culture underlining its plurality empirically.[6] However, while no one definition exists it is generally agreed that culture is ‘a system of meaning and significance’[7] in which it describes the ‘organization of values, norms and symbols’.[8] Thus cultural organization guides the aforementioned individual moral choice of actors within specific, overlapping and/or superimposed cultural settings limiting as well as challenging the ‘types of interaction which may occur between individuals’.[9] As a non-static dynamic process cultures constantly adapt to the material and ideational environment they exist in, especially as they are being shaped and shaping others. It is the notion of ‘cultural diversity’, which qualifies this interaction, as it defines dichotomies of inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. In this regard cultures ‘deserve to be recognized, proclaimed, and protected’ rather than the argument to perceive cultural difference as a clashing menace whereas diversity in fact is of precious value. However the difficulty to develop ‘a standard setting tool to regulate interactions’ in world politics among moral communities remains and requires ongoing calm reflection and ethical consideration.[10]

After framing the two concepts it is now permissible to return to the question of morality acting as a connecting link of ethics and culture to better the understanding of world politics. For this purpose an analogy seems helpful - building a home. The building blocks of the foundation and walls of the dwelling are ethics in the sense that individual moral choices determine the structural static’s allowing the house to stand. The many rooms of which none is alike in abstract are cultures with doors allowing difference (inclusion/exclusion) as well as exchange of moral communities and their moral values. The roof on the other hand constitutes morality both individual and communal as no individual ethics and no single culture is protected from the unavoidable and unpredictable forces of world politics. In order to grasp the interplay of ethics and culture in world politics it is therefore decisive to take a closer look at the moral nucleus or the roof of culture and ethics in which all actors of world politics meet and decide if the global house experiences conflict or cooperation, regression or progress. It is here that states and their representatives, non-state actors and societies as well as individuals have to judge and self reflect their morality - the roof under which they all exist.

The above outlined descriptions of ethics and culture cannot be conceptualized without the node of morality. One the one hand ethics is the basis for morality, which on the other is shaped by moral values stemming from diverse cultures. The debate on universal human rights, as but one example, highlights this interplay perfectly. It is here were rights with collective morals (values) and morals with ethics (rights) collide.[11] With the arrival at such a conclusion many novel questions can be asked in the realm of world politics, which in a Habermasian tradition do not necessitate to be answered conclusively, but are ultimately both and end and a means to accommodate a better understanding of world political affairs. Following Asimov’s progressive quote, the above argument freely obeys its message by encouraging continuous and deepened deliberation. However, if agents in the structure of world politics fail to critically engage by examining their moral choices both in light of their individual righteousness as well as those originating from their culture a Mahafaly tomb starts being erected. Instead an imperative ought to be, to revert to the previous analogy of world politics, to jointly redesign house for it to become a turret in the castle of nature.


[1] Webster’s Universal College Dictionary, Cramercy Books, New York, 1997, page 274

[2] Coicaud, Jean-Marc and Warner, Daniel (eds.), Ethics and International Affairs: Extent and Limits, UN University Press, Tolyo, 2001, page 2

[3] Held, David, The transformation of political community: rethinking democracy in the context of globalization in Shapiro, Ian and Hacker- Cordon, Casiaro (eds.), Democracy’s Edges, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, page 84

[4] Op Cit, Coicaud, Warner, page 12

[5] Mazarr, Micahel, Culture in International Relations, Washington Quarterly, 1996, page 14

[6] Kroeber, Alfred, Kluckhohn, Clyde, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, Vinlege Book, 1963

[7] Parekh, Bhikhu, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory — Understanding Culture, Macmillian, London, 2000, p.143

[8] Parsons, Talcott, Shills, Edward, Values and social systems, in Alexander, Jeffrey, Seidman, Steven, Culture and Society, Contemporry Debates, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990, page 39-40

[9] Ibid

[10] Baer, Jean-Michel, Klamer Arjo, Throsby, David, Laleye Issiaka-Prosper, Cultural diversity, British Council, London, 2004, page 57

[11] Fall, Yoro K., Culture, Ethics and globalisation, accessed online on the 3rd of August 2006 at http://www.unesco.org/culture/worldreport/html_eng/wcrb41.shtml


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Title: Ethics and culture in world politics