Health care receives patients from many different cultures and health care professionals are encouraged to be sensitive to patients’ cultural background. But what is a culture? What is it one should be sensitive to?
Last week, CRB organized a workshop on Islamic perspectives on reproductive ethics. A case that was discussed was this: an unmarried Muslim couple (21 years old) seeks advice on contraception. Should health care workers provide counseling, when premarital sex is forbidden in Islam?
The case brought the question of cultural sensitivity into immediate focus for me. To what should one be sensitive: to doctrines, or to human lives? What “is” a culture: the formulated ideas or the way people live (with their ideas)?
The Muslim couple actually sought counseling. Being culturally sensitive can also mean being sensitive to this fact: that this is how people can live (with their ideas).
It is tempting to objectify cultures in terms of doctrines, especially when they are foreign to us. We don’t know the people and their daily lives, so we try to understand them through the texts – as if we read their “source code.” But the texts are living parts of the culture. They have uses, and these practices cannot be inferred from the texts.
Aje Carlbom (social anthropologist at Malmö University) stressed that this temptation to objectify other cultures can arise even in a culture; for example, when people who belong to it move to parts of the world where people live differently. Suddenly they don’t fully understand their own culture, for it lacks its real-life support, its everyday context, and therefore one turns to the texts. One’s own culture is objectified.
I wonder: Are not these tendencies extremely common; are they not in all of us? Are they not in ethics? Isn’t there a will to objectify ethics, to formulate the “ethical source code” that should govern, for example, our biomedical practices?
I think we need culturally sensitive ethics: in the sense of an ethics that responds sensitively to what is actually happening, and that contributes to meaningful contexts. An ethics that does not objectify either cultures or Ethics (capitalized).