The Influence Local Culture Has on Ethical Practices

by Dee Shneiderman

Groups of people develop a culture that answers the needs of the society. Culture includes language, gender roles, how to behave, religion, food preferences, customs and ethical principles that guide the behavior of the people in that society. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines ethics as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation…a set of moral principles.”

The History of Ethics

Anthropologists have suggested that humanity developed ethics even before the advent of agriculture. Humans could not have lived together without some system of safe interaction, protection of the group and respect for individuals. According to Stanford University biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, professor of population studies, empathy -- the ability of one individual to imagine the feelings of another -- is the evolutionary development at the heart of ethics. Today humanity faces many pressures from cultural differences in ethics.

Ethical Relativism

When interacting with an unfamiliar culture, a person may encounter cultural behaviors and customs that are ethically unacceptable or repugnant within his own cultural frame of reference. The decision to reject or accept undesirable ethics when dealing with any society can be difficult. The concept of ethical relativism allows a person to suspend judgment of the other’s ethics because morality is relative to the standard of each person's own culture. This difficulty has given rise to organizations that help professionals in health care and business deal with ethics and their relationship to local cultures.

Health Care Ethics and Local Culture

Health-care professionals like doctors and nurses often encounter challenges to their ethical beliefs, including differences in the perception of health care, decision-making processes among patients and their caregivers, religious objections to treatment protocols and disagreements over end of life treatment. Dominant-culture American physicians can encounter resistance to medical guidance when working with patients from other cultures. A Navajo patient, for example, may ignore the physician’s recommendations, seeing them as out of the proper alignment with nature. The physician may see the patient’s beliefs as mere superstition, but physician and patient will both need to work out a method of achieving the goal of bringing the patient back to health. Challenges to a health-care professional’s ethics can have personal effects, as well. Doctors and nurses can become socially isolated in small communities because their professional ethics dictate providing services to all, but a physician who was previously very active in his community can begin to experience the symptoms of burnout: resentment, loneliness and fear of going into public places. For example, the doctor becomes wary of meeting a fellow citizen for whom he recently prescribed medication for an embarrassing condition.

International Business Ethics and Local Culture

Today’s international business ethics deal with the problem of how to conduct business in situations where ethical morals conflict with differing cultural practices. Should a company operate on the principle of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” or adhere to the ethics of the company’s home country? Should the company bribe local officials, a practice that is common in some Latin American and African countries? Business ethicists suggest a middle ground that is in keeping with the United Nations Global Compact. The Compact encourages businesses to honor human rights, to accept collective bargaining, to disallow slavery and child labor, to care for the environment and to avoid corruption such as bribery and extortion.

About the Author

Dee Shneiderman, former librarian and paralegal, has been writing for 40+ years. Published in Compute! Magazine, she helped found The Crescent Review literary magazine. Owner of Frugal-Foto Photography, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Master of Library Science and a North Carolina Truck Driver Training certificate.

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