February 23, 2006

Ethics Across Cultures

The following abstract was delivered by Professor Prabhu Guptara at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts Commerce and Manufactures in London, England on March 5, 1998.

Ethical differences across cultures are real. To communicate the impact of this on business as well as on other areas, it is important to classify the world's moral systems.

In the West, the dominant position is that of the philosopher A.J. Ayer. Essentially, this is that moral judgements have no foundation beyond individual preference or cultural upbringing. In other words, you like or dislike something because you like or dislike it: there is no other reason you make the particular judgement you make. When Ayer propounded this idea, it was somewhat unusual in the world of philosophy but already quite popular in practice. However, it gives no real basis for any discussion of ethical issues, in business or anything else — let alone any basis for progress on such issues.

The second position, in the world's moral systems, is what I call neo-trinitarianism, a new trinity of values which the modern West has exported around the world since the end of the Second World War. The place of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (the Christian Trinity) is taken, among neo-trinitarians, by the values of money, knowledge/power and pleasure/comfort.

The third kind of ethical system is authority-based. Such authority can be religious leaders, parents, the law, 51 percent of society, or whatever. The system amounts to following someone's say-so and is unchallengeable intellectually, however admirable or otherwise the content of the ethics may be.

Then there is the consequential school of ethics, popularized as utilitarianism: what is right is defined by what brings happiness or benefit to the majority of people. The fact that ethical stance of utilitarianism might happen at certain points to coincide with the ethical stance of a particular authority-based system is fine, but irrelevant.

Next, there are what might be called the essentialist systems. These argue that actions/attitudes are right or wrong because of the nature of those actions or attitudes themselves. Two kinds of essential systems exist. The non-God-based ones say that it is not necessary to believe in God: most "reasonable" people "know" what is right or "feel" what is wrong. On the other hand, the God-based systems are Jewish and Christian, and they are distinguished from the authority-based systems, because in authority-based systems the authority cannot be questioned or argued with, whereas in Judaism and Christianity the authority can be and is questioned. The concept of the prophet and the "fool" both come from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Both could speak the truth to power, even to the extent of being able to say directly to a king, "Sir, you are guilty."

Moreover, there is a direct link between the character of God and the character which is therefore ineluctably "written into" what God has created, and therefore the character that is required of human beings. This is not so in most authority-based philosophies and religions from further east, such as the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Shinto and Confucian.

As someone from the East, I find it interesting to explore the distinction between Jewish and Christian approaches to ethics. As far as I can see, Jewish ethics is summed up in the Ten Commandments and in the philosophy of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This sounds harsh today but it was an enormous advance on the ethics of the societies that surrounded the Jewish people in the days of Moses: the non-Jewish principle was, "A life for an eye — and if I can't kill you, I'll get a member of your family." This was of course the whole basis of feuding, which was widespread even in the West till surprisingly recently in history and still survives among particular groups such as the Mafia.

Christian ethics, by contrast, can be summed up as revolutionary goodness: "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." You may think that this is an outrageously idealistic system which cannot possibly be followed, but such an objection has no bearing on whether my summing up of the Christian position is accurate.

Finally, there are tradition-based approaches to ethics. Hinduism has a system of systematized relativism, depending both on the caste into which one is born (priests, warriors/administrators, merchants, menial workers, and outcaste) and on one's "stage in life" — student, householder, retirement, renunciation. Are the ethics of the priestly caste different from those of the warrior, or the ethics for a student different from those for an old man? In Hinduism, the answer is yes. The system focuses on men, not women — to whom applies principally the duty of being subservient or obedient to elders and, later, to husband.

Interestingly, traditional systems of ethics usually treat women with respect, as long as they fulfil the traditional role. Of course, when women start taking on unfamiliar roles, ethical confusion sets in both for the woman and for the society as a whole, and traditional societies take to a series of ethical compromises with their "own" system in order to find a way to survive.

The Confucian system of ethics is quite different from the Hindu, in that while it does depend on the specific authority of Confucius, most so-called Confucians know and care nothing about Confucius himself beyond a kind of ritual respect, and follow the Confucian system of ethics because it is traditional. Confucius laid down certain rules:

li (respect for people in authority, whether a god, king or parent)

hsiao (family love, though "family" includes distant relatives and even friends)

yi (mutual commitment among friends, and friendship is a very serious matter in the East)

jen (literally "all the good things that happen when people meet," including hospitality and wishing them well)

chung (loyalty to the state)

chun-tzu ("outgoing, generous, liberal").

To illustrate the practical difference these systems make, let us take an example from the world of politics, because the world of business may be too close to us to take an objective view of any specific action or attitude.
In 1989, the students of Beijing had a problem with their government and decided to demonstrate in Tienanmen Square. We all know how the government reacted, opening fire on the unarmed crowd. Was it ethical for the state to act as it did? According to Confucian principles, it was entirely and wholly ethical, because the students were clearly not being loyal to the state. Now, in theory, the conduct of an authority figure must be superior to that of his inferiors if he (usually a "he," in Confucian terms) is to retain their loyalty. But there is no guidance in Confucian principles to enable a Chinese to judge WHETHER a superior person is behaving appropriately, and WHEN the line is crossed beyond which the duty of loyalty is no longer owed. In practice, in Confucian countries, abuse of power goes on until it becomes intolerable and the tyrant is overthrown. The underlying value in Confucianism is social harmony, and it assumes that everyone tries their best. If people, especially those in authority, do not try their best, there are no safeguards against it. Though the system worked more or less well for 2,500 years, it can be doubted whether it provides an adequate framework for the modern world, though modified forms of Confucianism are being encouraged in modern China and South-East Asia.

Down the generations, traditional ethical systems can and do get diluted. Young professionals in the East probably operate on an ethical system similar to the Western neo-trinitarian one of money/ power/ pleasure. On the other hand, a modern Western Buddhist will have much in common with a traditional Buddhist in the East. All the religious and ethical systems I have discussed are no longer limited to a racial or national context. Today, the conflict is not between, say, Japanese and Americans (at least not regarding what is ethical), but between the different ethical systems which now divide people within every society.

Broadly, however, we may say that there is fundamental conflict today between two ethical systems: though one is based on notions of fairness, justice and humanity (which most of accept in theory), the world is in fact dominated by contrary values — money, power and pleasure. It is important to be clear about that fundamental conflict if we are going to be effective in influencing the world for the better.

What, specifically, can be done to bring our cancerous, money-oriented system into some kind of harmony with human values and the environment?

First, company law enables shares to go from one generation to another and is the only thing on earth which does not die: human beings die, buildings die, animals die, trees die, but shares (in principle) do not. If a worldwide humanitarian system is to be developed, there must be serious examination of a legal system which encourages the rich to become progressively richer for very little exertion or intelligence or effort (that is, simply by passing on a commission to wealth managers). The result in America and indeed in the rest of the world is concentration of wealth (I have no issue with people EARNING lots of money). I do have a problem when, for example in the richest country in the world, the USA, we have a population in which 70 percent has no net wealth, and one percent of the population holds 40 percent of the assets. Over the past 20 years, real wages have declined for 80 percent of the population. And this is not an issue only in the USA, it is a worldwide trend today. I think most of us have no problem with a system which allows reasonable accumulation of wealth gained in return for the exertion of intelligence, industry, risk-taking and sheer effort. But I think most people in the world do have a problem with a system which allows unlimited accumulation of wealth AT THE SAME TIME as allowing millions of people to have nothing when they are exerting as much energy and intelligence as other people. Friends, 3,500 children died today — because they had no food or water. Three thousand five hundred will die tomorrow for the same reasons. And the day after. And every day… till you and I decide to do something about it. What was merely a tragedy yesterday is today a tragedy as well as an obscenity, for we live in a time of over-supply of all basic goods for the first time in history, which makes it entirely unnecessary for anyone to starve, or have no clothes or to have no roof of some basic sort over their heads.

Second, in order to build a worldwide stakeholder economy, we must re-examine our international economic system which is based on usury. In every ancient society without exception, usury was banned because every society understood that usury institutionalizes and makes inevitable this kind of increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. It is impossible to have respect for individuals and for the environment as long as we have an international economic system which by its very nature creates unsustainable growth in some areas and unsustainable deprivation in other areas.

Every traditional system of morality — Jewish, Christian, Jain and Chinese — regarded wealth as something which was given to be looked after as a trustee, not for one's own self-indulgence, and this attitude acted as some sort of safeguard against too much of a gap developing. Today, however, the fact is that fewer and fewer people regard wealth as something to be held in trust for the welfare of everyone in the world — at the same time as there is an increasing consciousness of the need to build a world economic and financial and political system which is just and sustainable.

In conclusion, as individuals, as companies and as a world system, we need to think more deeply and act more systematically, if we are properly to address ethics across cultures and if we wish to create the sort of world we all, I believe deep inside us, want to create. There is no universal law which imposes on us the necessity to have an unsustainable and unjust system. The systems we create are up to us. There is an increasing desire and an increasing will across the world today to build a sustainable and just world. The challenge for businesses is: how to be a part of this movement.

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is Director of Executive and Organizational Development at the Wolfsberg Centre, a subsidiary of UBS of Switzerland. He writes and lectures about issues at the intersection of business practices, religious worldviews, and ethics.