In today’s modern world, globalization and increasing interconnectedness require common ground to promote dialog, peace, and a more humane world, but there is always tension between universal ethics and local values and norms. These tensions are especially prominent in business ethics because corporations are increasingly recruiting people from different cultures and requiring them to live and work together.
The authors explore key theories underlying the tension between universal ethics and local values, particularly in the context of business management. They consider questions of moral relativism, the existence of shared or universal values, the propriety of universalistic ethical theories in a world of development challenges, the moral law in the context of a global world, and human rights as a practical proposal for introducing universal standards in business.
How Is This Research Useful to Practitioners?
Moral relativism is a generally acknowledged fact, but the acceptance of this fact does not support normative moral relativism. The authors end up on the side of universal values by pointing to three key papers that make similar arguments: Because people and cultures evolve and become better over time, they can make progress in assessing ethical values, and thus ethical values become universal through time. In evaluating the existence of shared or universal values, the authors note that findings in the reviewed literature indicate a convergence across time, place, and intellectual tradition about certain core virtues, including wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, humanity, and transcendence.
They evaluate whether universal ethics could come from the natural moral law tradition. In defining natural law, the authors reference the Bible, which considers natural law to be rationally accessible for unbelievers, and Cicero, who suggested the existence of a Reason that rules the world as a fully superior and divine, not mediated, “nature law.” In their review of Ciceronian views of natural law and virtuous behavior, they make the point that corporate reputation is drawn from honorableness and that reputation will be lost if financial interests override the honest intentions of a company.
Finally, in reviewing human rights as a conduit for the application of universal ethics, the authors note that civil society and businesses are a critical part of the idea of promoting human rights. By ensuring the basic human rights as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), businesses can fall short because there is no commensurate commitment to “human rights due diligence.”
Without backing irrevocably either side of the moral relativism–moral universalism debate, the authors caution managers to be aware of the diversity of the cultures of the people they manage, especially when it comes to situations in which the supposedly agreed on transcultural values do not apply.
How Did the Authors Conduct This Research?
The article introduces key insights drawing from eight papers presented at the 17th IESE International Symposium titled “Ethics, Business and Society” held in Barcelona, Spain, in May 2012. These articles spanned relevant topics including moral relativism, universal ethics, and human rights.
The authors attempt to shed light on the difficult topic of the tension between local ethics and universal ethics in an increasingly globalized world. But business managers should view this article as a literature review more than a conclusive resolution to debate. I believe the key takeaway is that local values evolve over time. But in this increasingly globalized world, a number of transcultural values have evolved—ones that would stand the test of a moral judgment, such as the respect of human dignity.