The Cultural Roots of Ethical Conflicts in Global Business

Abstract

This study examines the cultural roots of ethical conflicts in the global business environment. It begins with a brief look at worldviews on ethical behavior in general. Based on this, it is argued that an in-depth understanding of ethical conflicts has been hampered by an overreliance on Western models and viewpoints. Three common sources, or bases, of ethical conflicts are discussed as they relate to business practices, including conflicts over tastes and preferences, the relative importance of moral imperatives compared to legal requirements, and people’s level of tolerance for different values among others. It is then argued that an understanding of ethical conflicts can be facilitated through different levels of understanding, including the meaning of universal values, the relationship between values and practices, and the existence of multiple levels of conflict within the same organizations or industries. These specific and interrelated ingredients in cross-cultural ethical conflicts form the basis for a broader discussion of the meaning of truth as it relates to such conflicts. The paper concludes with the need for more research that is cross-cultural and multidisciplinary in order to improve theory building and managerial practice.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    It should be noted that some Western philosophers see this lack of separation of the legal and the ethical/religious in Islamic countries as transitory, with the expectation that Muslim societies will eventually move toward separating both spheres. Of course, some people in Islamic cultures disagree strongly with this assessment, sensing that this hypothetical evolution may be an attempt to interfere with fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith and way of life. The fact remains, however, that strict Sharia regulations are less dominant than they used to be in the past. In the financial scene, for instance, Islamic banking and finance is alive and well in all countries with significant Islamic populations but, with very few exceptions—including Iran, Sudan, and Pakistan—it coexists naturally with conventional approaches.

  2. 2.

    Sometimes ethics will demand obedience to a law that contradicts an ethical mandate if, for instance, not doing so will cause unfair and disproportionate harms to third parties. Here, however, the legal is not preferred over the ethical because of it being legal, but because of the ethical mandate. In other cases of conflict, the ethical mandate may allow to either follow or oppose the law (ethics, for instance, does not allow us to make injustices, but it allows us to suffer them if we so choose). Again, this is a case of eventually following the law not because the law should be given prevalence but because ethics will allow it. The universal nature of the priority of the moral over the legal should not surprise us once we understand that the ultimate justification for a legal mandate—what the state should impose—always rests on a moral mandate—what people ought to do. Because of this, it is commonly argued that laws that go against ethics are not real laws to be obeyed but arbitrary impositions to be opposed. This, for instance, was the core of the argument against the defence of the Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg trials. The law is the main instrument through which states specify how people ought to behave in specific situations in application of fundamental principles of justice.

  3. 3.

    Some authors differentiate between descriptive and normative ethics. Descriptive ethics would deal with how people are and act, while normative ethics would account for how people ought to be and act. Others argue that “descriptive ethics” is more about psychology and sociology than about ethics strictly speaking. We are not interested in this polemic right now, but want to emphasize that when we talk about ethical mandates differing across cultures we are basically taking a descriptive stance unless otherwise noted.

  4. 4.

    This sense of process and progress is implicit in most definitions of truth that look for some form of “adequatio” between reality and its representation (“adequatio intellectus rei” in the classical formulation). Strictly speaking those definitions are not talking of mere “equatio” but equatio “that is tendentially achieved, towards which one progressively tends”, for that is the sense of the Latin “ad” preposition. Like in the process of pursuing the universal, achieving truth talks more about the a priori unending process of search than about realizing its final state of complete “equatio”. This is so because full and final truth, like the full and final universal, are so much bigger than us as humans that some philosophers feel the need to point that, properly speaking, truth is not something that one may hold or have. To the contrary, if anything, it is truth that may have and hold you (see, for instance, in Spanish, Alejandro Llano, 2007, “Cultura y pasión”, Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, p. 27-42).

  5. 5.

    Universalistic, or rule-based, cultures believe that everyone should be held accountable to the same rules that are equally applied; while particularistic, or relationship-based, cultures allow room for exceptions to rules based on close personal relationships or unique situations.

References

  1. Chan, A., & Cheung, H. (2012). Cultural dimensions, ethical sensitivity, and corporate governance. Journal of Business Ethics, 110(1), 45–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Chan, K. C., Fung, H. G., & Yau, J. (2010). Business ethics research: A global perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 95(1), 39–53.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Cooper, D. E. (2004). Ethics for professionals in a multicultural world. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Danto, A. C. (1972). Mysticism and morality: oriental thought and moral philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  5. De George, R. (1996). ‘Ethical universals, justice, and international business’, in F. N. Brady (ed.), Ethical Universals in International Business, (Springer, Berlin, pp. 81–96).

  6. De Lubac, H. (1951). Aspects du Bouddhisme. Paris: Editions du Soleil.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Deresky, H. (2008). International management: managing across borders and cultures. Upper Saddle Creek: Pearson/Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Donaldson, T. (1996). Values in tension: ethics away from home. Harvard Business Review, 74(5), 48–58.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Donaldson, T., & Dunfee, T. W. (1999). Ties that bind: A social contracts approach to business ethics. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. García Morente, M. (2011). Ensayos sobre el Progreso. Madrid: Encuentro.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Gelfand, M. J., Bhawuk, D. P. S., Nishii, L. H., & Bechtold, D. J. (2004). Individualism and collectivism. In R. S. House, P. J. Hanges, M. Javidan, P. W. Dorfman, & V. Gupta (Eds.), Culture, leadership and organizations (Sage) (pp. 437–512). CA: Thousand Oaks.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Gift, M. J., Gift, P., & Zheng, Q. (2013). Cross-cultural perceptions of business ethics: Evidence from the United States and China. Journal of Business Ethics, 114(4), 633–642.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1987). Hidden differences: Doing business with the Japanese. New York: Doubleday.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Herodotus: 2007, The Histories R. B. Strassler (ed), Phanteon Books, New York.

  16. Hill, R. (1998). EuroManagers. Brussels: Europublications.

    Google Scholar 

  17. House, R., Hanges P., Javidan M., Dorfman P. V., Gupta, V. (eds): 2004, Culture, Leadership and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies (Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA).

  18. Jones, L. (1992). Specifying the temporal relationship between job loss and consequences. Journal of Applied Social Sciences, 16, 37–62.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Kim, Y., & Kim, S. Y. (2010). The Influence of cultural values on perceptions of corporate social responsibility: Application of Hofstede’s dimensions to Korean public relations practitioners. Journal of Business Ethics, 91(4), 485–500.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Kowner, R. and R. Wiseman (2003). Culture and status-related behavior: Japanese and American perceptions of interaction in asymmetric dyads. Cross-Cultural Research, 37, 1–33.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Kuntz, J., Elenkov, D., & Nabirukhina, A. (2013). Characterizing ethical cases: A cross-cultural investigation of individual differences, organizational climate, and leadership on ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 113(2), 317–331.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Lam, K., & Shi, G. (2008). Factors affecting ethical attitudes in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Journal of Business Ethics, 88, 59–76.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Lewis, R. (1999). When cultures collide. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Llano, A. (2007). Cultura y pasión. Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra.

    Google Scholar 

  25. McGrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1994). The stability of personality: Observations and evaluations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3(6), 173–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Miller, D. T. (1999). The norm of self-interest. American Psychologist, 54(12), 1053–1060.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Moorthy, R. S., De George, R. T., Donaldson, T., Ellos, W. J., Solomon, R. C., & Textor, R. B. (1998). Uncompromising integrity: Motorola’s global challenge. Schaumburg: Motorola University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Morgan, E. (1998). Navigating cross-cultural ethics: What global managers do right to keep from going wrong. Woburn: Butterworth-Heinemann.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Moses, J. (2001). Oneness: Great principles shared by all religions. Ballantine: New York.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Oé, K. (2011). Cuadernos de Hiroshima (Encuentro, Madrid. The Japanese was published in 1965 in Tokio as “Hiroshima noto: Iwanami Shoten”).

  31. Pascal, B. (1965). Pensées: thoughts on religion and other subjects. New York: Washington Square Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Resick, C. J., Hanges, P. J., Dickson, M. W., & Mitchelson, J. K. (2006). A cross-cultural examination of the endorsement of ethical leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 63, 345–359.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Rosen, L. (2006). Law as culture: An invitation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Schwartz, B. (1986). The battle for human nature. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Steers, R. M., Nardon, L., & Sanchez-Runde, C. (2013). Management across cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Steiner, G. (1971). In bluebeard’s castle: Notes towards the redefinition of culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Stouffer, S. A., & Jackson, T. (1951). Role conflict and personality. American Journal of Sociology, 56(5), 395–406.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. The Economist (2008). Pocket world in figures. London: The Economist.

    Google Scholar 

  39. The Register Guard (2009). Police: Father arranged marriage of 14-Year-Old Girl (January 14, p. A2).

  40. Trompenaars, F. (2003). Did the pedestrian die?. Oxford: Capstone.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. S. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A study of resilient children. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Yearley, L. H. (1990). Mencius and aquinas: Theories of virtue and conceptions of courage. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carlos J. Sanchez-Runde.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Sanchez-Runde, C.J., Nardon, L. & Steers, R.M. The Cultural Roots of Ethical Conflicts in Global Business. J Bus Ethics 116, 689–701 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-013-1815-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Ethical conflicts
  • Culture
  • Cross-cultural management
  • Global business