S1E1-B: Defining Ethics under a Cultural Lens

A starting definition of Ethics under the umbrella of Culture; working together with Ideology, values, social status and other social norms.

As a starting point to understand the DREMSI theory, my objective is to provide a clear definition of “what is ethics”, a detailed description of what falls within it and what is outside, on what it does and what it doesn’t do.  This new definition of ethics will set the pace for a revolution on what we understand as the value of ethics. We will embark on a path of no return, where we will have to break many assumed attributes of ethics coming from classical philosophy.

This new definition of ethics is built using two perspectives, the cultural and complexity theory lenses.

Looking into the cultural perspective of ethics the idea is simple and straightforward; Ethics is a component of culture, is an instrument within culture that performs a specific set of functions. Hence the better we understand what culture is and its components, the better we understand what’s the role of ethics in the whole mixture.

A small remark before we get fully in detail, for the sake of simplicity, through this document the word Ethics is the same as the word Morality. Unfortunately, those words have been used so often to mean the same thing, so by now it becomes highly problematic to make a clear distinction between them, I will not overcomplicate things and I’ll use the word Ethics to mean both.

A cultural species.

To understand the mechanics housed within culture this thesis is heavily influenced by the ideas from anthropologist and Harvard professor Joseph Henrich. He wrote an extraordinary book called “The Secret of our success” in which he explains in detail the process of how we as humans have become successful (in evolutionary terms) thanks to culture, which allows us to work as a group, learn new behaviours, communicate in an effective manner and with this thrive in many different locations.

Culture is the reason why we have been able to tame all different types of environments. From the Saami tribe in the north pole to the Masai in the African Savana and soon in the red dunes of planet Mars. Culture is such a critical tool for survival, that we have reached the point where we are entirely dependent on it, officially becoming a cultural species; entering a co-evolutionary process  in which our food habits, usage of tools, and other cultural practices have implications for our genetic profile

Using this idea of the evolutionary value of culture, it is important to have a clear concept of what is culture. In the words of Maestro Henrich:

“By Culture I mean the large body of practices, techniques, heuristics, tools, motivations, values, and beliefs that we all acquire while growing up, mostly by learning from other people.”

This learning attribute of culture has been highlighted by another famous scholar Maestro Edgar Schein, who defined culture as:

«A pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration (…) A product of joint learning.«

We all have learned culture through social interaction. Thanks to culture we learned how to treat an important guest,  we learned how to cook spaghetti bolognese, and even learned how to flirt with the opposite sex.

The important aspect of this learning process is that it uses a very interesting rewards base mechanism, a mechanism reliant on three things, ideology, shaming and praising which ultimately will lead to the formation of social norms

Ideology sets the objective, shaming and praising reinforce behaviour.

Let me explain the process in more detail. Everything begins with a group Ideology. By ideology I mean the set of ideas that provide a map of the world, that explains why things are the way they are and to certain degree explain what the objective of life is. Religion is a perfect example of an ideology, however as it is falling out of fashion, nowadays we have less grandiose ideologies such as political ideologies (socialism, democracy. Etc.). Ideologies give us an order of the world, gives us a kind of direction, and in turn give us a value system,  what we ultimately use to judge good or bad.  In other words,  to judge something, one needs an objective, a perspective to make the judgment

To put it in an example, let’s say you go to a Mexican restaurant, “Tacos el rojo” and order, two campechanas? (special kind of tacos). At the end of the meal, How do you know if the tacos were good? By their taste? – by the nutritional content? – By their price? – …It really depends on the perspective.

The point I aim to make is that on a cultural level, ideology gives us the objective and explanation of the world so that we can make judgements. As we want the individuals in the group to behave towards this objective, there is a reward and punishment mechanism in place, a shaming and praising process. In simple words –  “you pray to god, this is good I praise you;  you disrespect god, this is bad I shame you”. We praise actions that we consider good and we shame the ones that are bad.

To increase the importance of the “shaming and praising” process, there is a strong connection to a local prestige system, that can be understood as social classes but I mean it in a much more field-specific. For example, in your family, among siblings, some may have higher status than others depending on their successes or failures related to a specific ideology within the family. In the same way, within a company, some employees have higher status than others. In both cases, the valuation of actions it really depends on the local ideology of the group, on what they consider valuable. The shaming and praising mechanism contributes to the ranking of the person within the group And is one of the main drivers for people to behave in a certain way, to follow social norms.

This leads me to the last component of this narrative on culture, social norms. Social norms are expectations of behaviour that if we follow we are on the good side, and if we break we are on the bad side. It is in these social norms that ethics is housed.

Ethics are part of the system of social norms within a culture, but it is not the only one. You have ethics, traditions, taboos, protocols and ultimately the law. It is important to highlight that, all social norms vary in their universality, in their formality and in their punishment mechanism. But they all follow the same pattern,  they are all a series of social expectations that play a specific function in society and if one breaks them there is an expected punishment process. To visualize it in examples,

  • We know that one should form in line at the cashier and not overtake others, otherwise people will complain.
  • We know that during a wedding we shouldn’t wear a white dress as this is exclusive for the bride, otherwise you will be shamed.
  • We know that you shouldn’t break the speed limit at the highway, otherwise your will be fined.

Ethics as a social norm, focuses on the minimization of injuries. A definition under the Cultural lens.

Social norms come in multiple shapes and have multiple functions, and when it comes to ethics, it has been associated with the objectives of generation of trust, group harmony, and ultimately with the survival of the group. I argue that among all the objectives that ethics is believed to have, the most important is the “minimization of injuries to others during interaction”.  Having a single objective will make ethics much more tangible and applicable in multiple scenarios, hence a starting definition of ethics from the cultural perspective is

“Ethics is a cultural feature in the shape of informal social norms, that incentivize the individual through a prestige system, to minimize the injuries we cause to others during interaction. Hence increasing the trust and willingness to be within a group  and reinforcing the local ideology”

This definition is not something radical yet,  It follows similar views of other scientists. Professor of Ethical Leadership Jonathan Haidt said:

“Moral systems work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible”

In similar light or Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Patricia Churchland said:

Morality is the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behaviour to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group”

I agree on the side effects that ethics can have in a group and society, such as long-term cooperation, enduring relationships, or collaboration, but my point is that ethics should have a predominant objective, the minimization of injuries towards others. And so, to judge something from the ethical side, I don’t ask “does it give me long term cooperation”? or “Is this good for my relationship”, I ask, “Is this causing an injury to the other person”?

With this argument, I am making the case that the reason why we should bother studying, exploring and building on ethics, is for the desire to reduce suffering, to avoid discrimination, to minimize hurting others, to make a significant change in other people’s lives. In my eyes, the tangible objective of minimizing injuries on an individual level becomes more important than the love and obedience to Kant, Aristoteles, Karl Marx or Jesus Christ’s writings, and it goes beyond that a personal satisfaction of our own values and principles.

Addressing the relativist issue.

To finalize this section, I want to address an important remark on this definition, the connection of ethics with the local ideology. As I shared earlier one needs an ideology to know the value of something, and subsequently to understand how to hurt others; hence all social norms, including ethics, are housed within culture, and connected to an ideology and a shaming and praising mechanism.

Unfortunately, this view brings a hidden danger to the table, a monster that is currently slowing down the field of ethics. As I make ethics dependent on culture, this can lead us to a relativist conception of ethics, in which might say ethics is always relative to each culture and as every culture is relative to their environment hence ethics is relativist. I argue that this is not entirely the case due to two reasons. First, as I will visualize in this work, ethics plays a single function in a culture, and it always plays the same one in all cultures or groups. Ethics, as a social norm, will always aim for the minimization of injuries,  connected to a local ideology and shaming and parsing, hence the function of ethics is not relative. Second, culture is not entirely relativist, among the current dominant societies we have a lot of common agreement on certain views

  • Everyone agrees that is good, to pay respect to your parents
  • Everyone agrees that is good to be a citizen, a real patriot,
  • Everyone agrees that is good to fulfil one’s part of an agreement,

Of course, local variances occur and this has to be considered,  but the current world is not entirely relativist.  So, to conclude,  the functional value of ethics is fixed and although it will have different interpretations the variance will not be too radical among cultures. We can always use extremes, but in practice, ethics is more stable than the relativist argument might lead us to believe.

With this, I close the view of ethics from a cultural perspective and I am ready to bring forth a new definition of Ethics under the complexity theory lens.

NEXT: S1E1 – C: Defining Ethics under a Complexity Lens

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