A Multilayered Meta-ethics Lens: An Inquisitive Frame

Stella Ting-Toomey, Ph.D.

In an intercultural decision-making situation, we often have to make difficult choices between upholding our own cultural beliefs and values and considering the values of the other culture. Much of the complexity of an intercultural ethical decision-making process derives from the tension between whether ethics is a culture-bound concept or whether ethics should be understood apart from the culture. Due to space limitation, I will address the theme of developing a multilayered meta-ethics lens. For other intercultural ethical issues, see Ting-Toomey (2011).

There exist multiple ethical positions in the intercultural field (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2012). Ethical absolutism emphasizes the application of principles of right and wrong in accordance with a set of ethnocentrically-driven standards without consideration for any cultural differences. Ethical relativism emphasizes the importance of understanding the cultural context in which the problematic conduct is being judged. The positive implication is that it takes the role of culture seriously in its ethical decision-making outcome. However, the danger is that this view encourages too much cultural leniency and ignores ethical principles that are developed beyond each cultural context. Oftentimes, ethical relativism can continue to encourage home-grown cultural practices (e.g., bribery or child labor).

A third position, a multilayered “meta-ethics” lens refers to the cultivation of an ethical way of thinking about principled decision-making process and a systematic, inquisitive process in our everyday lives. The term “multilayered” refers to understanding the problematic practice from the five social ecological layers of macro, exo, meso, micro, and chrono-level system analysis (Brofenbrenner, 1979; Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2013). The “macro-level” analysis refers to the larger sociocultural contexts, histories, worldviews, beliefs, and values that shape the practice; the “exo-level” analysis refers to the formal institutions (e.g., courtroom, health care system, school system, or semi-formal media system) which hold power resources to create or enforce agenda and policies. The “meso-level” analysis refers to the immediate units’ influence such as a workplace or an extended family unit that have some impact on the developmental ethical case; the “micro-level” analysis refers to the intrapersonal-level (i.e., identity-based issues, emotions, and meanings) and interpersonal-level features (e.g., the on-going practice, communication, and the involved actors) in the problematic situation. The “chronosystem-level” analysis refers to the temporal evolution phases, patterns, transitions, and consequences of developmental changes of the questionable cultural practice over time.

Thus, a multilayered meta-ethics perspective is really a broader, critical inquiry approach on how an intercultural ethical dilemma should be envisioned and approached. It emphasizes the importance of systematic data collection from a wide range of sources at multiple levels and including the importance of taking the total person, the total situation, and the total cultural communication system into account. It also takes into serious consideration the importance of balancing the consideration of cultural context and global humanism.

To engage in a mindful meta-ethics analysis, here are some final inquiry questions or guidelines to help you in framing your intercultural ethical stance:

  1. Who or which group perpetuates this practice within this culture and with what reasons? Who or which group resists this practice and with what reasons? Who is benefiting? Who is suffering? Does the practice cause unjustifiable suffering to an individual or a selected group of individuals at the pleasure of another group?
  2. How should I serve as an effective change agent in the local cultural scene and the global advocacy arena? What is my role and what is my deeper “voice” in this ethical dilemma? Should I condemn/reject this practice publicly and withdraw from the cultural scene? Or Should I stay actively engage and find a solution that reconciles cultural differences? Who are my allies and who are my opponents?
  3. Can I or we visualize alternative solutions or creative outcomes that can serve to honor the cultural traditions and at the same time get rid of the intolerable cultural practice? What systematic changes in the culture are needed for the creative solution to sustain itself and filter through the system? At what level can I or we as a team implement this new resolution in the most effective manner and with a strong bottom-up and top-down buy-in?
  4. If you are dealing with a global organization ethical case, are you ethically confident in defending your ethical struggle in both the private and public sectors? Would you want your significant others – your partners, children, and parents – to know about this choice? Would you be proud of seeing your own name on CNN or BBC in affiliation with your decision and that you can explain your choice ethically with full personal accountability?
  5. Would the resulting consequences be beneficial to the larger community or society on both the tangible and principled ethics levels? Would you be comfortable teaching your children to act the same way and see you as a role model in the next 50 years? Are there better creative alternatives that rest on firmer ethical principles?

Many problematic cultural practices perpetuate themselves because of long-standing cultural habits or ignorance of alternative ways of doing things. Education or a desire for change from within the people in a local culture is usually how a questionable practice is ended. A meta-ethics lens call for the empowerment of the self and others to seek multiple truths, the courage to dialogue side-by-side with culturally unfamiliar others, and the wisdom to make a principled decision once all the social ecological layers from multiple voices are known and respectfully being acknowledged.


        Brofenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

        Ting-Toomey, S. (2011). Intercultural communication ethics: Multiple layered issues. In G. Cheney, S. May, & D. Munshi (Eds.), The ICA Handbook of Communication Ethics (pp. 335-352). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

        Ting-Toomey, S., & Chung, L. C. (2012). Understanding Intercultural Communication, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

        Ting-Toomey, S., & Oetzel, J. G. (in press, 2013). Culture-based situational conflict model: An update and expansion. In J. G. Oetzel & S. Ting-Toomey (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Conflict Communication, Second Edition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey is a Professor at the Department of Human Communication Studies, California State University at Fullerton, USA. She is the author/editor of 17 books and 4 instructor manuals and interactive study guides. Her teaching, research, and training passions are in mindful intercultural identity-negotiation and intercultural conflict competence.

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