UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Does ethical value transcend culture? Peacey, Arthur Thomas


Since we accept a democratic society as desirable, it is important to have a sound basis for ethical action. To substantiate such a basis it is necessary to controvert the ethical relativity which has become widespread as a result of the anthropological evidence of the diversity of customs and standards in different societies. This thesis maintains that it is possible to adopt a naturalistic position and at the same time hold that ethical value transcends culture. If it is assumed that within man is focussed the highest development of the universe, the ethic relevant to humanity acquires a universal character. An evolutionary approach provides the justification. Ethical value concerns the "ought" and comes into being when one person considers the rights of others and modifies his conduct accordingly. Ethical action has two manifestations: (1) Intrinsic value conferred on others; and (2) Ethical value, the expression of an obligation, which incidentally leads to an accession of intrinsic value by the agent performing an ethical action. Ethical value is viewed as a basic function of human nature regardless of any specific culture and the corresponding "ethical ought" is distinguished from the "social ought" which is a rule of conduct imposed implicitly by society. It is maintained that there is a universalism implicit in the ethical ought--man is an ethical creature; the ethical ought is an obligation to foster what is right and can not be reduced to custom or convention. After considering briefly the influence of psychology on ethics, the evolution of man's ethical nature is traced, and the endeavour made to show that ethical value is an evolving capacity of man. Anthropological data showing the influence of training and society on personality is reviewed, and criteria for comparing cultures advanced. It is suggested that our present culture with all its faults is superior to others and that the final influence of Western democracy, if its full implications are realized, may be beneficial. Four criteria are presented as constituting the essential marks of ethical conduct; reverence for life, honesty, truth telling, and respect for personality. A rapid survey of a number of societies suggests that while no definitive pattern can be found, it is a reasonable hypothesis that men behave within certain limits of acceptable conduct, and that a social need lies behind departures from the criteria mentioned. The conclusion is drawn that ethical value, the moral imperative, is the expression of a capacity natural to man as a species (although it can be manifested fully only under conditions of mature development of personality and environment) and that since humanity is greater than any specific culture, ethical value does transcend culture.

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