The Indonesians call it “jam karet” – rubber time. When we Germans say 2, we mean 2. When Indonesians say 2, they could mean anything from 2 to 3, 4, 5, 6. But this is not news for most people who have experience living in Asia.
But what was interesting for me was that researchers also found out that Asians, on average, are also more likely to think of “rubber ethics”. What this means is that they are fine with violating the ethics if it is for the good of a higher purpose. The most obvious situation in which is the case is when it comes to honesty. It is not uncommon for many Asians to hide facts – or even lie – in order to maintain harmony. They don’t want their boss to be nervous, upset or afraid, so they keep the problems to themselves. Then they do everything in their power to solve the problem on their own.
Why is this common in Asia?
Researchers found two dimensions related with ethics: relativism and idealism. People who think of ethics in relativist terms, reject the notion of universal moral values. You should not always be honest, confident or fair if it makes the situation worse in some way.
When I read that Asians score high on the relativism dimension, it didn’t surprise me very much. It is very congruent with what I describe in the article “your perspective is never complete“. In contrast to westerners, Asians tend to look at the big picture -they make decisions based on the context in which something happens. Western people, on the other hand, think in categories and cause and effect relationships. “Lying is wrong” – no matter what.
The second dimension – idealism – is defined as “degree to which individuals assume that desirable consequences can, with the right action, always be obtained”. People who score high on this dimension strive for perfection. They think that in any situation, harming others should be avoided.
If you look at the definition again, the focus is on “desirable consequences”. It is not so important how you reach them, but the point is that you do. Asians always strive for harmony – so in many cases this is the goal, the desirable consequence.
I am often shocked about how many people in Indonesia agree with a “strong” government which punished wrongdoers not through fair justice but rather by getting rid of them as fast as possible. Now that I’ve seen the dimension of idealism, I begin to understand more clearly why this is the case. The most important thing is to maintain harmony – how you reach that goal is not so important. But then again, it seems that my statement from before was wrong. “They think that in any situation, harming others should be avoided”. Not exactly. I think the more correct statement would be “they think that in any situation, threatening harmony should be avoided”.
Finally I have to say that I do understand that this article is a bit opinionated, especially the last paragraph. Please forgive me this time 😉 See it from a perspective of a relativist when you think about ethical relativism and ethical idealism. Neither approach is right or wrong. It just is.
If you want to learn more about the subject, you can read the paper “Ethical Ideologies Across Cultures” here.
What about you guys? Have you ever been totally surprised by an ethical opinion somebody expressed? What do you think about the differences in thinking in terms of Asian vs. Western thinking? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section!