From Golden to Platinum Rule – In Search of Meta-Ethics

Dada M. Maglajlic’, Ph.D.
Professor of SRS, Bemidji State University




Mitakuye Oyasin’s, “we are all related” (Ross, 1989) Dakota wisdom reminds us of our relatedness, as well as the common roots of our humanity. Through our long history we have searched for answers to the major mystery: who are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? Culture represents an attempt to answer it, and serves as our primary “teacher”. The first section of the article provides definition and uses Klopf’s cultural pie as a way to explore inner dynamics—eight facets which play themselves out differently within each and every individual. The second section relates ethics to the deep structure of one’s culture, takes a look at the universalism vs. relativism debate, and explores three potential models of meta-ethics. The third and final section presents the author’s personal reflection.


Every culture develops its own set of guiding principles, cultural patterns which serve as a frame of reference for daily living. Each person has unique-personal, group-common, and culture-common sets of elements, which represents her/his cultural profile. The individual’s pie presents a variation of the following composite elements: gender/sex, ethnic origin, religion, class/occupation, geographic region, urban/suburban/rural context, exceptionality, and age (Klopf, 2001).


It is important to consider the common roots of our humanity—the same or very similar human needs—as well as culturally diverse ways of satisfying them. Beneath all our differences, there is a shared element. Three models of meta-ethics are explored in this context.


Within cultural tradition, deep structure—influenced by history, family/upbringing, education, faith/religion, and government—nourishes our world view and preserves values and beliefs. Across cultural boundaries those in power have used and manipulated our differences to their benefit. We now have only two options: to be enslaved by the global market rule, pitying and hating each other in a race to the bottom, or to rediscover and recreate a global family.


Culture as a Way of Life


Culture seems to be an overlooked facet of the human composite, of who we are. It is omnipresent and for the most part operates at an unconscious level. Culture deals with the mysterious human nature, with our origin, with afterlife and everything in between. There are hundreds of different definitions. Samovar and Porter ( 2004, p.32) adopted from Marsella the following definition:

Culture is shared learned behavior which is transmitted from one generation to another for purposes of promoting individual and social survival, adaptation, and growth end development. Culture has both external (e.g. artifacts, roles, institutions) and internal representatives (e.g. values, attitudes, beliefs, cognitive - affective – sensory styles, consciousness patterns, and epistemologies).

We can find the origins of humans in Africa (Diamond, 1998). From there different groups spread in all directions, discovering new lands and different ways of life. So, another way of defining culture is as a common, shared striving and experience by a group of people (tribes and, later, ethnic groups) over a very long period of time. For thousands of years different groups were learning what works and what does not, what to rejoice in and what to be concerned about, what to fear and what to place confidence in. Every single element of human activity bears a mark of culture. It is fair to say that culture is who we are. With time, different groups developed their cultural patterns, their values and beliefs, and their world view as an overarching life philosophy. Every experience is filtered through a set of standards which we call cultural patterns, and every group has its own patterns—ways of being and doing that works best for them. We may call it culture-anchored or centered (ethnocentric). One can envision culture like an ocean in which we ponder and do just about everything. At the very core of every single person we also find culture; this is our centeredness (Graph 1, Maglajlic’ 1997). Ojibwe People (Bemidji public forum, 2004) distinguish old and new spirits; most of the world represents old spirits, while humans represent new spirits. For a person to be whole, harmonious, and well, inner and outer culture needs to “correspond” and be the same. This sameness may be extremely important to some, and not all that important to others. Another way of noting this important phenomenon is that some people are very “locally rooted” while the others may be born as the “citizens of the world”.


This brings us to Klopf’s (2001) concept of a personal cultural pie:  age, gender/sex, ethnic origin, religion, class/occupation, geographic region, urban/suburban/rural context, and exceptionality constitute facets of an individual’s cultural profile. Each of the eight elements may be “present” more or less “equally”. Through research and day-to-day experience we may observe that in every person there are usually 2-4 prominent facets. Let’s take a closer look at 8 facets:

  1. age: culture influences our life before we are born, defines how we come into it, and how we leave it, by defining funeral/burial ceremonies. There are people who enjoy every stage of their development, live in/with the present and celebrate each age period. Contrary to this, many people may mention a particular period (5 or 10 years) as the best time or best years of their life.
  2. gender/sex: while it is important to distinguish the gender (male/female) we are socialized into, it is equally important to observe sex (born as a girl or boy) as well as sexual orientation (heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual).
  3. religion: I distinguish between spirituality, faith, religion and church. As mentioned above, humans constitute “new spirits.” Through common striving groups of people that belong to same ethnic and/or cultural group defined their ceremonies and other rituals, their faith traditions; with time an element of social organization and structure was added, buildings were erected, and internal order defined as the religion and its temple (church) were introduced. For some people religion/church is a source of everything—their life revolves around church proclaimed practices as the only right way of life. Others may live in a country with a state supported church visited by its people three times in a lifetime; that is, at the baptism, wedding, and a funeral. Some believe in one god, others in many, while yet others see holiness in just about everything around them. Some worship by enjoying the beautiful view and beautiful nature, others by chanting, others by lighting a candle and kneeling. There are thousands of different practices just within the major world religions and its denominations.
  4. Class/occupation: many countries and cultures claim egalitarian status, and a classless society; yet, as we review history only in the ancient times did large groups of people live alike, close by, and more or less equally. War seems to be one of the oldest “industries” and it was most likely through regional and/or international wars that one of the first divisions according to “class” and “occupation” took place; we can recall higher ranking leaders and followers, spiritual guides and healers, teachers and craft/trade holders. In modern times, with a global economy, most people identify with their occupation—it defines their position within society.     
  5. Geographic region: as we travel across continents and major geographic and climate sections it is easy to imagine differences, and how they influence our daily routine: the way we dress, what we do and eat, how and when we do it, etc.
  6. Urban/suburban/rural context: we all know at least one person that does not like to live in a large city, or in a village (rural setting), and/or suburb. Americans have a saying: different strokes for different folks; there are many people who live by themselves, or with their family, in a remote wooded area far from rural micro-culture with its farming, gardening, and the like. Others love the big hoopla of the large cities, and yet others enjoy the privacy and the separateness of a suburb;
  7. exceptionality: it is a very important concept that points to a continuum of our different potentials and different abilities—from being genius to the other; mostly due to the lack of knowledge we attribute certain positive qualities at one end and negative at the other. For almost nine years I served as a volunteer director for a Special Olympics program; with great coaches our athletes reached practically the same heights as “regular” athletes. Their way of “getting to the top” was different. It seems that we know very little about ourselves; the less we know the more we have a tendency to attach negative attributes which with time become stereotyped and may lead to a stigma.
  8. ethnic origin: this is probably one of the youngest concepts in certain regions of the world. There were always tribes, clans, extended families, etc., but nations as we know them in the west have only existed for several hundred years. Sometimes there are strong common elements that cut across all strata of the social life: people live in a certain region, speak the same language, have the same customs, practice the same religion, and perceive themselves as members of one ethnic group and nation. More often than not, though, we encounter at least several different ethnic groups within one region or one country. USA is one of the most diverse countries in the world; just in the Los Angeles area there are over 200 different ethnic groups, speaking over 200 different languages.

So, within a particular person each of these eight elements may play themselves out differently. We know from research and personal experience that most people develop first impressions about others on the basis of their age, gender and skin color; within the dominant culture in the USA, the older, female, darker skinned person is usually accepted less favorably, although class and occupation may also have important influence.


Culture’s Deep Structure and Meta-Ethics


As far as we can trace distinct societies and their cultures, we can clearly distinguish social institutions through which a society defined a way of life, appropriate membership, all it’s “dos and don’ts”, its values, beliefs and ethics all assembled in a particular way which we call deep structure. Jandt defines this overarching life philosophy as the            

outlook that a culture has concerning the nature of the universe, the nature of human kind, the relationship between humanity and the universe, and other philosophical issues defining humans’ placein the cosmos (2004, p. 246).

Although it is not the same, nor can we use the concepts inter-changeably, the most important element of culture’s deep structure is a world view, defined by Klopf (2001) as a set of interrelated assumptions and beliefs about the nature of reality, the organization of the universe, the purpose of human life, God, and other philosophical matters that are concerned with the concept of being. In Martin and Nakayama (1997, p.31) we find five components—a paradigm for a range of values and a set of variations defined in 1961 by Kluckhohn and Strodbeck:

  1. Human nature is seen as basically good, basically evil and/or as a mixture of both.
  2. Relationships between humans and nature have humans as the ones who dominate, with nature as dominant, and/or as a harmony of the two.
  3. Relationships between humans are seen as group oriented, collateral, and individual.
  4. Preferred existence and personality development is observed as being with an emphasis on who one is, growing with actuation on spiritual growth, and/or doing with action as its major feature.
  5. Time orientation, be it past, present and/or future.

Culture is that complex whole that includes knowledge, values and beliefs, customs, morals, and laws acquired by a group of people over a very long period of time. Within every culture family, education (educational system), history, and government are charged as major holders of the society’s identity and transmitters of its values and beliefs to next generation. Each of the four institutions has its own internal power structure, although we can easily recognize the major power within a particular society for a given time period. The most influential system defines and maintains values as a broad and relatively stable set of guiding principles derived from the philosophical base. Anchored in values are beliefs, the subjective probabilities that some event or object is related to another event and/or object, or to some attribute, concept, or value. Shaped by one’s culture, beliefs serve as a storage system for our past experience, both group-past and personal-past.


Culture as a system of sense-making necessarily implies ethics. Members of different groups and different cultures encountered each other for different reasons. Also, for different reasons—here to mention living in the same region, doing trade, experiencing natural disasters, preventing and/or promoting war—they developed means or moral standards to evaluate different events as good or bad, right or wrong, desirable or not. At the culture level ethnocentrism prevailed; that is, perception that one’s own culture is better. It is learned at an unconscious level. It is destructive when it serves as a base for derogatory evaluations and/or used to shut others out. Similar dynamics may be observed at a person level with stereotypes. While stereotypes and ethnocentrism seclude and separate, there were many attempts to promote and facilitate intercultural encounters. To some cultures and societies such attempts come naturally since they perceive themselves as part of a greater whole, as part of diverse human family. With the others we may observe thousands-of-years-old dispute over universalism vs. relativism. Those in favor of universalism argue that there is a set of values which can be found in, and/or is applicable to, all cultures. Universal ethics represent a set of standards that go beyond limitations of any cultural system, and do not necessarily imply culture. The universal need to respect the worth and dignity of humans is the most often cited universal standard. Opposite to it is relativism, according to which each cultural group has its own value system and can only be implemented and evaluated by an insider, from the insider’s perspective. Critique points to the destructive nature of such an approach: there must be some shared understanding of what is wrong and right among and across different groups of people. Otherwise, the existence of a completely separate system of ethics would by definition destroy human society. Howell (from Martin & Nakayama, 1997) argues that there is no universal or cross-cultural basis, that the concept of universal ethics and standards of goodness that apply to everyone, everywhere and at all times is a sort of myth people struggle to hold onto. Universalists, on the other hand, argue that a relativist’s stance simply allows people to blame others for having biases while subtly nurturing their own. Hall points to the common element, often known as a ”golden rule”, that can be found in different religious traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American spiritual traditions, and Zoroastrianism (2002, p. 337). Although the wording may vary, in the different religious texts we may find five common ethical admonitions for communicators:

  • tell the truth and avoid deception
  • do not slander other people
  • do not blaspheme God or other sacred figures or objects
  • avoid speech that demeans others and life in general
  • start with yourself, know yourself

Many still define the last element as the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. In addition to that, Hall (2002) distinguishes several golden approaches: the golden purse (money as a source of power), the golden mean (the middle path; virtue lies between the two extremes), the golden law (strict duties for all humans), and the golden consequence (outcome of ones behavior; Mill’s utilitarianism is a version of it, advocating greatest good for the greatest group of people). This brings us to some of the more recent efforts to promote harmonious intercultural encounters and peace.


In Search of Meta-Ethics


Love and liberation power approaches advocate that peace and harmony could not be given; it has to be created by and through fostering both individual freedom and mutual responsibility for each other, the creation of policy and politics of shared power rather than power over others, and treating everyone as a valued whole person and not as someone to be used and/or controlled. Such an approach perceives cultural differences as life-enhancing.


Three different approaches deserve our special attention: Hull, Martin/Flores/Nakayama and Bennet’s; the last one is combined with Samovar and Porter’s tips for better intercultural communication.


Hull’s Ethical Principles of Intercultural Relations


Hull is of the opinion that only through a dialogue can we become truly human, and that three principles provide reasonably clear ground for ethical decision making as related to intercultural encounters. These three principles are:

  • the effort to understand (thought)
  • peaceful disagreement (action)
  • loving relationships (feeling)

The Effort to understand is related to our willingness to share a personal story as well as to be willing to learn, to listen to other people’s stories. This effort to understand is grounded in a teachable attitude, dialogue, and mutual legitimacy, all of which are anchored in certain qualities one posses: authenticity (being sincere and genuine while communicating with others), inclusion (perceiving all as worthy of relationship), confirmation (the active effort to recognize worth in others), presentness (resistance to be detached and distant), a spirit ofmutual equality ( acknowledging the other as equal, mutual legitimacy, an ability to speak freely and openly), and supportive climate (climate in which judgments are suspended, and everyone is encouraged to participate).


Peaceful disagreementis related to action which is to be nonviolent. It is so easy to miss-communicate; for example, 500 hundred commonly used words in English language create 14,000 different meanings. What matters is how we handle disagreements. That is, do we opt for an effort to dominate, denigrate, control, harm others, or do we observe that, indeed, we are in it together as Native American wisdom teaches us, also stating that one should not judge another person until one has walked two moons in his/her moccasins. Peaceful, nonviolent disagreement is about getting in touch with the core qualities of another person’s being, and discovering what is good, positive, and right. M. Gandhi is best known for his philosophy of nonviolence. M.L. King, Jr. embraced his approach, as well as earlier teachings, such as the ones coming from Jesus and Mohammad.


Loving relationships point to the emotional component of our behavior. Although we all know about manipulative love, the nature of love is related to the willingness of a person to extend her/himself for the purpose of connecting with another person, and nurturing one’s spiritual growth. Hall uses Romano’s intercultural marriage microcosm (p. 357) to define qualities needed for a loving relationship: good and non-selfish motives, common goals, sensitivity to each other’s needs, a liking for each other’s culture, flexibility, a solid and positive self-image, a desire to experience new things (also called a spirit of adventure), an ability to communicate (clarity of intention/thinking and action/doing), a commitment to the relationship in spite of potential outside pressures, and a good sense of humor, which leads to laughter (humor is not easily taken from  one cultural context to another; thus, it could be tricky). On page 356, Hall has a graphic representing an arch of intercultural relationships with “loving relationships” as the keystone. Indeed, love and loving kindness are the essence of it all!


Martin, Flores and Nakayama’s Approach to Ethics


Judith Martin, Lisa Flores and Thomas Nakayama (in Martin & Nakayama, 2001) advocate for meta-ethics to fill in the void that exists at the present time. They quote Dean Barnlund, who, in 1982, called it a moral vacuum. Three principles are specifically mentioned as a ground for meta-ethics.


The humanness principle is the first one: respect and tenderness toward others; willingness to cultivate appreciation for fellow humans and be responsive. Peace is at the center of this principle, and it is anchored in addressing others with respect, describing the world as accurately as possible, recognizing the uniqueness of all groups, and trying to empathize and identify with others.


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