Culture greatly influences what behaviors are considered to be
Culture greatly influences what behaviors are considered to be "ethical."

Culture plays a significant role in how people decide what constitutes "ethical behavior." In his book, "Moral Relativism," Steven Lukes advances the idea of "externalism," challenging the notion that our beliefs are based on reason. Externalism credits external influences such as "the powerful" in the society or "social interests" or "institutional imperatives" or "social networks" in explaining how we come to believe what we do. If this is so, then different societies would be influenced in different ways and thus have different ideas about ethical behavior. A society may enforce these ideas through policies or codes of conduct, but the law isn't the only way societies influence behavior. Social conventions also function as mediators.

Cultural Relativism

"Objectivists" believe that there are moral principles that apply universally, that is, to every person and situation. "Relativists" believe that ideas about right and wrong vary according to the context, the individual or the society and that ethical values are created by the particular culture. In "Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong," Louis Pojman suggests that "all moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance." In other words, moral principles can be thought of as conventions or norms. Lukes defines "norms" as guidelines that suggest which actions are "required, prohibited, permitted, discouraged and encouraged." Accepted norms also depend heavily on time and place.

The "Projection Error"

In making ethical relativist comparisons, you need to beware of what philosopher John W. Cook calls the "Projection Error." This occurs when you interpret the practices of a different culture from the perspective of your own culture. This can lead to a misunderstanding of why certain cultural practices exist and what they mean in the other culture. Suppose a particular act that is frowned upon in your culture is performed in another. This doesn't necessarily mean that the act, as you understand it, is acceptable to the other culture. Rather, that act may mean something very different in the other culture. Of course, it's difficult to fathom ideas that don't exist in your own culture. In this case, analogies make useful reference points. In a way, this is similar to translating one language into another. Each language has its own nuances -- influenced by culture -- and a word may not have an "equivalent" in another language.

Culture and Moral Dilemmas

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an ethical or moral dilemma is a situation in which an "agent" sees herself as "having moral reasons to do each of two actions, but doing both actions is not possible." Competing cultural values and norms may contribute to these conflicts of interest. For example, a woman may feel conflicted about abortion because of social controversy, religious influences or expectations to fulfill traditional gender roles. At the same time, having the baby as an unwed mother would be stigmatized. On the other hand, cultural values -- including religious influences -- that have meaning for the agent can help with the resolution of a dilemma.

Ethics and Emotion

In a sense, it is emotion that functions as a mediator of ethical dilemmas. In Issue 82 of "Philosophy Now" magazine, Jesse Prinz suggests that "Moral variation is best explained by assuming that morality, unlike science, is not based on reason or observation." He goes on to explore how children acquire values through emotional conditioning -- associating experiences of negative emotions with punished behaviors -- and "emotional osmosis" -- the process of imitating and internalizing reactions of parents and peers.