Saturday, April 17, 2010

a little thought-experiment...

I've been thinking about the concept of cultural obligation and how to interpret our responsibility to the various circles of existence in which we find ourselves. Now, I am going to quite intentionally bracket out Christian theology here, not because it isn't important, but just for the sake of the 'experiment.'

So, my thought is this: If we establish cultural values, such as politeness, fairness, honesty, faithfulness, etc, on what are those values based? Do they have any genuine ethical content outside of what we, as human beings, give them? How would we determine this?

Just as an example: Suppose I decide to make a comment that is true, but 'insensitive.' One example might be, "Do I look good wearing this color?" Now, suppose we did all sorts of empirical studies to show that a particular skin tone looks best with a particular color, and we analyzed personal preference to find out what people liked and why, and we could provide a great deal of evidence to show that, in fact, a solid amount of proof is available to show that you do NOT look good in that color.

The question then becomes, which is more ethically appropriate, and why: 1) The obligation to tell the person that they do not look good in that color - keeping them from embarrassment or pure aesthetic error, or 2) The obligation to be kind to a person we have a relationship with, and 'lie' to them?

There are many factors that might be considered here: How well do you know the person? How will they respond? Is it vital to take cultural expectations seriously? Is there really an imperative to always tell the truth? These are, of course, not simple questions. But I submit that quite often, we do not really consider these questions, precisely because of the complications involved.

Rather, we - for reasons of ease, simplicity, and 'politeness', simply go with the path of least resistance and do what will be the least painful in the situation. By least painful I mean that we do what we think will be the best thing to do that both protects the other person, and protects our obligations. If this is a fair assessment, then I ask: Is this a good way to act? Is it ethically defensible? Or is it misguided? I am wondering...

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