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Thomas A. Lewis

Comparative Ethics in North America

Methodological Problems and Approaches


This article surveys recent North-American literature in comparative ethics, focusing on issues in methodology. The variety of approaches can be ordered along a spectrum, from those that posit a universal structure of moral reason; through a middle ground that utilizes more ad hoc approaches and maintains that illuminating comparisons will depend on the particular traditions – and aspects of traditions – being compared; to relativistic approaches that view different traditions as offering incommensurably distinct frameworks, among which comparison is futile. Because they recognize differences among modes of practical reason without presupposing that there can be no common ground, strategies in the middle appear the most promising. 1 



Universalistic Approaches
Ad Hoc Approaches
Relativistic Approaches


»Comparative ethics is less a discipline than a sort of floating seminar in which scholars from various fields trade information and dicuss methodology. Because most people around the seminar table know only one or two traditions intimately and are rightly anxious to resist hasty generalization, most of he information being exchanged is introductory and fragmentary in nature ... Discussion therefore typically moves from historical substance to method before long, for it is at the methodological level that the seminar most readily finds common ground.«

Jeffrey Stout
(1994, 256)


  The last twenty years have witnessed remarkable development of the field of comparative ethics in English. While comparisons can also be made within a particular tradition over time and between different strands of a tradition, the majority of recent work in comparative ethics has analyzed across traditions. Central to the emergence of this field has been extensive concern with methodology; the challenges of cross-cultural interpretation further intensify the hermeneutical questions already hotly debated throughout the humanities.


  Seeking to avoid the ethnocentric imperialism of the categories that has often characterized Western study of other traditions, scholars have given great attention to the theoretical strategies required for both interpreting texts and practices from another culture and bringing these into dialogue with one's own (and/or a third). Further, because scholars typically have expertise in only one or two traditions-or subtraditions-and the colleagues around the table are likely to have expertise in different areas, the methodological issues that all must confront often provide the common ground.  2  For this reason, I here seek to provide a critical overview of contemporary English-language North American literature on methodologies in comparative ethics.


  The methodological concerns are multiple. A central question is the most appropriate starting point. Should comparison seek to establish a neutral, universal framework in terms of which different moralities can be compared? If that is impossible, should we simply become aware that we are using categories derived from a particular tradition or can common categories be forged? These questions bear on the fundamental issues at the core of the epistemological orientation of much modern Western philosophy (see Sizemore 1990, 93).


  Can we establish common criteria for evaluating ethical claims? How do ethical and religious claims interrelate? Can religious and "purely" ethical claims be separated?  3  More specifically, is there a universal account of practical reason, the process through which we argue for our ethical judgments? Could there be a neutral, purely descriptive account of these processes or is an adequate description of ethical reasoning inevitably normative as well? And if the processes of practical reasoning vary significantly across traditions, just what are we supposed to compare: the resulting moral injunctions, ethical dispositions or virtues, the processes through which injunctions or virtues are justified, or entire ways of life?

»Thus, if pursued persistently, the methodological debate in comparative ethics leads to some of the most basic controversies in philosophical and moral epistemology.«

Russel F. Sizemore
(1990, 93)


  Arranging the sets of responses to these closely related questions suggests the possibility of a typology of approaches. Robin Lovin and Frank Reynolds (1985) offer a helpful typology of formal, semi-formal, and empirical approaches, while Sumner Twiss's more recent work (1998) provides a valuable typology of course models that largely correspond to methodologies.


  I want to propose a typology that orders methodological approaches along a spectrum, according to their moral epistemologies. At one end are formalists who argue for a single, universal deep structure to moral reason. In the middle are approaches that recognize genuinely different modes of practical reason operating in different contexts; they exhibit deep differences but are not necessarily untranslatable. At the far extreme, a position that undermines comparison, is a radical relativism that denies different so-called moral discourses are even speaking about the same thing.

 Universalistic Approaches



  At the formalist end of the spectrum, Ronald Green and Alan Donagan conceive of morality as having one a basic underlying structure that does not vary from one context to another. This structure derives from what it means to be a rational agent, not from a thick account of human nature or a given culture's way of life. Consequently, it can be elaborated a priori, without having to first examine its manifestation in particular cultures. Kant's moral thought represents one of the most adequate expositions of the universal structure of morality and therefore forms the basis of their own accounts.


  Green's Religious Reason (1978) – together with Little and Twiss's Comparative Religious Ethics, which appeared the same year (see below) – sparked much of the contemporary debate regarding comparative methodology. According to Green reasoning about moral issues can and must be universal in the sense of being »to the satisfaction of any rational person« (1978, 14). Different religious traditions are each based on a process of moral reasoning common to all human beings, a process that constitutes a deep structure of thought underlying all historical traditions. At least in this work, the empirical demands of morality vary little across cultures. In Religion and Moral Reason, he acknowledges differences in moral traditions' specific claims but doubts that they reflect underlying differences in practical reasoning (1988, 8-9). Overcoming the biases or particularity of our own starting point only requires uncovering the universal structure of reason; once this is achieved, we need not worry about ethnocentrism.

»The concept of morality is therefore inseparable from the concept of a potential community of all human beings, de jure membership of which gives rise to duties that are more fundamental than those arising from de facto membership of particular societies ...«

Alan Donagan
(1993, 54)


  Donagan shares Green's Kantian approach, but whereas Green finds genuine moral reasoning in all the religious traditions he examines, Donagan claims that »[m]ost religions are radically false, and many are morally evil« (1993, 69). Practical reason is a universal process, but it is not universally recognized. Its requirements are not intrinsically related to a given way of life or bound to living in any particular community (54). Moral duties derive from rational agency alone.


  By developing the account of morality a priori, without (consciously) looking at particular traditions, the formalist approach blinds itself to different forms of practical reasoning. It cannot imagine values or virtues that would be compelling only in the context of a specific way of life. Moreover, by looking for Kant in all traditions – whether he is found or not – one inevitably overlooks much that is there. If morality consists principally in different versions of Kant, it is questionable whether actual comparison is possible.


  The next approach, that of David Little and Sumner Twiss's Comparative Religious Ethics, has been characterized by Lovin and Reynolds as »semiformal« (1985, 15). It seeks to avoid the pitfalls of the formalist method by basing a universal account of practical reason on empirical investigation rather than a priori analysis. Nonetheless, in order to clearly distinguish facts and values, it insists on beginning by carefully defining the key terms, especially morality and religion, through reconstruction from »ordinary usage« in the theorist's own socio-historical context (9).



  While their analysis of practical reasoning seeks to be empirical, the basic terms are defined before comparison begins. They do not claim these definitions are universal but argue that we have to start somewhere, and that the best way to avoid improper ethnocentrism is to acknowledge one's particular starting point rather than claim a universal framework (see 69 and Little 1981, 221).

»It is hard to see how one can trace relationships between two concepts, particularly concepts as complex as religion and morality, without first specifying what the concepts mean. Given the diversity of understanding of these terms, we are hardly at the point where we can assume definitions!«

David Little / Sumner B. Twiss
(1978, 6)


  Morality responds to the need for human cooperation in a finite world and focuses specifically on »welfare«, where this is understood as concrete and objective (29, 37). Religion deals with »problems of interpretability«, coping with the inexplicability of the universe, suffering, etc. (54). Moral »action-guides« are »other-regarding«, while religious »action-guides« are »sacred-regarding«. Although moral and religious justifications should be kept analytically distinct, they have similar structures of reasoned argument that can be found in all cultures: Justification proceeds back to a basic norm, such as the categorical imperative, from which particular judgments are deduced. This norm is vindicated by a »metapractical« reason why we should accept the basic norm. Different traditions – and figures within them – provide different justifications for their claims. Vindications also differ, some based on consensus, others on cosmologies. Comparison is possible because patterns of justification and vindication are similar in structure; it is interesting and fruitful because these structures are filled with differing content.


  Littles and Twiss's concern to take empirical work seriously represents an important move beyond a priori formalism. They are also explicit that the most productive comparisons will be of subtraditions or particular figures rather than "whole" traditions, such as Christianity or Buddhism (19). One can question, however, whether they have gone far enough. Although they claim that their model of justification and vindication is found in all traditions, Jeffrey Stout has argued that actual practical reasoning is virtually never as deductive as Little and Twiss seem to argue. We often hold specific moral judgments more securely than the supposedly underlying general principles. Justification moves dialectically between levels, rather than being »a regress toward basic norms« (Stout 1980, 292). Little has responded that their approach does not exclude such a dialectical understanding (1981, 219).



  But the analysis in the previous work seemed to depend upon justification through appeal to more general principles (1978, 102). Alternative forms of justification, whether in "our" tradition or another, would not appear rational within their framework. Moreover, if the lines of appeal are not as discrete as they suggest, it becomes unclear how consistently the distinction between religious and moral justification can be maintained.



  Taking her cue from Aristotle rather than Kant, Martha Nussbaum argues that comparisons across traditions are best approached through »non-relative virtues« (1993). Rejecting the relativistic tenor of many contemporary appropriations of Aristotle, she maintains that Aristotle's approach was »to isolate a sphere of human experience that figures in more or less any human life, and in which more or less any human being will have to make some choices rather than others, and act in some way rather than some other« (1993, 245 emphasis in original).

»People will of course disagree about what the appropriate ways of acting and reacting in fact are. But in that case, as Aristotle has set things up, they are arguing about the same thing, and advancing competing specifications of the same virtue.«

Martha C. Nussbaum
(1993, 247)


  All human beings have to deal with the distribution of limited resources, mortality, etc. The corresponding virtue will refer to the most appropriate action within this sphere, its name serving as a place holder. »Justice«, for instance, describes the appropriate way of acting in the sphere of distribution of limited resources. People disagree about what it means to be just, but what they are arguing about is the most appropriate way to act with regard to this sphere. Thus, »[d]ifferent cultural accounts of good choice within the sphere in question in each case are now seen not as untranslatably different, but as competing answers to a single general question about a set of shared human experiences« (251). There is no guarantee of a single best choice in any sphere, but the common »grounding experiences« of human existence are concrete enough to ensure that the plurality will likely be small.


  By focusing on people's lived experiences, Nussbaum bases her position on empirical claims rather than a priori arguments. At the same time, the universality of the basic features of human existence means that we do not necessarily have to look to other cultures to identify them. The list is always open to revision, but it is not inherently a product of comparison between traditions. Because she does not posit a universal justificatory process, she can compare traditions with very different accounts of how to justify ethical claims. By focusing so specifically on the judgments rather than the justificatory processes, however, she may direct attention away from potentially fruitful comparisons of the conceptions of practical reason.

 Ad Hoc Approaches



  Each of the above positions develops some sort of universal basis for comparison, whether grounded in conceptions of a priori practical reason, an empirically universal practical reason, or universal spheres of human experiences. The next set of positions are characterized by a more ad hoc approach to comparison and its possibilities. While optimistic about cross-cultural dialogue on ethical issues, they do not ground it in a single universal.

»In fact, it will almost always be the case that the adequate language in which we can understand another society is not our language of understanding, or theirs, but rather what one could call a language of perspicuous contrast. This would be a language in which we could formulate both their way of life and ours as alternative possibilities in relation to some human constants at work in both.«

Charles Taylor
(1985, 125)


  Charles Taylor challenges a model of practical reason that presupposes a coherent, closed set of beliefs all justified by appeal to first principles.  4  »Faced with an opponent who is unconfusedly and undividedly convinced of his position, one can indeed only hope to move him rationally by arguing from the ground up« (1993, 209 emphasis in original). This, however, is very rarely, if ever, the case. Most productive argument is ad hominem, starting from the interlocutor's present position and trying to convince her that some aspect of our vision is more adequate than her current one in accounting for or responding to some of her most deeply held convictions – whether these be abstract principles or very specific judgments about a situation. We might try to persuade one person of the justice of universal healthcare by appealing to her beliefs about human equality and another of a particular account of human equality as a way to articulate his almost instinctive opposition to slavery. Taylor acknowledges that there is no guarantee that disputes will be subject to ad hominem debate; »radical gaps may exist« (225). Nonetheless, we can see the extensive role for such argumentation once we realize that very few disputes are between fully explicated, closed positions.


  Cross-cultural dialogue, however, is not simply a matter of changing the other. On this issue Taylor is strongly influenced by Gadamer's conception of a fusion of horizons. Whereas Little and Twiss establish their categories based on their own tradition and use these throughout the comparative process, Taylor agrees that we must start there but argues that we do not have to stay there. Instead, the categories of comparison are developed or transformed through the comparative process itself. The result is that, in seeking to understand the other, we inevitably transform our self-understanding as well; »other-understanding is always in a sense comparative« (1990, 41). In the fusion some particularity is overcome, but the result is not an Archimedean point. It may be a common space achieved for two traditions, but it is still particular in relation to other traditions: »The only possible ideal of objectivity in this domain is that of inclusiveness. The inclusive perspective is never attained de jure. You only get there de facto, when everybody is on board« (42).



  Like Taylor, Lee Yearley does not seek a universal basis for comparison but argues that the most productive comparisons depend on the specifics of what are being compared. His Mencius and Aquinas (1990) is one of few works to deal extensively with methodological issues and provide an in-depth comparison-in this case, of Mencius's and Aquinas's conceptions of the virtue of courage. Moreover, whereas many methodological discussions focus at the level of epistemological meta-issues, he provides more specific guides for comparative work.

»I initially set courage's focal meaning through Western analyses, including the one found in Aquinas. I then used the idea of secondary meanings [...] to interpret Mencius's account [...] The process of comparative analysis, however, did not stop at that point. Mencius's treatment reveals important things about both courage and Aquinas's analysis.«

Lee H. Yearley
(1990, 194).


  To locate the most productive realm for comparisons, Yearley discusses three kinds of theories. He draws on Robin Horton's notion of primary and secondary theory. Primary theories are very concrete, often shared across cultures, and deal with day-to-day issues (e.g., plants need water to grow); secondary theories are more abstract, vary wildly across cultures, and deal with unusual events (e.g., the theory of relativity or beliefs about an unseen God). Between these two, Yearley introduces »practical theory«. Working at this level, people thinking about human flourishing »aim at a more conceptually precise ordering of human experience than does primary theory; but they stay far closer to the particular, often murky, phenomena that make up much of human life than does secondary theory« (177). Practical theory constitutes a productive realm for comparisons, because it lies between the often superficial similarities between primary theories and often radical divergences between secondary theories.


  At the same time, particularly when dealing with religious ethics, practical theories are often justified by reference to secondary theories, ethical views often only comprehensible in light of cosmogonies.  5  Consequently, there will be cases where the comparison of practical theories without reference to secondary theory would be distortive. But this point will depend on the case at hand and cannot be settled by universal considerations.


  With regard to categories for comparison, Yearley argues that traditions are best compared through attention to both focal meanings and analogical extensions of those meanings. While interpreters start with a focal meaning from their own language, the comparative process will modify the focal terms. This conception shares much with Taylor's fusion but is less sanguine about the degree of agreement. The tension is sustained, so that the goal is neither »simple univocity [n]or equivocity« (195).


  Despite this difference, Yearley and Taylor are quite close.  6  Both reject a model of ethical views as seamless totalities. There is no universal account of practical reason, and fruitful comparisons that reveal more about both traditions as well as the subject itself will depend on locating specific »similarities within differences and differences within similarities« across two traditions or thinkers (Yearley 1990, 173).

 Relativistic Approaches

»[E]very major theory of the virtues has internal to it, to some significant degree, its own philosophical psychology and its own philosophical politics and sociology ... There is just no neutral and independent method of characterizing those materials in a way sufficient to provide the type of adjudication between competing theories of the virtues ...«

Alasdair MacIntyre
(1991, 105)


  With Alasdair MacIntyre, we move a step further along the spectrum, much closer to its relativistic end. At the same time, we move back toward a larger-scale style of comparison that speaks of comparing whole traditions – Aristotelianism and Confucianism – rather than figures, such as Mencius and Aquinas. MacIntyre formulates his position in direct response to the approach of someone like Nussbaum, who seeks to base comparisons on a universal account of basic features of human life (1991, 104, 122 n. 1). His objection is not that no common or universal account is possible but that such an account would be too thin to support a particular moral vision (105). The thick accounts necessary to justify ethical theory are always those of particular traditions, and these traditions constitute basically coherent systems characterized by »large circularity« (108). Discourse, ethical claims, and the way of life together form a coherent whole with its own criteria for success. Practical reason itself is tradition bound. This is not to deny all tension within such wholes, but the tension is not such as to provide openings for conversations across traditions.


  This monolithic holism, however, does not preclude conversation altogether. Rather than a fusion model, MacIntyre speaks of learning a second first language. Instead of moving out from where we are, we start over again, learning to be or at least approximate insiders to another tradition (111; 1988, 349-69). Only then can we begin to speak of translation. Even when translation is possible, this does not entail commensurability. Confucian virtues translated into an Aristotelian context »will inescapably be judged false by the standards informing that framework« (112). The most productive conversation across traditions, MacIntyre argues, will attempt to provide a history of the other traditions, written from one's own perspective, that explains and accounts for the other tradition's "failure" according to its own standards. Only in this way, not through a thin, universal description, is rational debate and encounter possible.



  Beyond MacIntyre lies an extreme relativism that rejects comparative work altogether, arguing that human existence is so deeply constituted by our conceptual schemes that people living in different schemes cannot be said to be talking about the same thing. Holding this view undermines all justification for developing a theory of comparison.

Thomas A. Lewis is Assistant Professor in modern Western thought at the School of Religion, University of Iowa (USA).


  Moving from the universalist to the relativist ends of the spectrum, then, has in some sense brought us full circle. MacIntyre's emphasis on traditions as circular wholes produces important similarities to the formalists; both are trapped in their own traditions – one consciously, the other not. Formalists who limit morality to a very specific conception of practical reason can barely be called comparative; they look for the same thing everywhere. Extreme relativists see only difference and remain equally bound. The most promising strategies are those located somewhere in between. The most adequate respect for diversity – which recognizes differences yet still takes the other seriously – is found in more ad hoc approaches, such as that of Taylor and Yearley, that depend principally on the specifics of traditions rather than something universal in reason or human experience.


Alan Donagan (1993):
"Common Morality and Kant's Enlightenment Project". In: Gene Outka / John P. Reeder, Jr. (eds.): Prospects for a Common Morality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 53-72.

Ronald M. Green (1978):
Religious Reason. The Rational and Moral Basis of Religious Belief. New York - Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ronald M. Green (1988):
Religion and Moral Reason. A New Method for Comparative Study. New York - Oxford: Oxford University Press.

David Little / Sumner B. Twiss (1978):
Comparative Religious Ethics. A New Method. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

David Little (1981):
"The Present State of the Comparative Study of Religious Ethics". In: Journal of Religious Ethics 9.2, 210-227.

Robin W. Lovin / Frank E. Reynolds (1985):
"In the Beginning". In: dies. (eds.): Cosmogony and Ethical Order. New Studies in Comparative Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1-35.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1988):
Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1991):
"Incommensurability, Truth, and the Conversation Between Confucians and Aristotelians about the Virtues". In: Eliot Deutsch (ed.): Culture and Modernity. East-West Philosophic Perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 104-122.

Douglas Mansager / John Braisted Carman / Mark Juergensmeyer (eds.) (1991):
A Bibliographic Guide to the Comparative Study of Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martha C. Nussbaum (1993):
"Non-Relative Virtues. An Aristotelian Approach". In: dies. / Amartya Sen (eds.): The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 242-269.

John P. Reeder, Jr. (1993):
"Foundations without Foundationalism". In: Gene Outka / ders. (eds.): Prospects for a Common Morality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 191-214.

Russel F. Sizemore (1990):
"Comparative Religious Ethics as Field: Faith, Culture, and Reason in Ethics". In: ders. / Donald K. Swearer (eds.): Ethics, Wealth, and Salvation. A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 87-99.

Jeffrey Stout (1980):
"Weber's Progeny, Once Removed". In: Religious Studies Review 6.4, 289-295.

Jeffrey Stout (1994):
"The Rhetoric of Revolution. Comparative Ethics after Kuhn and Gunnemann". In: Frank E. Reynolds / David Tracy (eds.): Religion and Practical Reason. New Essays in the Comparative Philosophy of Religions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994, 329-362.

Charles Taylor (1985):
"Understanding and Ethnocentricity". In: Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Philosophical Papers 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 116-133.

Charles Taylor (1990):
"Comparison, History, Truth". In: Frank E. Reynolds / David Tracy (eds.): Myth and Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 37-55.

Charles Taylor (1993):
"Explanation and Practical Reason". In: Martha C. Nussbaum / Amartya Sen (eds.): The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 208-231.

Sumner B. Twiss (1998):
"Four Paradigms in Teaching Comparative Religious Ethics". In: ders. / Bruce Grelle (eds.): Explorations in Global Ethics. Comparative Religious Ethics and Interreligious Dialogue. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998, 11-33.

Lee H. Yearley (1990):
Mencius and Aquinas. Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.



I would like to thank Mark Berkson for his helpful comments on an earlier draft and Antonia Kastendiek and Bernhard Debatin for their editorial contributions. 


See Stout 1994, 356. For an extensive guide to literature on the ethics of particular traditions, see Mansager / Carman / Juergensmeyer (1991). 


Since these questions are still the subject of debate, philosophical and religious traditions are often handled together. For this reason, I will discuss contributions from the fields of philosophy and religious studies. 


While much of Taylor's work bears on comparative endeavors, most relevant are the three articles I am treating here (1985, 1990, 1993). 


This points toward another possible emphasis in comparative ethics, exploring traditions' cosmogonies in order to more deeply understand their ethical views. See Lovin / Reynolds 1985. 


John Reeder develops a similar position drawing on neo-pragmatist insights (1993). 

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