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4.3 Cultural Ethics

Learning Objectives

  1. Define cultural ethics.
  2. Consider how cultural ethics works in the business world.
  3. Examine the truth of cultural ethics.
  4. Consider advantages and drawbacks of a culturalist ethics.

What Is Cultural Ethics?

Culturalists embrace the idea that moral doctrines are just the rules a community believes, and they accept that there’s no way to prove one society’s values better than another. Culturalists don’t, however, follow Nietzsche in taking that as a reason to turn away from all traditional moral regulation; instead, it’s a reason to accept and endorse whichever guidelines are currently in effect wherever you happen to be. The old adage, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” isn’t too far from where we’re at here.

Gift or Bribe or Both?

The Entrepreneur magazine article posed a problem for Americans going overseas to do business. In some places, passing money under the table is necessary to spark negotiations and win contracts. However, bribery is illegal in the United States, and US law makes it illegal for Americans to do that kind of thing abroad. Gifts, on the other hand, are allowed. But, according to the Entrepreneur article, it can be difficult to determine the difference between a gift and a bribe. In some cultures, a gesture may be seen as a gift, and in others it looks like a bribe.

Looking at this uncertainty, what a culturalist sees is not ambiguity about whether handing the money over to a potential client is a legal gift or an illegal bribe. That’s not it at all. A culturalist sees it as both a gift and a bribe. In one culture—a nation overseas where the payment is occurring and where similar payments always occur when business is getting done—there are no moral qualms. It’s right to give a cash gift because that’s the rule of the country; it’s the way things are commonly and properly done there. By contrast, from the perspective of American business culture, the conclusion that’s drawn with equal force is that it’s an immoral bribe because that’s what US customs and normal practices tell us.

Cultural Ethics and International Bribery

Culturalists see moral rules as fixed onto specific societies, but that doesn’t help anyone know what to do when confronted with an unfamiliar set of beliefs. How, the really important question is, does a culturalist act when forced to make decisions in a place and among people whose beliefs are different and unfamiliar? The Entrepreneur interview with Steve Veltkamp provides one answer.

What can you do if your overseas associate demands a bribe? Veltkamp doesn't recommend asking embassies or consulates for assistance, as “they have to stick to the official line.” Instead, he believes “the best resource in almost every country of the world is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where you can find Americans who live in the country and understand how things are done.” Moira Allen, “Here Comes the Bribe,” Entrepreneur, October 2000, accessed May 12, 2011,

Immediately you can see how different the culturalist approach is to moral dilemmas. The message is: get in touch with the locals and try to do as they would in the same situation.

Most traditional ethical theories go in exactly the opposite direction. They say that it doesn’t necessarily matter what people are actually doing. Stronger, the entire point of studying ethics has normally been to escape conventional wisdom and ingrained habits; the idea of doing what we ought to do requires a step away from those things and a cold, rational look at the situation. So, a morality based on duties sets up guidelines including don’t lie, don’t steal and appeals to men and women in business to follow them. Acting in an ethically responsible way in the world means obeying the dictates and refusing to be swayed by what the guy in the next cubicle is up to. Handing someone money under the table, consequently, while publicly insisting that everything’s on the up and up can’t be condoned no matter what anyone else does; it can’t be right because it entails at least implicit lying.

More specifically for the culturalist, Entrepreneur advises overseas business people to avoid seeking guidance from embassies or consulates because those people have to stick to “the official line.” What’s the official line? Presumably, it’s the set of practices delineated and approved by the State Department back in Washington, DC. The strength of these practices is that they’re formed to be universal, to work at every embassy everywhere in the world. A culturalist, however, looks at that and says it’s silly. There are no practices that work everywhere in the world. The advice government bureaucrats give is worthless; it’s less than worthless because it departs from the error of conceiving ethics as a set of rules fitting a transnational reality. What people in business should actually do is get in contact with people who really know something about ethics, and that requires turning to the locals, including the chamber of commerce, because they’re on the scene.

Conclusion. The culturalist deals with the question about whether a bribe is ethically respectable by ignoring all dictates received from other places and obeying the customs and standard practices of those who live and work where the decision is being made.

Cultural Ethics and the News Reporting of Wallace Souza

Another example of how culturalist ethics works comes from the flamboyant TV reporter Wallace Souza. Like many action crime reporters the world over, he raced to violent scenes hoping to get the first and best video. What counts, however, as good video in Brazil is different from what typically gets shown in the United States. Here’s a description of what Souza sent over the airwaves: “In one of Mr. Souza’s shows on his Canal Livre programme, a reporter approached a still-smouldering body in a forest. ‘It smells like a barbecue,’ he says. ‘It is a man. It has the smell of burning meat. The impression is that it was in the early hours…it was an execution.’”Dom Phillips, “Brazil Crime Show Host ‘Used Murder to Boost Ratings,’” Times, August 13, 2009, accessed May 12, 2011,

This is not the kind of report we see in the US media, and one of the differences is the ethics. Typically in the United States, a certain respect is accorded to the deceased, even if they’re criminals. It’s considered an exploitation to directly show dead bodies, especially smoldering ones. There’s quite a bit of cultural analysis that would go into this prohibition, but simplifying, it’s not just that reporters hold an ethical responsibility to others to not exploit their deaths graphically; they also have a responsibility to viewers to not show images that may be (or probably would be) disturbing. By contrast, and as the Souza report shows, in Brazil the rules are different and this kind of visual makes it over the airwaves without raising eyebrows or triggering moral objections.

More generally, the question about what you’re allowed to show on TV to boost the ratings and so make more money is an extremely rich area of examples for cultural ethicsThe theory that moral doctrines are only the rules a community believes, and acting in a way that’s ethically recommendable means learning and following those local guidelines.. How graphic is the violence allowed to be on CSI Miami? How far is the wardrobe malfunction allowed to go on the Real Housewives of Orange County? These kinds of basic questions about decency and ratings (which means advertising revenue) seem tailor made for those who believe the answers don’t depend on anything more than what people in a certain culture will accept. They seem cut out for those believing that the value we call decency is nothing more (or less) than the line drawn between the number of people who will watch and the number who turn the TV off in disgust.

Is Culturalist Ethics True?

If it’s true that there’s no ethics but the kind a culturalist proposes, then this book loses a good deal of its usefulness. It’s lost because the main object is to help readers form and justify rules to guide their professional lives. Conceding that the culturalists are right, however, is also admitting that there’s no reason to carefully analyze problems: you’re far better served just checking around to see what most other people are doing in similar situations. Ethics isn’t a test of your ability to think reasonably and independently; it’s more a responsibility to follow the crowd.

Culturalism isn’t true, however, at least not necessarily. You can see that in the reasoning underneath the cultural approach. The reasoning starts with an observation:

In certain societies, handing money under the table is commonly considered an appropriate, ethically respectable part of business activity, and in others it’s considered both illegal and unethical.

And moves quickly to a conclusion:

Right and wrong in the business world is nothing more than what’s commonly considered right and wrong in a specific community.

On the surface, this argument looks all right, but thinking it through carefully leads to the conclusion that it’s not valid. A valid argumentAn argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. This doesn’t mean the conclusion is true, but if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be too. is one where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. For example, if you start from the definition that all unmarried men are bachelors, and then you observe that your friend John is an unmarried man, you can, in fact, conclude that he’s a bachelor. You must conclude that. But that’s not the situation with the culturalist argument because the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the premise. Just because no broad international agreement has been reached about what counts as bribery doesn’t mean no agreement will ever be reached. Or making the same point more generally, just because no transcultural theory based on universal reason has yet to conquer all local beliefs and habits everywhere on the globe doesn’t mean no such theory will ever accomplish that goal.

Taking the same situation in the less ambiguous world of the physical sciences, there was a time when some believed the earth centered the sun and planets, while others believed the sun was at the center, but that didn’t mean the dispute would linger forever. Eventually, tools were found to convince everyone that one side was right. So too in business ethics: one day an enterprising ethicist may find a way to indisputably prove on the grounds of a universal and reasonable argument that greasing palms is a bribe and not a gift, and it’s immoral, not moral. We don’t know if that will happen, but it might. Consequently, the fact that we’re unsure now as to whether any single ethics can deal with the whole world doesn’t require shooting to the other extreme and saying there’ll never be anything but what people in specific nations believe and that’s it. The culturalist argument, in other words, isn’t necessarily persuasive.

It is worrisome, though. And until someone can find a way to do for ethics what scientists did for the question about the earth’s relation to the planets, there will always be individuals who suspect that no such proof will ever come. Count Nietzsche among them. In the field of contemporary philosophy and ethics, those who share the suspicion—those who doubt that no matter how hard we try we’ll never be able to get beyond our basic cultural perspectives and disagreements—belong to a movement named postmodernismPostmodernism in ethics is the suspicion that no single ethical code is indisputably right..

What Are Some Advantages and Drawbacks of Culturalist Ethics?

One general advantage of a culturalist ethics is that it allows people to be respectful of others and their culture. A deep component of any society’s existence, uniqueness, and dignity in the world is its signature moral beliefs, what the people find right and wrong. A culturalist takes that identity seriously and makes no attempt to change or interfere. More, a culturalist explicitly acknowledges that there’s no way to compare one culture against another as better and worse. Though you can describe differences, you can’t say one set of moral truths is better than another because all moral truths are nothing more than what a society chooses to believe.

A more specific advantage of a culturalist ethics in the economic and business world is that it adapts well to contemporary reality. Over the last decades we’ve seen an explosion of international commerce, of large corporations tearing loose from specific nations and functioning globally. This economic surge has outpaced the corresponding understanding surge: we have no trouble switching dollars for euros or for yen, and we can buy Heineken beer from Germany and ride in a Honda made in Japan, but few of us speak English, German, and Japanese. In that kind of situation, one where some dilemmas in business ethics end up involving people we can’t really talk to, culturalism provides a reasonable way to manage uncertainties. When we’re in the United States, we follow American customs. If we’re sent on an overseas trade venture to Germany or Japan, we pretty much do as they normally do there. Just in practical terms, that may well be the easiest way to work and succeed in the world, and a culturalist ethics allows a coherent justification for the strategy.

The Disadvantages

The major disadvantage of a culturalist ethics is that it doesn’t leave any clear path to making things better. If a community’s recommended ethical compass is just their customs and normal practices, then it’s difficult to see how certain ingrained habits—say business bribery—can be picked up, examined, and then rejected as unethical. In fact, there’s no reason why bribery should be examined at all. Since moral right and wrong is just what the locals do, it makes no sense to try to change anything.

This view stands in stark contrast with what we usually believe—or at least would like to believe—about ethics: there can be progress; we can become better. In science, we know progress occurs all the time. Our collective knowledge about the sun’s position relative to the planets went from wrong to right with time and effort, and we’d like the same to happen for moral uncertainties. That’s why it’s so easy to imagine that bribery is a dirty, third-world practice, and part of our responsibility as a wealthy and developed nation is to lead the way in cleaning it up. We clean the moral world of bad business ethics just like our scientists rid the physical world of misperceptions. More, that’s a central aim of America’s antibribery legislation as it applies to overseas acts: it’s to cure other cultures of their bad habits. If you’re a culturalist, however, then the bad habit isn’t bribery; it’s one nation trying to impose a morality on another.

However you may come down on the question about whether nations should be trying to improve ethical customs in other places, what’s inescapable is that if you’re a culturalist, you don’t have any ground to stand on when it comes to criticizing the moral practices of businessmen and women in foreign countries. You don’t because what’s going on elsewhere is an independent and legitimate ethical system and can’t be judged inferior to our own.

Another problem with a culturalist ethics is that it provides few routes to resolving conflicts within a society. For example, should I be allowed to go into business for myself on the land I bought in the middle of a residential neighborhood by opening a motorcycle bar? In Houston, the answer’s yes. There’s a community consensus there that owning a piece of land allows you to do (almost) whatever you want with it. In legal terms, that translates into Houston being the only major American city without zoning regulations. Up the road in Dallas, however, there’s a similar community consensus that the rights of landownership are curtailed by the rights of nearby landowners. The result is strict zoning laws likely prohibiting Harley conventions in the middle of family neighborhoods. At this point, a culturalist has no problem; people in Houston have their codes of right and wrong and people in Dallas have theirs. What happens, though, in Austin, Texas, which is about midway between Houston and Dallas? What if about half the population believes in landowner rights at all costs and the other half goes for a more community-oriented approach? A cultural ethics provides few tools for resolving the dispute beyond sitting and waiting for one side or the other to take control of the town. This means ethics isn’t helping us solve disagreements; it only arrives when, really, it’s no longer needed.

Key Takeaways

  • Proponents of cultural ethics embrace the idea that moral doctrines are just the rules, beliefs, and customs of specific communities.
  • Doing the right thing within a culturalist framework relies less on traditional ethical reasoning and more on detecting local habits.
  • The culturalist view of ethics is neither true nor false. It’s a reaction to the world as it is: a place with vastly divergent sets of moral codes.
  • A culturalist ethics respects other societies and their practices but loses solid hope for ethical progress.

Review Questions

  1. If you’re doing business overseas as a cultural ethicist, why would it make sense to consult the local chamber of commerce? Who else might you consult for moral guidance? Why?
  2. You go abroad to win a contract and discover that a cash gift is necessary, so you hand it over and win the business. On returning to the United States, you put the $200 gift on your expense report. The boss is infuriated, calls your act an “unethical, wrongheaded bribe” and says she won’t reimburse you the $200. What arguments could you use to convince her that you did the right thing and should be reimbursed?
  3. Souza’s bloody TV program is popular in Brazil, especially the parts where he shows video of horridly dead bodies. How could a culturalist argue that the episodes should not be shown on American TV?
  4. A cultural ethics is neither true nor false. Explain.