Ethical Pluralism

ethical pluralism

Ethical pluralism is the idea that there are many theories about what is “right” and “wrong” (moral norms) which may be incompatible and/or incommensurable with your own personal moral norms. International engagement involves working within other societies where you are likely to be faced with different norms. Deciding when it is appropriate to act under one norm or another requires careful consideration.

An example of a moral norm may be: “it is wrong to physically harm a child, and those who do so should be punished.” An ethical dilemma in your international engagement may arise when your moral norms differ from those of a society regarding:

  • Treatment of/value in women and other gender/sex issues
  • Treatment of/value in children and the elderly
  • The environment, waste, and consumption
  • Business practices, loyalty, contractual agreements, and work ethic
  • Treatment of/value in animals
  • Privacy and community
  • Religion, religious dogma and tradition

Ethical pluralism is also known as “value” or “moral” pluralism. It is related but not identical to the concepts of moral relativism (there exist many moral theories and there is no objective standard by which they may be judged) and cultural relativism (that norms, values, and practices may be understood as sensible within their respective cultural contexts).

Relevance to ISL:


Ethical pluralism suggests your actions may be in opposition to local norms, or you might be expected to act in opposition to your own norms. Either one of these conflicts may make your work unsustainable.

Example: You may be working on an project involving sexual education for youth. This may be unacceptable to some locals and thus long-term community investment is threatened.

Cultural Competence

Understanding your own cultural and ethical norms in addition to those of others is essential to cultural competence. Those engaged in international engagement should be aware of similarities, disparities, and how to reconcile differences (Neutrality vs tolerance).

Balance and Reciprocity

Those involved in international work must understand and respect other ethical norms. This respect is necessary in any balanced partnership.


It is important to consider your own vantage, pre-conceived notions, and the norms your ‘import’ to another society. It is also important to consider which moral norms are motivating you to go, and how those might be challenged by others with differing norms.

Training and Education

There may be multiple ideas of what is “right” and “wrong” about your international engagement. e.g. You might believe it is “wrong” for young, relatively uneducated students to work overseas; another might believe it is “right” for students to gain international experience.

Additional Resources