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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Do Ethical Ideas Cross Cultures?

Professor Nguyen Nam and David DeCosse

Professor Nguyen Nam and David DeCosse

Translating the Japanese ethical text "Chugaku Rinrisho"

How do ethical ideas cross cultures? In ways large and small, this is one of the big questions of the day in ethics. On one hand, it’s a philosophical question: Are there any ethical ideas that do in fact cross all cultures because these ideas refer to aspects of humanity common to everyone? On the other hand, it’s a practical question: How, literally, do ethical ideas cross cultures? 

One of the great delights of my time teaching this fall at Sophia University, the Jesuit university in Tokyo, has been meeting someone working on these questions in a highly innovative way: Professor Nguyen Nam of Vietnam National University in Saigon. Professor Nam did his master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard University, where he remains affiliated with the Yenching Institute. He is spending the year at Sophia as a research faculty member. He is also Lecturer at the Vietnam Center of Loyola University in Chicago. 

Professor Nam approaches the question of cross cultural ethics in an East Asian context by focusing on the practical process of publication by which texts themselves are borrowed or appropriated or taken over wholesale from one culture to the next. So he is especially interested not only in the content of ethical ideas within crucial texts but also in the social contexts and editorial processes by which the transmission of texts occurs. 

Thus he explores such matters as how one ethical text finds its way into the hands of a certain group of scholars; in norms of copyright or copying relevant to a particular text; in how the process of translation is done; in how a text gets published; and in the contexts in which texts that move from one culture to the next are used or taught or read. Ethical ideas are not merely ideas. Rather, they are always ideas that emerge from a context and are transmitted through contexts. Postmodern concerns in the United States about “cultural appropriation” completely miss the point. Culture is always being appropriated – and it's not a bad thing. The task is to study the process of appropriation. 

Professor Nam’s work sheds light on ethical processes that may befuddle Westerners. One such befuddling process has to do with copyright – a notion deeply important in the West as a way, among other things, to protect an author’s thought. But, Professor Nam notes, Confucian thought affirms that “all under heaven belongs to the public.” Given that background ethical assumption, the practice of copying excellent written texts or films or music can actually appear as ethically desirable, even commanded. 

Translations of Chugaku Rinrisho

Professor Nam is in Tokyo in particular to study the process by which the late 19th century Japanese ethical text known as Chugaku Rinrisho was translated and appropriated in Chinese and Vietnamese contexts. At each stop in this process of migration, the process of translation was fraught with critical points of departure affected by contextual concerns in China and Vietnam. Key words or phrases were adapted or transformed. New words were added. And, with such changes, the meaning of the original Japanese text changed, too – a text that in any case had itself borrowed heavily from earlier German ideas.

Nov 28, 2016

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