Cultural Relativism or Ethical Imperialism

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Cultural Relativism or Ethical Imperialism? Dealing with Bribery Across Cultures by Niles C. Logue Professor of Economics and Business Gordon College 255 Grapevine Road / Wenham, MA 01984 niles.logue@gordon.edu 978-867-4735 Abstract: North American businesses seeking to participate in the global economy will quickly encounter conflicting cultural norms and values which complicate the normal rigors of competing in the marketplace. One of the more serious areas of cultural conflict for international business takes place over the issue of bribery. Whose norms should apply? “When in Rome do we do, or not do, as the Romans do?” This paper argues that bribery violates absolute moral principles which cannot be compromised, it examines the counter arguments for cultural accommodations, and suggests strategies that business persons can adopt to compete ethically in corrupt environments.

Introduction The bribery and extortion scandal surrounding the awarding of the winter games to Salt Lake City by the International Olympic committee, the more recent “Food for Oil” scandal at the United Nations, and current Justice Department probe of allegations of bribery at Daimler Chrysler remind us that bribery and corruption continue to be extremely important contemporary issues in the global village. Perhaps the most sobering aspect of these recent events is how easily the Salt Lake organizing committee was suborned—ironic in a state whose self image was one of rectitude—“How could it happen here, with our high moral standards?...There is evidence that the United States is now viewed abroad as a country congenial to corruption of the cheapest third world variety” (Caldwell, 35-36). One suspects that the organizing committee justified its behavior as necessary cultural accommodation—“unfortunately that‟s the way things are done at the Olympics; everyone is doing it, so if we want to be a player, we will have to play by these rules.” Is bribery condemned by absolute moral principle which cannot by compromised, or are there conditions which warrant cultural accommodation on this issue? For U.S. businesses the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA) prohibits the bribing of senior government officials to secure major contracts, and in 1997 the 30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ratified the Anti-Bribery Convention1, committing them to embrace these principles. However, even the FCPA fails to prohibit more modest “grease” payments to facilitate legitimate activities. Can a company committed to high ethical standards make “grease” payments? Can it use agents to “get things done” indirectly with “no questions asked?” What is a Christian business person to do when her firm sees these kinds of compromises as expedient and necessary tools essential for effective competition? Can an ethical firm compete effectively in a corrupt environment? 1

The full name is The Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.

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When considering ethical frameworks that one might use to analyze these issues, Donaldson and De George both reject the two extreme approaches of cultural relativism and ethical imperialism. Cultural relativism (when in Rome…) presumes that “no culture‟s ethics are better than any other‟s; therefore, there are no international rights and wrongs. If the people of Indonesia tolerate the bribery of their public officials, so what? Their attitude is not better or worse than that of people in Denmark or Singapore who refuse to offer or accept bribes” (Donaldson, 48). Now, Christians would agree that we should be predisposed to show tolerance and respect for the customs and values of other cultures,2 but we cannot yield our commitment to moral absolutes flowing from the Creator and the universal imperative of these principles for the decisions of life. Furthermore, even though many see cultural relativism as providing the operative...
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