Business Ethics and Intercultural Communication.

Exploring the overlap between two academic fields.


Johannes Brinkmann

Norwegian School of Management BI


The paper offers a brief presentation of business ethics as an academic field, and of how it has approached the moral dimension of cross-cultural business activity, i.e. when companies operate in different countries, where stakeholders live in different societies and where norms and values reflect and are affected by cultural differences. Introductory definitions are illustrated by classic case examples and important issues addressed in this field. In a next step, cultural and ethical relativism are discussed, with reference to a four-fold table with combinations of both relativisms and to a process model. This model departs from cultural and moral relativism and outlines how one could transcend such relativism. Among several concluding theses the most important one is a claim that intercultural communication as an academic field can profit from using highly controversial business ethics cases for testing its competence (and for staying humble).


The main intention of this paper is to demonstrate that intercultural communication as an academic field should incorporate business ethics concepts and theory. Business ethics is a well-institutionalised academic field, too, which deals with the moral dimension of business activity. This paper offers a brief presentation of business ethics and how this field approaches the moral dimension of cross-cultural business activity (cf. for a broader presentation of business ethics as an academic field Brinkmann 2001a, for a more sceptical one Brinkmann 2001b).

The field´s key terms, morality and ethics, both refer to acceptable, correct behaviour, and are often used synonymously. A clear distinction between these two terms can be useful, and is a question of how precisely "correct" or "acceptable" is defined, and by whom. A behaviour which most insiders in a given culture or subculture accept or reject ("morality") is not necessarily considered the same way by a neutral, critical outsider. For this and other reasons many writers distinguish clearly between morality on the one hand, and ethics on the other. Such a sharp distinction can help with sorting a whole range of closely related phenomena, real worlds of "morality", as a question of practice and subcultural identity, versus preferred worlds of "ethics", as a question of ideals and of critical argument, e.g. as formulated by moral philosophy. Or, to quote an example of this distinction in prose:

"Ethics is concerned with the justification of actions and practices in specific situations. Ethics generally deals with the reasoning process and is a philosophical reflection on the moral life and the principles embedded in that life. (...) Morality ... generally refers to traditions or beliefs that have evolved over several years or even centuries in societies concerning right and wrong conduct. Morality can be thought of as a social institution that has a history and a code of conduct that are implicit or explicit about how people ought to behave..." (Buchholz and Rosenthal 1998, 4, JBs italics).

In this quotation, morality and ethics are defined in relation to one another, as a continuum with a real-practical and an ideal-theoretical, a descriptive and a normative extreme point. One could also extend this continuum by including the "bad neighbour" of morality, moralism. In such a case morality represents a neutral term, with moralism as its preaching and stigmatising extension and ethics as its constructive-critical extension. While moralism often is self-righteous and looks for sinners and chases them, ethics integrates people by seeking a consensus around good principles and procedures. In other words, moralism lacks the self-criticism of morality that defines ethics. In terms of such a distinction, morality can degenerate to moralism and is exposed to potential ethical criticism. Proper critical evaluation requires sufficient knowledge and understanding of morality and moralism, respectively.

In addition to such a moralism-ethics-dimension one could also try to understand morality and ethics in their contrast to positive, formal law and individual, private conscience. Morality and ethics seem to be located somewhere between conscience and law in several respects, being less emotional, private and inner-directed than conscience and less formal, predictable, public and outer-directed than law. Because of such a middle position on several dimensions morality and ethics can potentially serve as bridge-builders and substitutes whenever individual conscience or positive law cannot be relied upon (cf. Jensen et al. 1990, 38). On the other hand, for the same reason, there is less need for ethics and morality as long as individual conscience and positive law guarantee similar control (cf. exhibit 1 and also Brinkmann 2001b, figure 1 and table 3).

(formal) law







(stigmatising) (constructive-critical)

moralism morality ethics








(individual) conscience


Understanding morality in its relationship to

ethics and moralism, law and conscience

Still another way of structuring and presenting the field is by means of moral-philosophical schools or approaches. Utilitarianism versus deontology (associated with names such as J. Bentham or J.S. Mill versus I. Kant or W.D. Ross) is a standard dichotomy, often with other schools mentioned in addition (e.g. J. Rawls´ justice ethics, M. Weber´s responsibility ethics, or J. Habermas´ consensus-by-communication ethics). Deontology asks idealistically if a societal status quo or a given action is consistent with universal principles, such as human duties and rights. If there is no other way out, principles are focused on at the expense of holistic consequence analyses and compromises. Utilitarianism is more pragmatic in its search for maximised total utilities of a societal status quo or a given action, for the "greatest good for the greatest number of people". If there is no other way out, welfare-maximisation is primarily at the expense of any other principles. The communication ethics approach questions the authority of the positions defining principles or welfare and believes in consensus building by fair and open communication among all the stakeholders affected. Such a standpoint of "communication as a principle" welcomes deontological and or utilitarianist arguments, together with other ones.

"Ethics" most often refers to a domain of inquiry, a discipline, in which matters of right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice, are systematically examined. "Morality", by contrast, is most often used to refer not to a discipline but to patterns of thought and action that are actually operative in everyday life. In this sense, morality is what the discipline of ethics is about. And so business morality is what business ethics is about" (Goodpaster 1992, 111).

In this and similar quotations business ethics is presented as a special case of ethics. And business ethics contains a similar ambiguity of everyday moral practice versus ethics, i.e. theorising, discussing and agreement about such practice, and of ethics versus moralism. There are grey zones towards law and conscience, and there are different schools or approaches. In addition to such rather general, perhaps too general quotations with low awareness of intercultural connotation differences (see Enderle 1997) one can distinguish between talking of business ethics, business ethical practice and theorising about business ethics (Enderle 1996b, 34).

Cross-cultural business ethics - classic cases and important issues

Cross-cultural business ethics addresses moral issues that emerge when companies operate in different countries, where stakeholders live in different societies and where norms and values reflect and are affected by cultural differences. In addition to such a working definition a number of classic case examples and some of the most important issues in cross-cultural business ethics can be described briefly, with references added for further reading and discussion.

These cases and similar ones can be sorted into at least one of the following issue categories:

Cultural and ethical relativism

Cultural relativism is a worldview and standpoint, that no culture as such is superior to any other one, and that any culture deserves to be described, understood and judged on its own premises. (The opposite is ethnocentrism, where one culture judges other cultures). Ethical relativism as a worldview and standpoint claims that there is no culture-free, universal morality and therefore no way of ranking moral views and practices as more or less right, at least across cultures.

Both relativisms have been criticised as extreme positions, but are at the same time widely used in their respective parent disciplines social anthropology and moral philosophy, as basic labels of theoretical orientation. Since cultural relativism is less normative and much less controversial than ethical relativism, a listing of the most important arguments against the latter are sufficient here:

What is needed (and sufficient) is an intercultural moral consensus about an ethical minimum. For addressing and handling such criticisms, problems and questions a few conventions seem useful:

The individual-level ideal: open-mindedness and moral integrity

In education or recruitment situations cultural and ethical relativism turns into a question of individual attitudes and capabilities and how such qualities can be assessed. Three examples of assessment instruments in this field can be briefly referred to. J. Koester and M. Olebe have suggested and developed a rather wide Behavioral Scale for Intercultural Competence (BASIC) which focuses on intercultural open-mindedness, or as they call it, intercultural communication skills, by using eight categories (Lustig and Koester 1996, 329 with further references):

Most of such an instrument’s categories see to be indicators of individual cultural relativism. Another, more onedimensional instrument is M.J. Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS, cf. Exhibit 2). As the name of this model suggests, there is a learning process assumption from lower to higher stages, such as growing into a culture and replacing biased and superficial understanding of a culture by an in-depth understanding of such a culture´s "emics" and etics" (cf. also Segall et al. 1990, 48-66 and Bennett 1998, 191-214).

Exhibit 2: M.J. Bennett’s DMIS model (1998, 26, slightly modified)

The third example is L. Kohlberg's classical continuum of moral sensitivity and judgement maturity (see e.g. 1972, 1985, cf. exhibit 3, using J. Rest’s reformulations).

Exibit 3: Kohlberg’s six stages (following Rest and Narváez 1994, 5)


Kohlberg’s primary interest and assumptions concern individual moral maturity development and assessment. In our context one could consider reading the Kohlberg model as a continuum of cultural-moral opportunism, with a ("relativist") position of choosing ways of least resistance at the one end, and non-resignation in the face of moral controversy and defence of integrity at the other end.

Dialectics of cultural and ethical relativism

Cultural and moral relativism are different, but interdependent. One can understand a culture on its own premises without accepting it, and one can accept it without understanding it (see e.g. Eriksen in Brinkmann&Eriksen 1996, 25). One can be a tolerant and empathetic ethnorelativist and at the same time have a post-conventional or conventional, non-opportunistic approach to morality. Such difference and interdependence ("dialectics") can be illustrated by a four-fold table with both relativisms as independent dimensions (see exhibit 4).



Non- missionary interculturally

opportunism cultural-moral competent

imperialism moral integrity

Way of double understanding

Least resistance ignorance opportunism

Ethnocentrism Ethnorelativism

("cultural relativism")

Exhibit 4: Four combination types of relativism

Obviously, one should avoid double ignorance and try to move towards the ideal, i.e. aim at a high score on both dimensions.

From such references one would assume that









Exhibit 5: A virtuous (but vulnerable) circle of

delaying judgement and transcending ethical relativism


Ethical dilemma handling

The last point can be illustrated as a possibile virtuous circle which easily can turn into a vicious one (see exhibit 5). Or in prose: If a moral conflict or dilemma is faced in an intercultural setting (1), intercultural communication, ideally, could contribute with unprejudiced, non-ethnocentric description and interpretation (2), with tools for communication and barrier reduction (3), while ethics would focus on moral and value conflicts (4) and on possibilities for solutions, preferably consensus-building (5). Such an interdisciplinary mix of competencies could then reach a preliminary minimum consensus, a first step towards transcending ethical relativism (6), and produce positive examples and experiences for future situations (7). Such idealism, i.e. a virtuous circle is not only self-reinforcing once it works, but is also vulnerable, i.e. can fail or even turn into a vicious circle (cf. indications of potential traps in exhibit 5).

As a next step after such general observations and assumptions one can recommend a brief look at textbooks and casebooks in business ethics with conflict management checklists, and so-called codes of conduct for inventories of universal norms and, hopefully, for conflict prevention (see e.g. Ferrell and Fraedrich 1997, 201-206).

Ten theses as a summary and instead of a conclusion

  1. There is an important distinction between morality and ethics, i.e. between empirical description and understanding of moral phenomena and their critical-normative evaluation.
  2. Two ("moralistic") dangers must be observed: the use of moral perspectives where other persepctives would be equally or even more appropriate, and a reduction of moral analysis to an identification of sinners.
  3. While Western cultures tend to remove moral issues (and to turn them into private conscience and/or positive law issues) this might not be the case in other cultures.
  4. Case examples and issues within cross-cultural business ethics seem to have at least two common denominators, power and moral judgement insecurity. On the one hand, globalisation of business creates power and legal vacuum situations where mega-size company power can't be matched by small countries. More company power and more stakeholder powerlessness create more moral responsibility. On the other hand, cultural and moral relativism become at the same time more tempting and more exposed to criticism.
  5. Cultural and ethical relativism should not be mixed up but treated as dialectic, i.e. different, interdependent and conflicting. A simplified four-fold table can be useful as a start (cf. once more exhibit 4 above).
  6. Moral standpoints and moral conflicts should not be sacrificed for the benefit of intercultural understanding. Cultural relativism does not necessarily imply moral opportunism. The right order of procedure is crucial: non-biased description and understanding should always come before critical evaluation (cf. once more exhibit 5 above).
  7. Individuals, groups or organisations should ask themselves and prepared to be asked critical questions about their moral acceptability and responsibility thresholds, e.g. core human rights, child labour, health-environment-and safety.
  8. When it comes to moral conflict management there is no moral alternative to fair and open intercultural communication, along with e.g. J. Habermas' ideals (cf. Habermas 1990, or with reference to business ethics French and Granrose 1995, 148-154, 214-215, or more practically Brown 1996).
  9. The more its issues are clearly inter-cultural or inter-subcultural, the more can business ethics as an academic field profit from intercultural communication competence.
  10. Intercultural communication as an academic field can profit from using highly controversial business ethics cases for testing its competence and for staying humble.

Remaining questions

There are at least three remaining questions, for further discussion, related to the cases mentioned above, or not:


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