Culture: An Introduction
Culture describes people's 'way of life,' meaning the way they do things. It is the outlook, attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared by a society. Different groups of people may have different cultures.
Culture is more than just material goods, or the things the culture uses and produces. Culture is also the beliefs and values of the people in that culture. It includes the way people think about and understand the world and their own lives.
Culture can also vary within a region, society, or subgroup. A workplace may have a specific culture that sets it apart from similar workplaces. A region of a country may have a different culture than the rest of the country.
Companies or other organizations (groups of people) can have a separate culture. Japanese manufacturing companies often have a different culture than other companies; the workday starts with exercise, and the workers are very loyal to the company. Software and computer companies sometimes allow employees to play games during the workday, or take time off work to relax, because these companies believe that this will help the workers to think better.
Culture's Influence on Ethics in Business
Today's global companies allow people to work with others from different parts of the world, as employees, managers, and colleagues. This is only one way that the variety of cultures might be increased. Employees may bring customs and traditions from home countries and home businesses to the global office.
Cultural norms are the shared, sanctioned, and integrated systems of beliefs and practices that are passed down through generations and characterize a cultural group. Norms cultivate reliable guidelines for daily living and contribute to the health and well-being of a culture. They act as prescriptions for correct and moral behavior, lend meaning and coherence to life, and provide a means to achieve a sense of integrity, safety, and belonging. These normative beliefs, together with related cultural values and rituals, present a sense of order and control upon aspects of life that might otherwise appear chaotic or unpredictable.
This is where culture intersects ethics. When one has to make an ethical decision, they do so through the lens of their culture. What happens when one culture says a practice is ethical and another says it isn't?
Cultural Relativism focuses on this issue. It states there is no singular truth on which to base ethical or moral behavior, as our interpretations of truths are influenced by our own culture.
Along with moral relativism, it holds the position that there is no absolute or universal set of values or principles that can be used to judge human behavior. It differs from moral relativism in that it situates moral behavior as being relative to (conforming with) a learned set of cultural norms, rather than being relative to the actions of the individual. In this sense it considers moral behavior to be historically and contextually situated.
Cultural relativism is a normative ethical position rather than a prescriptive one. That is, rather than prescribing what ought to be done in a specific situation, it describes the way people behave in that situation.
The basis for cultural relativism is the observation that different cultures have different sets of norms and values that govern behavior in their cultural. This is in contrast to universalism, which holds the position that moral values are the same for everyone. Cultural relativists consider this to be an ethnocentric view as the universal set of values proposed by universalists are based on their set of values. Cultural relativism is also considered to be more tolerant than universalism because, if there is no basis for making moral judgments between cultures, then cultures have to be tolerant of each other.
Cultural relativism has been criticized for its focus on behavior. For example, universalists argue that while behavior may differ from culture to culture, these are surface differences supported by moral principles that are common across cultures. Companies that try to create a common code of conduct across all of their locations are in a sense operating under the view that a universal set of values do indeed exist.