Review: Ethics for Professionals in a Multicultural World

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Cooper’s book, Ethics for Professionals in a Multicultural World, is a comprehensive, clearly iterated and methodical explanation of the history and present condition of professional ethics. The reader is offered a thorough analysis of ethical evolution that underscores the combination of questionable moral decision making that has its basis in a pluralistic society of overlapping judgments and beliefs. Cooper provides a meticulous analysis of a breadth of concerns related to professional ethics including, but not limited to; such broad philosophical concepts as moral agency, subjectivism and applied ethics. He does not simply expound on the dilemma found in contemporary workplaces regarding conflicts grounded in cultural diversity but provides a foundation for response that respects cultural diversity in presentation

Cooper has divided his book into three parts; the first of which is meant to argue for the need to explore professional ethics; and the second scaffolds the stages of cognitive and moral development. The third and final section of the book is a neatly established argument concerning personal autonomy and a sufficient variety of examples for student application of this new knowledge. In all, there are ten chapters that will be summarized for this assignment; which will then conclude with a review of the major principles of the text.

The first chapter corrals an otherwise nebulous definition of the lofty terms ‘applied ethics’ and ‘social pluralism’ to ensure there is a common understanding from which the reader will be able to proceed. Moral philosophizing is the systematic defense of right and wrong behavior. As the author notes almost immediately – “I argue that the moral point of view (MP of V) can provide a common universal moral foundation for the many codes of ethics that guide professional practices” (p. 1). We learn the prelude to contemporary philosophizing lay in capturing the essence of the phrase ‘the background shapes the foreground’ which means that in order to understand the “perspective found in mainstream philosophy, we will need to focus continually on the background conditions that have shaped the intellectual boundaries of mainstream philosophy” (p. 3). The key to grasping this knowledge is communication. As well, though, it requires an ability to utilize a ‘self-critical dialogue by which to balance perspectives; otherwise, we become fail to recognize that errors in judgment emanate from the misconception that all ‘men’ are created equal’; a notion that leads to false assumptions instead of clarity. 

Cooper plainly explains that metaphors; or “language constructions that carry meaning from one context to another for clarification” (p. 17) have been used to facilitate moral communication across cultures. We are cautioned, however, that renditions of concepts are open to misleading translations – hence, a need for a broad overview of ethical views in multicultural environments. Indeed, the complexity of abstraction and justification defies delineation; although Cooper competently recounts the layering of theories and belief systems, principles and institutional rules and actions that result succinctly and discernibly. He concludes this initial chapter by reasoning that a “special vocabulary is required to define moral point of view” (p. 31) and expounds on six possible moral theories he believes are “compatible with the MP of V – each with a prescription designed to resolve multicultural conflicts” (p. 34); and include ethical egoism, utilitarianism, natural rights and social contract theories, and duty and discourse ethics. Here, this writer will interject that the author has provided a more clear and plaintive elucidation of ethics as ever previously experienced. Surprisingly, it invites the reader to involve oneself in the mental gymnastics that are required to internalize philosophy and morality. 

Chapter Two opens with a definition of the moral dilemma; “a situation in which mutually exclusive moral actions or choices is repeatedly binding” (p. 42) and then offers a decision-making model by which the conundrum may be tamed. This places the individual in the role of a “moral agent or person who is held responsible because he or she knows the difference between the notions of right and wrong and have the capacity to intentionally act on this knowledge” (p. 47). This is different from ‘situational control’ as exemplified in the Zimbardo prison experiment and reaffirms the inherent danger of ‘duty for duty’s sake’. Here we are provided clarification of the underlying criteria of traditional professions including mastery of esoteric knowledge, serving essential human needs, exercising moral control over the practice and a strong moral commitment to the field.  Client/professional relationships are based on mutual trust and discretion (regarding fiduciary and other matters). Needless to say; technology advancements in today’s society complicate what may have once been a much simpler concern.

The final chapter of this first section focuses on ‘muddle, drift, banality, and subjectivism versus morality’. Cooper provides an engaging dialogue about the varied foibles common to humans including our natural penchant for bigotry, cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism. This results in a ‘muddled’ type of thinking (I myself will admit to this condition on occasion) that confuses the individual and leads to ‘moral drift’ or “series of small decisions that disregard the overall goal (of moral behavior)” (p. 77). Sadly, ‘we’ (as in the collective) do not often enough consider the banality of evil that “results from motives that are not in themselves wrong in a proper context but are excessively trite, thoughtless, careless” (p. 80). Cooper aptly illustrates this concept with examples of Greek soldiers Nazi doctors as segue to administrative evil and its incompatibility with professionalism. Finally, moral equivocation is equally inexcusable.

In section two of this text, Cooper ‘fleshes out’ the underpinnings of moral voice an development. The content of chapter 4 is comparable to an ethics ‘basal’ that educates the reader in the steps of cognitive and moral development as a foundation for understanding the advanced notions of ethics that are infused with such conflicts as gender and multicultural interpretations and more. To echo Cooper’s explanation of the stages of cognitive development; who himself referenced the work of the famous psychologist Jean Piaget; and in order of sophistication – sensorimotor intelligence; symbolic, intuitive, prelogical thought; concrete operational thought and formal operational thought. Cooper then explains a model of moral development provided by the noted education psychologist; Lawrence Kohlberg; who identified three levels of moral development which he further divided into six sequential stages. No doubt, this is complicated – and has been addressed and argued since its ideation. Simply put the three main stages are preconventional (punishment versus obedience and relativism), conventional (loyalty and ethnocentrism and law and order) and postconventional (self-reflective, utilitarian, social contract, principled ethical conscience). 

Cooper winds down the chapter with a discussion on the use of the model to interpret events. We are cautioned to realize that Kohlberg’s work was itself non-pluralistic and limited in voice. This leads us to a lively discussion on the role of voice in ethics; with the focus on gendered interpretations of morality, or Chapter Five. Now, I daresay that philosophy, generally speaking, has been the overwhelming (if not sole – or at least predominantly) domain of the ‘white male’ – dating back to the time of Plato and Socrates – and therefore lacks a comprehensiveness of multiculturalism and gender. Before proceeding further with this review, the aforementioned statement is a point that may cause the reader to ‘stop short’ (experience an epiphany unlike any other for the truth of the concept) in pursuit of ethics for its seemingly singular narrowness of inclusion. Yet, Cooper’s purpose is to broaden the expanse of ethics to incorporate pluralism so we are encouraged, once again, to pick up the text and proceed; ever encouraged that our efforts will not be in vain. 

Ultimately we are led to understand there are differences in moral orientation based on gender and culture, and some explanation is provided as to the source of these dissimilarities. Cooper speculates the cause may date back to birth and rearing; both socialization factors that not only ‘make sense’ but have a ring of truth to them as well. Interesting conclusions from various positions address the connection of morality and pluralism quite effectively; however. Cooper refers to Nagel who offers that “moral education needs to focus on promoting human virtues and provide opportunities to relate to each other and practice these virtues” (p. 162).  This is the perfect transition to a rather elaborate commentary on the ‘metaethical search for moral rationality’ or – Chapter Six. 

Metaethics defined is ‘the philosophy of ethics dealing with the meaning of ethical terms, the nature of moral discourse, and the foundations of moral principles’. It might be likened to the umbrella under which specific considerations of the subject matter are explained, described at length and argued. Here we reach the need for the reader to ‘hunker down’ mentally if he or she is to truly comprehend the theory of ethics in a multicultural world because the prerequisite is to understand naturalist versus absolutist metatheories – or “moral norms as natural properties in a rational world” versus “moral norms as universals that transcend local customs” (p. 166). It would not be ‘a stretch’ to proffer to the reader that the previous statement is the heart of the matter of multicultural ethics – and that from which all of Cooper’s contentions emerge and expand. We are also asked to ferret into the depths of understanding that come from the separate discussions of cultural relativism, moral rationality, pluralism and rationality – including the conditions for such as characterized by Kant, and to follow Cooper’s train of thought to the his ultimate ‘response methodology’ that penetrates differences and unifies markedly different cultural ethics in a singular response. If it is possible to ‘mentally sweat’ from the effort of learning – I would suggest that this is the result of completing Chapter six – so rigorous is the exercise (yet so necessary to the acquisition of higher knowledge regarding professional ethics in a multicultural world). 

We have now come to the third and final section, and Chapter 7, of the Cooper’s book which is much akin to an elementary workbook that requires a student to demonstrate and apply their newfound knowledge. The individual must be able to recognize the difference between personal and moral autonomy and its impact on accountability (in one’s lifestyle choices and in the workplace) and accompanying procedures for such. Cooper references the broader concept of ‘the meaning of life’ and implies there is a place for the simplistic yet powerful Golden Rule as a guiding principle. In methodical succession, the last three chapters augment at length the theories of natural rights and utilitarianism and the alternatives and the real and necessary implications of social contract, duty ethics, and Habermas and discourse ethics. Again, each section is valuable in supplementing, expanding and clarifying – all at once – the concept of ethics for professionals in a multicultural world; however, at this point the reader should be in a position to make some of these connections on their own – and the learning is purely academic as ‘points of interest’.

While summarizing Cooper’s theories and principles may be redundant as a conclusion to this précis; this writer will refer to a series of statements that serve to encapsulate the essence of this text. As Cooper noted, “the voices of men and women and the plurality of other traditions (religious, ethnic, economic, and so forth) make up pieces of this complex world and represent worldviews that are challenging to unite” (p. 162). His solution is authentic dialogue and respect for individuality. Carried into the workplace this takes the shape of respect in words and actions for colleagues and others. In this word that continues to meld races and cultures it is the only choice available to humankind.


Cooper, D. E. (2004). Ethics for Professionals in a Multicultural World. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.