Focus on Business Ethics
What Is Ethical? An American View
Address by RONALD BERENBEIM, Principal Researcher and Director, Global Business Ethics Programs, the Conference Board.
Delivered to the Institut Aspen France Conference Business Ethics and Corporate Governance: Are Cultural Differences Involved in the Perceptions of Approach to These Issues? Lyon, France, April 25, 2002. Address originally appeared in Vital Speeches of the Day, May 2002, and is reprinted by permission.
Ethical speculation is inherently antagonistic to culture. Arguably, rules of conduct and the methods for deriving them ought to be or are immune to the distortions of culture. With regard to the rules themselves, my experience is that culture has little impact. Indeed, one of our readings suggests a common committment of "people of the book" (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) to principles of justice, mutual respect, stewardship and honesty. In fact, I do not know of a culture that does not hold these qualities in high regard.
The more interesting questions, particularly for global business organizations, are ones of process, not substance. Are the habits of mind inherent in the ethical committment to justice, mutual respect, stewardship and honesty pretty much alike regardless of the cultural matrix from which they emerge? Global markets and business practice have given new urgency to this question. My task is to provoke discussion by describing the American approach to these questions.
The issues before us are not new. Fifty-four years ago, the United Nations undertook the task of drafting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The history of the drafting of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is instructive because the delegates confronted many of the same problems that we do in determining whether there are rules of conduct for global business practice. And, perhaps more importantly, the Declaration may be the single most important guide in many of these subjects as to where consensus exists. Then as now, process not substance was the cause of greatest disagreement.
Jacques Maritan was one of the participants in those deliberations. Acknowledging the broad spectrum of agreement on certain rights, he said "yes we agree about the rights, but on condition that no one asks us 'why?'" So perhaps the most culturally distinctive element of the business ethics and corporate governance project is the "why?" Why do we have these rules and how did we get them? Although ethical principles may be similar in Japan, France, and the US, we got to the same place in very different ways and arguably if there is no convergence of processes as well as principles, our paths will soon again diverge.
So what is the structure and design of the American process? You can find a blueprint of what the Founders believed to be their essential task on the reverse side of the American dollar bill. There you will see a rendering of The Great Seal of The United States. The words are from Virgil. On one side is written Annuit Coeptis (with a picture of an eye) and below are the words Novus Ordo Seclorum. A rough translation of these two phrases is: "He (providence) hath favored our undertakings," which are to establish "a new order of the ages."
The other side of the Seal has the more famous words -- e pluribus unum -- "from many one." Pluribus is a comparative form so the "many" is more than many in the usual sense. The full phrase is "color est e pluribus unum" -- the color is from many -- one. It appears in Virgil's Moretum -- a poem that describes the mashing of ingredients together to produce a dish of the same name. At the end of this process a pudding of a different color -- separate and apart from that of the many herbs, spices and cheese that have been used -- emerges. One can see that as early as the late eighteenth century the founders of what at the time was a largely homogenous nation may have envisionde the "melting pot" of later imagination.
There is a second and equally interesting origin of "e pluribus unum." The motto appeared on the cover of a popular colonial magazine and earlier -- in England -- a similar periodical. The phrase was used to advise the reader that "the content was the work of many hands."
The Great Seal illustrates what the Founders believed to be the critical dilemma in their project -- how to reconcile the needs and requirements (indeed, rights -- The Declaration of Independence famously uses that word) with the powerful political and commercial interests of a new order. They foresaw a sharp break from the past with a new society as diverse in membership, inclusive in seeking and obtaining contributions from all of its citizens, and uniquely blessed. Such a formulation led them inevitably to an ongoing debate on process that has continued to this day. Mindful of these tensions, Tocqueville wrote with characteristic acuity something to the effect that in America sooner or later every great controversy winds up in the courts.
Why does this happen? And how does it play out? Most countries have courts but their citizens do not look to them for the vindication of important principles and the courts are not the critical institution for validating an emerging ethical consensus. The American legal system is different because it is organized around the core principle of constitutionalism -- a written statement that allocate institutional duties, acknowledges accountability and protects rights. Other countries also have constitutions. Why is the American constitution of such critical importance?
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