Core ethics can provide certainty and stability

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 06 Feb 2005


WHATEVER one thinks of Western ethics, there are some strong moral principles and good advantages in adopting it for developing countries in Asia and Africa. 

Like the English language, which is not the sole mother tongue of England but an international language, so is Western ethics in politics, trade and society as a whole. 

Unfortunately, the excesses and abuses of the colonial past in some countries in Asia and Africa have given Western rule, including its ethics, a negative image that has resulted in distrust among the people who are now free to decide their own fate. 

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Western ethics, if applied properly and correctly, can help them understand and deal with issues of international development and international trade and investment. 

This is not a myth. Why else are so many developing countries, including the new emerging China which is still under communism, learning the English language and culture so rapidly in their development efforts? 

They are aware that Western ethics are essential and necessary to be part of the world community. 

What, then, is Western ethics really and what is meant by it? Is Western ethics a culture that can be taught and adopted in Asian and African cultures? 

Jane Ellis, assistant director of Australia’s National Management Consultants, finds it difficult to define ethics “because it refers to intangibles that are expressed through values and beliefs”. 

Although, philosophically, the concept of ethics is divided into three areas – ethical principles, the standards that regulate society, and its involvement in political, social and sensitive issues – there is no clear way of separating one line of study from the others. 

“Given the plethora of different religions, cultures and the complex social mix of relationships in each culture, there is likely to be considerable difference in how the regulation of human behaviour is expressed,” Ellis says in a paper presented to a recent international education conference in Sydney. 

“As such, the ethics expressed by people in each culture or each religion most likely differ. 

“Indeed, even within and between cultures and religions that are relatively similar, the ethics that people express as regulating behaviour can vary significantly.” 

Ellis poses a question of who between a very sick child and a very sick old man will receive medicine that is just enough to save one of them. 

How such a situation is resolved depends on the morality of the person who makes the critical decision and his response to an ethical consideration. 

Ellis admits that most cultures have ethics of one kind or another. What differs in each society is how the people express their ethics. These expressions can give rise to conflicts. 

For example, ethics of loyalty may be expressed in one culture as absolute loyalty to one’s family. In another, it may be loyalty to a deity even at the expense of one’s family. 

“Thus the issue is not so much whether Western ethics should be adopted by other cultures but more whether ethics as expressed in and by Western cultures – which are predominantly based on liberalism and Christianity – should be adopted or at least accommodated by other cultures,” she says. 

“This is not to say that we consider our expression of ethics to be superior to those of other cultures. Rather it is a reflection of how the world currently works. Clearly this can always be subject to change in future.” 

Critics often accuse the West of imposing its values on other countries by insisting that they endorse treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or adhering to the World Trade Agreement regardless of cultural differences. 

The domination of one group over another is not unique. Examples of this can be found throughout history. 

But the world has reached a threshold. While not all countries embrace globalisation, there is a broad recognition that it is a reality now. 

Ellis points out that countries accepting certain ethical expressions become the norm of a society. Whether the norm is good or bad is in itself a value judgment that is often made from the outside. 

However, the norm of some societies is severely compromised or corroded. This does not mean that individuals in those societies have experienced moral or ethical decay. 

It is probably that their system has been abused by those in power or those seeking power. 

Although some countries are reluctant, most are enthusiastic about participating in the global system through international development projects and more preferably through investment and trade. 

The global system, however, has been largely developed and structured by Western interests and maintained through their assistance or investment and trade. 

But Malaysia and China are among those countries that have their own institutions and systems under which they operate their own ethical norms. 

Ellis says that concerns have been raised about some of these countries on the conduct of their business in a way that is “not transparent and with no rules that are clearly discernible to the foreigner”. 

Their expression of core ethics is fundamentally different to those with which the West is familiar.  

So they, too, experience considerable pressure to reform their institutions in a way that is broadly consistent with the Western way of doing business. 

Even those with Western institutions and systems inherited from the colonial rule have to ensure that they operate effectively and ethically. 

The governance programmes are developed by consultants who are predominantly Western-based or have acquired their skills through Western education. 

Ellis cites a recent survey as showing that a significant problem in some developing countries is that their institutions are “little more than empty shells”. 

Arguably, the people who work in these institutions lack knowledge of the rules or institutional ethics to ensure they operate effectively or deliberately flout those rules and ethics. 

Besides, their ethics may have been eroded through years of compromise or are unworkable because of the tensions between the core ethics as expressed through Western morals and those expressed through other culture, social and religious mores. 

“It is important not to confuse ethics with rules although they are clearly inter-related,” she warns. 

“Rules are fairly easy to identify because they are clearly prescribed. 

“Indeed, in many cases where ethical problems arise in some developing and developed countries, it is not because of a clash between Western and indigenous ethics but an abuse of both. 

“How the core ethics are expressed can have a profound influence on the operations of any given institution. 

“Clearly, the expressions of ethics need not be identical but they should be consistent enough to provide certainty to those who rely on them. 

“Certainty and consistency in the operation of a country’s government can lead to increased stability which, in turn, can lead to an increase in trade and investment. 

“If all goes well, this can result in an improvement in the economic development of that country.”  


o Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media (e-mail: fran 

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