In Donaldson’s Values in Tension: Ethics Away From Home, he describes a policy
that was standard at home, but unsuccessful elsewhere. In one example, the manager of a
U.S. company in China caught one of the employees stealing. By following the company’s
practice and turning the employee over to the authorities, which was the right thing
to do according to our values.
The employee was executed because he was
judged based on China’s political, legal, and ethical codes, while to us (Americans)
the punishment did not fit the crime.
While many cultures believe in some variation of “The Golden Rule”, there really is
no detailed international standard of business conduct. U.S. firms should, at the very least
establish company policies that take into consideration the principles of different cultures.
There is clearly a balancing act to develop policies that define the ethics of the
corporation, while understanding that codes of conduct vary greatly around the world.
like Levi Strauss and Motorola, not only define their policies, they understand that their
managers must be able to adapt to a great deal of moral uncertainty in international
Many business practices are neither black nor white but exist in a gray zone, a moral
free space through which businesses and their managers must find away to deal with. Levi
Strauss and Motorola seemed to have helped managers by treating company values as absolute
and insisting that their suppliers and customers do the same. How this was addressed by
these companies, was the development of detailed codes of conduct that provides clear
direction on ethical behavior, but leaves room for managers of these companies to use moral
imagination that allows them to resolve ethical problems appropriately.
Donaldson argues that companies must be guided by three principles in the shaping of
ethical behavior: respect for core human value, respect for local traditions, and the belief that
context matters when deciding what is right and wrong. These principles help in establishing
a moral guide for business practice.
James Rachel’s The Challenge of Cultural Relativism, argues that different cultures
have different moral codes. He is obviously taking the opposite approach to Donaldson’s
absolute approach, that of a relativist approach. The relativist concludes that there is no
objective “truth” in morality, therefore right and wrong are merely matters of opinion that
can vary from culture to culture. The problem with this argument is that the stated con-
clusion does not necessarily need to be the case if the premise is given. The premise
states what different people believe to be true, and the conclusion assumes that this belief
must be the case.
One consequence of practicing relativism, is that culture determines what is
functionally right and wrong.
Meaning that an individual has no say in the matter, and if
there is a conflict between the two, the individual’s ethical belief is not given any
consideration. Just because a culture deems an action right, it does not mean that the action
is correct for that culture. The second consequence is that it is impossible to judge the
actions of any culture as to their morality. Because a relativist believes that what is right is
what is functional for a specific culture, there is no room for comparing one culture’s actions
to another. For example, a culture that practices infanticide, and another culture believed that
babies are to be protected from all harms. In the relativist view neither culture is more
correct in its views; both societies are performing the functionally right action for their
Based on this observation, it seems that infanticide is wrong, and therefore, the
culture that practices it, is also morally wrong.
Just as one culture cannot criticize another, there cannot be criticism from within it.
Rachel’s argues that a relativist would not allow for an individual in the aggressive culture to
speak out against their inhumane actions. Because, as mentioned previously, the relativist,
states that one culture’s actions cannot be judged to their morality.
The problems of actually practicing cultural relativism are numerous. They include
the fact that the culture determines what is right and wrong, that it is impossible to judge a
culture morally, and there can’t be any moral progress in a culture The minor benefits of
cultural relativism such as tolerance, lacking of an absolute standard, and an open mind can
only be applied to a limited .