As many of the examples we’ve explored in this book should make clear, the culture(s) which surround us, whether during our upbringing and/or in our work and leisure as mature people, play a central role in shaping our ethical thinking.
In particular, the comparative ethicist Bernd Carsten Stahl notes that, since the twentieth century, at least within the English-speaking world, utilitarian approaches have dominated over alternatives. By contrast, deontological approaches – especially as rooted in Kant and then the contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas – have been favored in the Germanic countries, including much of Scandinavia. These in turn contrast with what Stahl characterizes as French moralism in Montaigne and Ricoeur. On Stahl’s analysis, this approach to ethics is teleological – i.e., oriented toward the goal or telos of discerning and doing what is necessary for the sake of an ethical and social order that makes both individual and community life more fulfilling, productive, etc., through “the propagation of peace and avoidance of violence”.
As we will see more fully below, these views further contrast with non- Western traditions. Broadly, modern Western traditions have emphasized the individual as the primary agent of ethical reflection and action, especially as reinforced by Western notions of individual rights. Certainly, these traditions further recognize that individuals’ actions are made within and affect a larger community; and, as we have seen in the examples of Scandinavian notions of allemannsretten and feminist notions of relational autonomy, there are ethical traditions in the modern West that indeed emphasize greater attention to community, not simply individual, actions and goods. But, at least in comparison with modern Western traditions, non-Western traditions – including various forms of Buddhism, Confucian thought, and indigenous traditions in Africa, Australia, and the Americas – lay greater emphasis on the community and community well-being as the primary focus for ethical reflection and choice.
This ethical map becomes even more complicated, first of all, as we recognize that these generalizations will only go so far: again, each cultural generalization immediately implies counterexamples, additional layers and influences, etc. The complexity grows further as we add both:
(a) premodern and contemporary ethical traditions – as we are about to see, the virtue ethics expressed by Socrates and Aristotle and its contemporary expressions; and
(b) contemporary ethical frameworks such as feminism, and especially the ethics of care, along with environmental ethics.
While overwhelming at first, exploring these diverse ethical approaches is both: (a) unavoidable, especially as digital media allow more and more people around the globe to communicate and interact with one another; and (b) necessary – first of all in order to overcome our own ethnocentrism and its attendant dangers. Such exploration should further help us to make better-informed choices regarding our own ethical frameworks and norms – and, ideally, assist us in moving toward a more inclusive, genuinely global digital media ethics that recognizes and fosters our ethical differences alongside our shared norms and values.
At this stage, however, it may be helpful to take a first run at learning how to apply the meta-theoretical positions of ethical relativism, monism, and pluralism.