This module is a resource for lecturers
The study of diversity, tolerance and pluralism, especially as these relate to culture, race, nationality, religious belief, gender, (dis)ability, and sexual orientation, is a key domain within ethics education since issues such as discrimination, misrepresentation and ethnocentricity are related to fairness, justice, identity, equality, and other ethical concerns. The study of diversity, tolerance and pluralism not only deepens our understanding of the points of view and social contexts of people from multiple backgrounds and life approaches, but also sensitizes us to the need to critically evaluate our assumptions including our stereotypes about "otherness" obtained through mass media, local bias, socialization, and first-hand exposure.
As noted in Module 1 of the E4J Integrity and Ethics Module Series, ethics refers to "the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live, and of what constitutes right conduct". The dictionarydefinition of ethics is "the study or the science of morals". Moral is defined as "a sense of right and wrong", and being moral as "belonging or relating to the principles of good and evil, or right and wrong". In the broadest sense, therefore, ethics is "a way of life". However, at the professional level, ethics is a "mode of moral reasoning" within specific professions often formulated in codes, policies, best practices, guidelines, and similar documents. In addition, ethics is an academic term which describes a branch of philosophy devoted to moral reasoning. Finally, in the most commonly used sense of the word, in many cultures "ethics" means virtue and subsets or synonyms of that term such as integrity, character and honesty (Chambers, 1999).
Diversity comes from the English root word diverse, which simply means a state in which there exist differences. Within the study of cultures, diversity pertains more specifically to the honouring of all races, sexual orientations, religions, genders, as if they are each an important hue within the rainbow. More recently, diversity has taken on the added meaning of a cause which champions the equality and rights of all these groups and is frequently linked with inclusion such that the phrase "diversity and inclusion" emphasizes both the importance of difference and the necessity of making each background and group feel important and included. In sociology, or the study of human societies, diversity refers to the variety of inter-group relations regarding race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religious belief. Sociologists are often interested in the patterns of prejudice and discrimination which exacerbate differences and make them negatives, rather than positives, in the human condition.
Tolerance means the recognition of differences and the assumption that such differences should be allowed in a society. Throughout history, many societies have exercised forms of tolerance. The early Muslim empires, for instance, created spaces for Christians and Jews to live among them, with their own legal systems and social orders. The idea of tolerance as a formal principle, however, comes from the liberal tradition. The English political philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), articulated the idea of toleration in a series of letters he wrote in the late 17 th and early 18 th centuries. In these letters, Locke argued for tolerance of differences in religious belief and practice, differences that were an important cause of the British civil wars of the 17 th century.
Finally, the word pluralism means not simply the grudging acceptance of differences in a social setting, but a recognition that such differences will improve the social order. A plural order is one in which a multiplicity of groups will make a social system better. Pluralism is often associated with democracy, for it is a condition of a democratic system that diversity in social and political matters will make a system more legitimate and effective. Some democratic systems allow pluralism to operate directly by giving interest groups the ability to access law makers, hence allowing their different views to be part of a successful social and political order.
Another term for pluralism is acceptance. At the broadest level this concept pertains to being at peace with situations, peoples, conditions, and attitudes as they are. However, within the context of ethics and diversity, acceptance means the ability to welcome if not champion differences in all types of human demographics whether by age, lifestyle, gender, orientation, race, ability, religion, and other categories. In some contexts, "acceptance" can also pertain to "surrender" or "yielding" to either a higher power or to a particular way of life and its rules.
Throughout history, different ethical and religious traditions have sought to negotiate the differences that exist within their societies. Imperial systems which conquered and then sought to amalgamate different religious beliefs provide some of the earliest evidence of how to deal with a plurality of beliefs or differences. One of the best examples of this comes from the ancient Persian Empire ruled by Cyrus the Great (600 - 530 B.C.). Cyrus ruled a large empire that stretched across the modern day Middle East and Central Asia. When he came to power, Cyrus allowed conquered peoples to return to their homelands and, rather radically for his day and ours, contributed to the rebuilding of destroyed religious monuments. Famously, the Hebrew Scriptures identify Cyrus as a messiah-like figure for his role in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
Cyrus' reputation as a defender of pluralism was further reinforced with the discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder. This small round object has writing in ancient Babylonian which describes the conquest by Cyrus of the Babylonian Empire and his decision to allow and even encourage a diversity of religious and ethnic groups throughout his empire. The cylinder, discovered in the late 19 th century, is now kept at the British Museum. In recent years, it has been referred to as one of the earliest documents about human rights. As stated by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, this is not really accurate. The document does not refer to individual rights at all, and the ancient world rarely had any conception of the rights of individuals (2013).
Rather, the document is better understood as one of the first attempts to deal with ethnic and religious diversity. It not only provides an example of tolerance, but of pluralism. Cyrus did not simply allow groups to live in peace but he actively encouraged them to rebuild their temples. We do not know exactly why he did this, as our evidence of his historical context is limited. However, his actions, as represented both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Cyrus Cylinder, do suggest he was someone who advocated an early form of pluralism.
How a society should respond to diversity has long been an ethical challenge. From the evidence we have, Cyrus was able to address this in a creative way, but not all societies have been able to do this peacefully. In 17 th-century Britain, for instance, civil war broke out as a result of religious diversity (along with other reasons). In 1534, King Henry VIII of Great Britain signed the Act of Supremacy, which declared him the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This act removed the religious authority of the Pope in Rome, which led to the creation of the Protestant Church of England. The reasons for this break are complicated, and include Henry's desire for a divorce from his wife. Whatever the reasons, this break-up of a unified Christian church in Great Britain led to a series of conflicts over the next 150 years, culminating in violent civil war. The war pitted Catholics who still believed in the authority of the Pope against Protestants who believed that the monarch in Great Britain should have authority over Christians. These disagreements were not only about who was in charge of the church. They were also about specific matters of worship and prayer, such as what kind of prayer book should be used and what dress the priests and ministers should wear. So, the violence of the civil war was, in one sense, largely about a failure to accept diversity on matters of religious belief and practice.
One influential philosopher mentioned above who lived during this period was John Locke. Locke was trained as a physician. He was famous in his day for writing about sensory perceptions, which combined his medical knowledge with philosophical ideas about perception, memory, and language. But today he is most famous for his political writings. His book, Second Treatise on Government, which appeared in 1691, influenced the French and American revolutionaries as it argued that all peoples have the right to resist an unjust government and should be able to create their own.
He also wrote a series of letters which are now called Letters on Toleration. The most famous one, known as Letter Concerning Toleration, was published in 1689. In the letter, Locke argues that the state should not be involved in religious matters, and that these should be left up to individual conscience; that is, he argues that a society should tolerate religious diversity in order to be more peaceful. Locke argued that if groups use violence against each other in order to create new beliefs, those beliefs will not be real; someone forced to believe something will not really believe it. So, in matters of religion, violence will never succeed in converting others.
The conflicts taking place in his day were not just between Catholics and Protestants but between different sects within Protestantism as well. Ironically, Locke does not allow toleration among all groups; he says that those who do not believe in any god should not be accepted into society. He also says in the letter that only if Catholics give up some of their more extreme beliefs will they be able to be part of society. So, even in a letter on toleration, Locke is perhaps not as tolerant as we would imagine he should be (Uzgalis, 2017).
Some have argued that Locke is not just advocating toleration but making the stronger claim for pluralism. That is, he suggests that a society that has a diversity of religious groups will be a better society because all people will be happy. This is not developed fully in Locke's thought, however, and most people see his work as a defence of toleration, the more limited recognition of diversity rather than the embrace of diverse peoples and groups. Locke has been an important thinker for liberals around the world, especially on this matter of tolerance. But, of course, not all people would agree with Locke on this.
The issues faced by leaders such as Cyrus and philosophers such as Locke revolved largely around diversity in religious belief. Other issues of diversity emerged in the 18 th and 19 th centuries, largely around race, ethnicity and nationalism. Versions of these ideas existed prior to this period, but only with the rise of the nation state and the development of scientific theories around race and development did they become issues of diversity. While the scientific theories that focused on race have largely been discredited, especially as they were used to justify practices of slavery, race continues to be a category by which individuals distinguish themselves.
Into the 20 th and 21 st centuries, identities around gender and sexual orientation have become more prominent as categories of diversity. Certainly, the category of gender is one of the oldest, with the differences between men and women shaping much of history. It is only with the rise of feminist thinking, partly in the Enlightenment, but more fully developed in the 20 th century, that gender distinctions have become political issues around which theories of diversity have developed. In the contemporary era, gender has become a more fluid idea in some contexts, with arguments being made that individuals should be able to change their genders, either medically or simply through behavioural changes. Sexual orientation has also become a politicized form of identity, one that has resulted in efforts to protect the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals. The United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commissioner has developed a programme in support of diversity, tolerance and pluralism in this area. In the present E4J module series, Module 9 (Gender Dimensions of Ethics) discusses feminist ethical theories that respond to gender based discrimination against women and aim to enhance gender diversity and equality.
As is evident, there is a range of different identities that can create a diverse society. These identities can be ones that we freely choose (religious belief) or ones with which we are born (race, gender, ethnicity). It is not always clear which identities we choose to adopt and which are we born with. One ethical question to consider would be if it matters whether we are born with an identity or whether we choose it. For instance, in the past, sexual orientation has been one that people believed was a choice. In the 20 th century, medical arguments emerged which said it was an identity with which we are born. New medical procedures now allow people to choose their gender. In any ethical evaluation, the matter of choice is crucial, though we should consider whether or not an identity that is chosen is less valid than an identity with which we are born, and whether it should matter in how we treat each other.
One term that has emerged in recent years which highlights the different parts of our identity is intersectionality. This term refers to the interconnected nature of social identities such as race, gender, class and sexual orientation that can define a person or a group. It was introduced by a legal scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw, in an analysis of legal forms of discrimination (1991). The term is useful because it allows us to see that while we might highlight one part of an individual's identity, even in a positive way, this might downplay other parts of that person's identity. Crenshaw was interested in the way that women's rights activists did not always take into account questions of race, as a black woman's experience of discrimination, for instance, might be very different than that of a white woman.
The life of Bayrd Rustin (1912-1987), the American civil rights activist, gives an example of the challenges of intersectionality. Rustin was born in Pennsylvania to a Quaker family. As an African-American, he became involved early in his life with efforts to end discrimination in the United States. He also focused on the economic exploitation of not only blacks but all people, briefly joining the American Communist Party. He was also gay, which meant that he did not serve as a public face for the civil rights movement, though he was actively involved with many of the leaders on this issue. Rustin fought not only for civil rights for black Americans, but also for gay rights and the rights of those who were in the lower classes. Combining these identities challenged many in the American rights movement who believed that sexual orientation would distract the cause of civil rights activists, but Rustin argued that these identities must be seen as interconnected and the diversity they create must be embraced.
Cyrus was an individual leader who was faced with an ethical challenge: How can I govern a diverse empire with a wide range of different belief systems? Locke used his position as an intellectual to convince the leaders of his day how to act. And Rustin served as an adviser to many leaders in the civil rights movement in the United States. Leaders all over the world must make these decisions, but so must all of us in our everyday lives. This Module emphasizes the importance of diversity. Students will encounter ethical dilemmas related to diversity by reading first-hand accounts of actual historical challenges faced by leaders, such as Cyrus, and moral role models. Video excerpts will reinforce these case studies and challenges. Students will also discuss the ways in which they would have handled similar challenges, and will thus be introduced to both theoretical and real world issues of diversity along the way. Personal participation, screenings, and mini-lectures will be complemented by reflective assignments.
This Module builds on the definitions of integrity and ethics provided in Module 1 (Integrity and Ethics: Introduction and Conceptual Framework) of the present E4J module series, as well as that Module's discussion of ethical decision-making and how to deal with ethical dilemmas.
- Chambers 21 st Century Dictionary (1999). Edinburgh, Chambers.
- Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991). Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1241-1299.
- MacGregor, Neil (2013). Cyrus Cylinder: A great moment for the Middle East. The Economist, 12 March. Video.
- Uzgalis, William (2017). John Locke. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta, ed.