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The Cultural Dimension of Business Ethics

1.0 Cultural dimensions of Business Ethics 

We speak of cultural dimensions to designate structures of organizing and thereby characterizing a particular group of people. The culture tends to take on a supra-identity constituting the framework for each individual in the group. Cultures can be very broad as seen in examples of national identity : the French, the Americans. Or they can be more specific to the common interests it binds the different participants/stakeholders as seen in corporate culture, urban culture, ethnic minority culture. In either case, the culture that results is usually a general, predominant composite of all the constituent parts giving rise to an intangible entity that incorporates its different elements (an intersubjective identity). It is the framework by which a personality develops even if this personality is intangible it represents one, the representation is found in its image and acts like the glue holding the picture together.

Culture is opposed to nature in that it is constructed by man (man-made) not by the physical universe (though the physical universe has an impact on the way in which man constructs culture). One could come up with a ‘natural’ culture, which may appear as a contradiction in terms. But, if we understand this expression ‘natural’ culture to be an emphasis on the ‘natural’ elements in inquiring into ‘human nature’ and the ‘universe’, then it just qualifies the culture to be of that type. We can debate on and on about what constitutes the ‘natural’ (though an essential question regarding environment, we cannot elaborate this now). Questions of the sort : is man basically good or evil?, is it natural to formula feed your baby?, is man in the state of nature prior to social existence?, which parts does society have to maintain for man in his social being? (shelter, survival, , etc); what does man have to give to society in order to sustain it? 

We must consider the economic model used and its influence on the cultural dimension as applied to business ethicsthe global economy is based on the assumption of capitalism : a free market economy. 1 If we take the economic model as socialist or communist, our evaluations of ethical dilemmas would differ as some norms would be modified in their importance. For example, the ownership of production and the distribution of wealth would be structured according to specific economic systems following their respective norms. For the purposes of this inquiry, we’ll use the economic model of capitalism in a ‘free market economy’. 

Traditionally, this model is exemplified by Carr & Friedman, both espousing that the main objective of business is to make profits within legality. The role of the corporation and its management is to ensure profits and be accountable to the shareholders. The notion of corporate social and/or moral responsibility has made inroads into this position. The image and moral position of corporations have become so important these days, that their strategies are designed around this preoccupation. Need we be reminded of Total’s recent oil spill off of the French coast, or Nike’s difficulties with child labour, not to mention the most recent Enron tragedy; just open the newspaper or watch the news to see that corporate roles are beyond making profit. The question of how this profit is to be earned has become as important as the profit itself. Taking the social and moral aspects into account is essential to developing strategy, which in turn affects the corporation’s profit capacity.  

Ethics on the other hand, coming from the Greek roots ‘éthiké’ meaning the ways and habits of a group of people, would translate into the actual customs, and practices characterizing specific cultures. However, over time this meaning has taken on not only a descriptive quality, but a prescriptive one as wellwhile describing it prescribes (behaviour). Philosophically speaking, ethics is viewed from morality2 (having its roots in Latin ‘mores’ customs and habits of a group), which has also developed the character of oscillating from descriptive to prescriptive behaviour. That is, what we dos becomes what we should do, in describing behaviour there’s an inference to prescribing it. This is the way it’s done almost sounds like you should do it this way. One may ask how ? Explicitly, any documented policy drawn from actual experience usually takes on a prescriptive nature once it is transmitted as such. Putting behavioural practices into written rules for others to abide by, no longer describes that behaviour but rather prescribes it. Implicitly, the disapproval shown by others creates a pressure to conform to the norm. We’ll come back to this idea later on.

Briefly, ethics concerns itself with establishing norms, evaluating when a moral act is right or wrong as well as helping one to make moral decisions when confronted with a moral dilemma.  

Culture and ethics are interrelated and intertwined in such a way that it makes it difficult to know which factor is guiding / motivating the behaviour arising from a given situation. Is it the cultural vision of his/her ethics or is it the ethical vision of his/her culture that guides someone to do or not do certain things. Trompenaar’s survey3 questioning people’s reaction to a given situation shows that cultures with more emphasis on human relationships and loyalty (particularists) scored lower than those that emphasized obeying rules (universalists).  

The situation : you’re riding in a car driven by a close friend, who’s driving at least 35 mph in a 20 mph zone. He hits someone. No witnesses. His lawyer says if you testify under oath that your friend was driving at 20 miles per hour, it might save him from serious consequences.

What right has your friend to expect you to protect him ? 

Lying was more prominent in cultures stressing human relationships, whereas it was less prevalent in cultures stressing rules. Telling the truth is an ethical value that appears in this context. One could say, people in cultures emphasizing human relationships would most likely lie to protect the relationship; whereas, people in cultures putting a greater value on rules would lie less in order to abide by the rule. Adler differentiates between cultures that are universally oriented (all rules apply to everyone) and particularly oriented ‘the nature of the relationship determines how someone will act in a particular situation’.4 When it comes to the actual experience of the individual in question it is not certain if that person is motivated by cultural influences and/or ethical implications of his/her act and/or decision. Paul Ricoeur suggests three positions in ethical development : 1) the self , 2) relations with others, 3) institutional. Through this process of moral integration, the self eventually becomes autonomous (auto self- nomous – norms which becomes understood as self-regulatory) in its experiences and interactions with others and institutions.5 The self internalises the cultural norms and values through socialization (being in the world with others).  
 
 Key concepts to be distinguished : culture, ethics, and ethical theories of evaluation:

 Culture and cultural dimensions are considered the collective horizon representing a specific social reality (the objectivity of subjectivity). Culture comes from the Latin ‘cultura’ meaning to till ; in other words, preparing the environment for people to live in. Anthropologists Kroeber and Kluckhohn define culture :

"Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other, as conditioning elements of future action"6

Ethics is the common agreed upon practice of different moral principles or values. It concentrates on the general nature of morals and the specific moral choice an individual makes in relationship to others. It represents the rules and/or standards governing the conduct of the member of a profession. The context of this inquiry will be ethics applied to business.7 

Ethical theories applied in decision-making as a methodology or an approach to evaluating acts and moral choice. Deontological theory consists of a set of moral rules in which moral choice is evaluated. Teleological theory consists of a guiding principle such as ‘the good life’ in which acts are evaluated in terms of fulfilling this principle. Utilitarianism, uses the principle ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ as its underlying principle to evaluate moral choices. Norm theory (neutral omnipartial rule-making) requires that ‘conduct must be publicly known and acceptable to all persons in society’8 as the underlying principle in which moral choice is evaluated.  

1.0 Cultural dimensions of Business Ethics  
1.1 Cultural dimensions impact on management 
1.2  Management & ethics 
2.0 Culture & cultural dimensions
2.1 Culture as context of interpretation
2.2 Cultural dimensions
3.0 Ethics & ethical theories
3.1 Ethics in moral choice : what is ethical? / what is an ethical issue?  
3.2 Evaluating ethical situations
4.0 Cultural relativism / ethical universalism
About Gale Prawda
Footnotes


Home

 

1.0 Cultural dimensions of Business Ethics  
1.1 Cultural dimensions impact on management 
1.2  Management & ethics 
2.0 Culture & cultural dimensions
2.1 Culture as context of interpretation
2.2 Cultural dimensions
3.0 Ethics & ethical theories
3.1 Ethics in moral choice : what is ethical? / what is an ethical issue?  
3.2 Evaluating ethical situations
4.0 Cultural relativism / ethical universalism
About Gale Prawda
Footnotes

 

 

 

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