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The Cultural Dimension of Business Ethics

1.2  Management & ethics 

Doing business globally opens the arena for conflicts in norms. Many multinational companies have codes of ethics, mission statements, integrity policies guiding their practices. However, when operating outside of their boundaries they confront different sets of norms which sometimes conflict with their home based ones. In this conflict of norms, occasionally the ethical issue is not seen to be the same by the parties concerned. Child labour is prohibited in the U.S. not only by law but also, by the policy of American firms. However, in Pakistan, there is no legislation against child labour. In fact, child labour in Pakistan, is considered positive as it improves the family’s income and keeps children off the streets and away from worst danger.12 In this particular case, child labour is viewed as an ethical issue from the American perspective whereas, children left to the streets is considered the ethical issue from the Pakistani point of view. The American manager confronting the Pakistani manager, both are looking at the same situation but responding oppositely to it. They are behaving in response to their respective cultural norms.

To further complicate this situation, the ethical theories used to aid in moral reasoning give rise to different results in response to the same conflict of interests. The teleological method of utilitarianism seeking to maximize happiness, would be used to weigh and measure options in moral choice. The deontological method, on the other hand, would seek the moral rules in question and then choose the most important rule (‘prima facie’) in determining the moral decision to be taken. Let’s take a concrete example of an ethical dilemma to illustrate these ethical theories.

If we take the same ethical dilemma of child labour, the utilitarian method of reasoning could actually be in favour of it. Viewed from the different stakeholders involved, the extra income gained from the child would maximize happiness for the most. The family benefits, the child is safer with his/her mother at work than in the streets and the company gains in lower costs. In contrast, the deontological method would look for the moral rules/norms being violated. Child labour, if considered the most important rule, (though one could see the question of survival arising for the child’s family as well); would take action against this practice and perhaps put a stop to it or find an alternative solution. If the family’s survival were more important, than a solution addressing that issue would be found as well as one for discontinuing child labour. Some companies came up with a program to educate children while paying the families for future work the children would provide from the age of fourteen, as this is the minimum age set by the U.N. charter covering child labour.

How can managers deal with these different ethical evaluations of the same issue ? How can they know what would be the right response ? How can they grapple with the different cultural interpretations of the same situation ? Cultural relativism hinders efforts for ethical universalism.

If no child labour were considered as a universal moral principle, then in this case the national culture would have to abide by this principle and/or prescribe that moral rule. How can we apply universal rules as Kant suggested with his notion of the ‘categorical imperative’ in a world wrought with cultural relativism ? If values and norms differ in importance from culture to culture, how can we establish universal norms to guide our moral choices ? The ‘human rights’ charter is an attempt to universalise some basic moral principles, but here again what do we mean by ‘human rights’ ? Is it just an occidental invention or do these principles apply to everyone regardless of their cultural bias ? Is it understood in the same way for all to really be ‘universal’? When certain cultures emphasize individual rights and freedom and others stress the role of the individual vis à vis the social group (collectivism) perhaps these ‘human rights’ spring from different cultural assumptions than others.

Ethics in management can change and develop as human progress continues. In the case of new industries, such as internet, the rules are being made as we go along. Based on the common practices and experiences of those using this mode of communication, norms are being formulated.

When peoples customs start changing, here too, we observe modifications in ethical positions. For example, euthanasia has become normalized, formalized and legalized in the Netherlands. Here the medical profession based on its hippocratic oath to conserve and preserve life is put into question now asking it to administer death under certain conditions (as the ‘quality’ of life is defined).

The role of ethics in management is also dependent on the level of responsibility the company is willing to take. The pro-active mode would characterize a company that believes strongly in its mission as moral (or at least for the benefit of society). It would respond as a trend setter to some of the ethical dilemmas. The re-active mode, would be the companies though aware of social responsibility, respond to immediate situations rather than anticipating them. The passive mode leads the company to deviant behaviour by refusing responsibility. There are two main extremes found in the corporate world : profit on one side and human safety , which constitute an ethical spectrum.  

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? / an ethical issue?  
3.2 Evaluating ethical situations
4.0 Cultural relativism / ethical universalism
About Gale Prawda
Footnotes


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