Reaching Ethical Agreement Across Cultures

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Mark Pastin

One of the biggest misconceptions about ethics is that it's difficult or impossible to reach agreement with someone who comes from a culture that's radically different from ours. For some reason, people give more weight to cultural differences in ethics than they do in science or technology.

For example, I was told in college that we view obligations to elder people differently than some Eskimos, who will send the old off into the frozen tundra to die in peace. But I have witnessed healthcare delivered in Eskimo villages. When their options for the care of elderly people are similar to ours, they make the same healthcare decisions we do.

Multicultural workplaces are today's business reality. Most of us work with people from different generations, countries, races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. So how do we solve ethical problems in business and reach agreement with people who are seemingly so different from us?

Here are four simple rules to help close this perceived ethics-culture gap:

  1. Engage your sympathy and empathy. All cultures have the ability to sympathize or empathize. These are human traits, not cultural ones. If you want to gain insight into another person's thinking, don't let cultural difference stand in the way. Meet with the individuals who differ from you the most. Learn their interests and ground rules (the rules they will breach only under extreme duress). Meeting with the other people face to face and trying to understand their problems and pain is the first step toward breaking down cultural barriers.
  2. Focus on action. Reaching an agreement does not require that both sides have exactly the same views of right and wrong. It's not even necessary to agree 100% to arrive at a satisfactory outcome with another person. When trying to solve an ethical dilemma, it's more important to agree on an action than on all of the underlying justifications for that action.
  3. Find common ground. I have encountered few situations where the parties could not find some common ground. When two parties from different cultures voice their opinions, differences emerge. But when the facts of the situation are laid out, the two parties often find pieces of the story on which they agree. Another way for two parties to find common ground is to look at their interests. Often, especially in business settings, both parties will discover that despite their differences, they share several common interests.
  4. Don't automatically blame cultural differences. One side may wrongly assume that the other party doesn't understand an issue of right or wrong because of his or her religion, age, ethnicity, or other difference. However, often the causes of ethical disagreement are not culturally based. The factors that cause different cultures to disagree can be the same ones that cause people within a culture to disagree. Ethical agreement is possible if you look beyond cultural differences to focus on your common humanity.

Learn more in these AMA seminars:
Achieving Leadership Success Through People

Leading in a Diverse and Inclusive Culture

About the Author(s)

Mark Pastin is CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing ethics in business and government. A Harvard-educated ethicist who has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he is the author of over 100 articles and the book, Make an Ethical Difference (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).