Pedagogica: Who am I? Who is we? The ethical consequence


“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Interculturalists often cite Anïas Nin's echo of Talmudic wisdom to talk about how our colored glasses tint the world and the cultures we see. While this observation is also used to maintain that our nighttime dreams are constructed from our daily experiences–also probable–I would like to focus on the implication that we not only see things but do things according to who "we" are, whether the we refers to all of us as individuals or to how we perceive and define the we's in our lives. Each of us needs to ask, "Who are the we's in me?"

A classical philosopher observed that "We only choose what we see as good." This raises the deepest ethical conflicts about what is "good". Good for you? Good for me? Good for us? My idiosyncratic good can be bad for you, knowingly or unknowingly.

Some years ago, I took a wok on the wild side and decided to cook a Chinese meal for by guests, one of whom was allergic to shellfish. Taking this into account, I made sure that the dishes were only of meat or veggies. However, in my ignorance I flavored some dishes with oyster sauce and almost put my guest in hospital. Though we later joked that the incident proved that there was actually oyster in the oyster sauce, it was no laughing matter at the time. My ignorant good was not hers.

Culture creates we's and we's create culture in an endless process, so what my we may perceive as good for us may not be good for you and your we when we share a context in which we need to make choices. This is where our ideas of collective and individualist dimensions of culture goes into a tailspin and crashes. We is not who you live with, but who lives in you.

Paradoxically, when in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo people identified themselves with the victims using the French slogan, "Je suis Charlie". Most non-Francophones do not realize that the phrase can mean both, "I am Charlie" or "I follow Charlie". We are often inclined to follow our we's in choosing how to position ourselves and to act, which then raises the question, “When difference is meaningful, whose ethic obtains?” If our we is all humanity, as, e.g., where we all share the world ecology, we posit an all-inclusive we, and face the consummate challenge of seeing universal connectedness, a vision that a number of religions and spiritual philosophies around the world have attempted, but they as well have too often fragmented into conflicting we's.

Do our relatives determine our ethics, or are our ethics relative to whom we consider our relatives to be? Do we judge by intention or outcome? Probably all these are true, underlining how difficult it is to take “ethical decisions and action interculturally as well as in any context.

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