Focus on Business Ethics
The answer is as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his dissent in Lochner that "a constitution is made for people of fundamentally different views." From its founding, the United States has struggled with the difficulty of constructing a powerful government for a diverse population. Consequently, Americans are potentially well equipped to deal with the challenges of developing standards of global conduct for diverse cultures. The key for Americans is a process that shows "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Despite this promising endowment or perhaps because of it, Americans do not respond well to the kinds of cultural imperatives that in other societies may cause business decision-makers to exercise moral restraint. Some of these inhibitions are:
*Relationship to and feelings about money -- The immigrant experience is fundamental to an understanding of the American feeling about money. In the near or comparatively recent past, with the notable exception of the African slaves, our ancestors chose to be Americans and they did it for the money. Here and there one can find religious or political persecution as the root cause and many of the people who came seeking opportunity were no strangers to such evils. Still, for most the primary motive was a better life in the material sense.
And regardless of the country from which they came, entrenched interests -- class systems, bureaucracies, monopolies, guilds -- were the obstacles to achieving personal ambitions. Americans are not fonder of money than other people -- they just resent anyone standing in the way of someone who wants to make it. Bill Gates did not complain about the estate tax and his father led a move opposing its repeal. Warren Buffet even said that he thought the tax should be raised -- not eliminated. The measure phasng out the estate tax was probably most popular with people who will not have to pay it in any event. Indeed, unlike the Japanese, most Americans would regard huge corporate profits as evidence that the system works.
*Individualism versus group orientedness -- There is a good deal less to American "individualism" than meets the eye. America is not a nation of cowboys who ride off into the sunset rolling their cigarettes. Reflecting on his visit, Tocqueville remarked on the power of associations -- a most prescient observation in light of the enormous influence in US politics that trade and industry lobbies now have. If you meet an American at a cocktail party he will most likely mention first what his work is and where he does it. Perhaps a Japanese person would reverse that order but group identity is critical in both cultures. Some Americans may regard their occupations to be a somewhat more significant mark of status than the institution for which they work but Americans also rely heavily on group identity.
This American primacy of occupational over work affiliation is not quite a distinction without a difference. The doctors who are affiliated with HMOs, the lawyers who work inthe General Counsel's office, and the accountants who prepare the company's annual statement are increasingly being confronted with the conflicts between the ethical requirements of their profession and the profit-driven demands of their companies. It isnot American individualism that challenges business institution group ethics. It is the ambition to have a career in which the duties of the Hippocratic Oath are met and disbarment and jail sentences are avoided.
*Culture of shame versus culture of sin -- No one can argue that Americans have a culture of shame. With the exception of a few 19th century novels it is equally difficult to maintain that ours is a culture of sin. People emigrated to our shores to start anew washed free of the sins of the past and they didn't think that once they got here they would have only one chance for absolution. They believd as do their descendents that the new land presented them with limitless opportunities for redemption. America is one place where confessed sinners are often more successful than people who have led blameless lives -- not because they have known despair and found grace through repentance but because, as Alan Bloom memorably observed, they have undergone therapy and come to feel good about themselves.
*Accountability and social responsibility -- Where there is no shame or sin, accountability and responsibility have little meaning. It is common for US political and business leaders to take "full responsibility" for some disaster. Having done so, do they then resign as a Japanese Prime Minister or CEO would? Of course not. Indeed, the willingness to even acknowledge on the rare occasions when it occurs -- however little that may mean in the absence of any concrete act of regret -- is praised for its honesty and candor.
*Influence of different religions -- In brief, in the world's most religious advanced industrial society judged by worship attendance and affiliation, religion is not an important factor in shaping the concept of civic obligation. In the United States, with the important exception of some non-denominational groups, congregations and religious individuals that are active in concert with NGOs, the power and influence of organized religion, as is the case with other institutions, is exerted to advance its own interests.
In sum, cultural elements such as the unfavorable notion of greed, group committment, shame, sin, accountability, responsibility and religion that may be critical decision-making factors in other societies have less importance in shaping the U.S. view of ethical business conduct. Far from being a negative assessment, I think that in many ways this conclusion reflects favorably upon the U.S. As I stated at the outset, of necessity, the U.S. is a society of laws. A country that has attracted "people of fundamentally different views" cannot govern its citizens with cultural constraints.
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Business Chair Inaugurated at the University of Southern New Hampshire
Business Ethics and The Classics Remarks by Mary Papoutsy presented at the Papoutsy Endowed Chair in Business Ethics Inaugural Dinner and Reception, April 2002
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Institutionalizing Ethics in a Global Economy, by Ken Goodpaster
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With the increasing globalization and interdependency of businesses around the world, multinational corporations must confront diverse cultural practices and business climates. Increasingly, the challenges stem from cultural clashes and unethical business practices. Go to article
The Professional & Business Ethics, by Anthony G. Ziagos, Sr.
The foundation of our modern economy is based on the sale of goods and services. What separates a professional from the rest of the sales people? Go to article
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