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.
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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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
- Ethical conflicts
- Cross-cultural management
- Global business