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Chapter 4

Theories Responding to the Challenge of Cultural
Relativism

Chapter Overview

Chapter 4 “Theories Responding to the Challenge of Cultural Relativism” examines some theories guiding

ethical decisions in business. It considers reactions to the possibility that there are no universal

definitions of right and wrong, only different customs that change from one society to another.

4.1 What Is Cultural Relativism?

L E A R N I N G O B J E C T I V E S

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1. Define cultural relativism.

2. Show how cultural relativism defies traditional ethics.

Nietzsche and the End of Traditional Ethics

“God is dead,” the declaration attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, stands along with “I think, therefore I

am” (René Descartes, 1641) as philosophy’s most popularized—and parodied—phrases. The t-shirt

proclaiming “Nietzsche is dead, signed, God” is funny, but it doesn’t quite answer what Nietzsche was

saying in the late 1800s. What Nietzsche meant to launch was not only an assault on a certain religion but

also a suspicion of the idea that there’s one source of final justice for all reality. Nietzsche proposed that

different cultures and people each produce their own moral recommendations and prohibitions, and

there’s no way to indisputably prove that one set is simply and universally preferable to another. The

suspicion that there’s no final appeal—and therefore the values and morality practiced by a community

can’t be dismissed as wrong or inferior to those practiced elsewhere—is called cultural relativism.

Example: For most of us, the killing of a newborn would be among the most heinous of immoral acts; a

perpetrator would need to be purely evil or completely mad. The Inuit Eskimos, however, regularly

practiced female infanticide during their prehistory, and it was neither evil nor insane. Their brutal living

conditions required a population imbalance tipped toward hunters (males). Without that gender

selecting, the plain fact was the entire group faced starvation. At another place and time, Bernal

Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain recounts the Spanish invasion of the Americas and includes multiple

reports of newborns sacrificed in bloody ceremonies that made perfect sense to the locals, but left

Spaniards astonished and appalled. The ethics of infanticide, the point is, differ from one culture and time

to another. Further, these differences seem irreconcilable: it’s extremely difficult to see how we could

convince the Inuit of the past to adopt our morality or how they could convince us to adopt theirs. And if

that’s right, then maybe it no longer makes sense to talk about right and wrong in general terms as though

there’s a set of rules applying to everyone; instead, there are only rights and wrongs as defined within a

specific society.

Finally, if you accept the cultural relativist premise, then you’re rejecting the foundation of traditional

ethics. You’re rejecting the idea that if we think carefully and expertly enough, we’ll be able to formulate

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rules for action that everyone—people in all times, places, and communities—must obey if they want to

consider themselves ethically responsible.

Cultural Relativism in Business Ethics

In the world of international business, Entrepreneur magazine introduces the pitfalls of ethical variation

across cultures with this statement from Steve Veltkamp, president of Biz$hop, an American import-

export business: “Bribery is a common way of doing business in a lot of foreign places.”
[1]

If that’s true, then US businesses trying to expand into markets abroad—and competing with local

businesses already established there—are probably going to consider doing what everyone else is doing,

which means getting in on the bribery action. As the Entrepreneur article points out, however, this leads

to a problem: “While bribes are expected in many countries, the United States’ 1977 Foreign Corrupt

Practices Act prohibits payments made with the aim of gaining or maintaining business.”

So American hands are tied. If a construction company is bidding on the contract to build an airport in a

foreign nation, one where the local politicians will be expecting to get their palms greased, they’re at a

distinct disadvantage since they’re not allowed to play by the local rules. Still there is (as there almost

always is) a loophole: “Not all payments are prohibited by the act. Some payments are acceptable if they

don’t violate local laws. Gifts, for instance, to officers working for foreign corporations are legal.”

There’s no bribing, but gifting, apparently, gets a green light. There’s a problem here, too, however: “It can

be difficult to determine the difference between a gift and a bribe in a given situation. ‘If you give a gift to

someone and it leads to a business deal, is that a bribe or a gift?’ asks Veltkamp. ‘In some cultures, gift-

giving is an entrenched part of doing business. If you look at it in a certain sense, maybe it’s a bribe, since

they won’t talk to you until you’ve made that gesture.’”

Now what? Over there, cash changes hands and it’s called an acceptable gift, while those watching from

back here see an illegal bribe.

There are two ways of looking at this dilemma. One is to say, well, this has to be one or the other, either a

gift or a bribe; it has to be either moral or immoral. Given that, we need to take out our traditional tools—

our basic duties, the utilitarian doctrine that we should act to serve the greater good, and so on—and

figure out which it is. Nietzsche went the other way, though. He said that situations like this don’t show

that we need to use ethics to figure out which side is right; instead, the situation shows what moral

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rules really are: just a set of opinions that a group of people share and nothing more. In the United States

we believe it’s wrong to grease palms, and so it is. In some other places they believe it’s honorable to hand

money under the table, and so it is.

If that’s true, then specific convictions of right and wrong in business ethics will never be anything but

cultural fashions, beliefs some community somewhere decides to hold up for a while until they decide to

believe something else. Anything, the reasoning goes, may be morally good or bad in the economic world;

it just depends on where you happen to be, at what time, and who else is around.

K E Y T A K E A W A Y S

 Cultural relativism is the suspicion that values and morality are culture specific—they’re just what the

community believes and not the result of universal reason.

 For cultural relativists, because all moral guidelines originate within specific cultures, there’s no way to

dismiss one set of rules as wrong or inferior to those developed in another culture.

R E V I E W Q U E S T I O N S

1. Why do you imagine the term cultural relativism was chosen to mean what it does?

2. Do you believe cultures are irreconcilably different? Or is it that deep down people are people and we’re

really all the same? How does this distinction relate to the difference between cultural relativism and

traditional theories of ethics?

[1] Moira Allen, “Here Comes the Bribe,” Entrepreneur, October 2000, accessed May 12,

2011, http://www.entrepreneur.com/magazine/entrepreneur/2000/october/32636.html.

4.2 Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same

L E A R N I N G O B J E C T I V E S

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1. Define Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same.

2. Show how the idea of the eternal return provides guidance for professional life.

3. Consider the advantages and a drawback of the eternal return.

Responding to Cultural Relativism by Leaving Common Morality Behind

If, along with cultural relativists, you accept that rules distinguishing right from wrong shift around from

place to place and time to time, it becomes difficult to keep faith in morality. It’s difficult because verdicts

seem flimsy and impermanent, and because this hard question seems inescapable: Why should I go out of

my way to do the right thing today if what counts as the right thing might change tomorrow?

One response to the question is to give up on morality, disrespect the whole idea by labeling all the

customary regulations—don’t lie, don’t steal, strive for the greatest good for the greatest number—a giant

sham. Then you can live without the inhibiting limits of moral codes. You can go beyond any idea of good

and evil and lead an unconstrained life exuberantly celebrating everything you want to do and be.

Wallace Souza: TV Reporter, Politician, and Dealer

Some careers are more vivid and alive than others. TV crime reporting is intense work, especially the

action-type shows where the reporter races to the scene, interviews witnesses, and tracks down shady

characters. Politics is another throbbing life; the adrenalin of crime chasing isn’t there, but you get the

brimming confidence and energy that comes with power, with deciding what others can and can’t do.

Drug dealing excites too, in its way, with thrilling danger and the pleasures of fast money. People, finally,

who want to live exuberantly, who prefer risk to caution and find it easy to say things like “you only go

around once” are probably going to find something attractive in these lines of work and may opt for one or

another.

Then there’s Wallace Souza. He opted for all three. At the same time. The most visible of his roles—TV

reporter—also yielded the most visible success. His program aired from the Brazilian state of Amazonas, a

jungley place far from cosmopolitan São Paulo and touristy Rio de Janeiro. Known as a haven for cocaine

cartels, and as a training ground for revolutionary militants charging into neighboring Columbia and

Venezuela, it’s a natural spot to bring cameras and look for dramatic action. A number of reporters were

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stationed in the region, but none seemed so uncannily skilled at reaching scenes first and getting video

over the airwaves than Mr. Souza. In fact, on occasion, he even reached scenes before the police.

The dogged TV reporting, along with Souza’s editorializing complaints about the region’s jaded criminals,

made him a popular hero and sealed his bid for a seat in the local congress. He didn’t allow his state

capital work to interfere with his TV role, however. Actually, the two jobs fit together well: one day he was

reporting on the deplorable free-for-all in the jungle and the next he was in the capital meeting with high-

ranking police officers, reviewing their strategies and proposing laws to fix things.

The perfect image began to crack, though, when it was revealed that the reason Souza so frequently

reached the best crime scenes first is that he was paying hit men to assassinate local drug dealers. He

wasn’t, it turned out, just the first to know about the crimes, he knew even before they happened. In an

especially brazen move, during one of his last TV programs, he put up pictures of several notorious

criminals and asked his viewers to phone in and votes on which one they’d like to see killed.

At this point, Souza seemed like an overzealous crusader: he was drawing vivid attention to the crime

plague and doing something about it with his hit men. You could doubt his methods, but his dedication to

his community’s welfare seemed noble—until it was revealed that he was actually also a major drug

dealer. And the criminals getting killed and shown on his program weren’t just random outlaws; they were

Souza’s drug-trade competitors.
[1]

What Is the Eternal Return of the Same?

One report on Souza’s exploits included the suggestion that his willingness to cross every moral line—to

lie, traffic drugs, order killings, whatever—fit him for the title of the Antichrist.
[2]

That title, as it turns out, was one Nietzsche enjoyed assigning to himself. It’s definitely also a fit for Souza

in the sense that he seemed to live without shame, fear, or regard for good and evil. What’s notable about

Souza’s business ventures is that they pay no heed to the very idea of morals. It’s not that they skirt some

rules or follow some guidelines while disobeying others; it’s not like he’s trying to get away with

something—it’s much more like morality doesn’t exist. Now, bringing this back to Nietzsche, who shared

the sentiments, the question Nietzsche asked himself was, if morality really is canceled, then what? How

should we live? The answer was a thought experiment called the eternal return of the same.

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Imagine, Nietzsche proposed, that every decision you make and everything you feel, say, and do will have

to be repeated forever—that is, at the end of your life, you die and are immediately reborn right back in

the same year and place where everything started the time before, and you do it all again in exactly the

same way. Existence becomes an infinite loop. With that disturbing idea established, Nietzsche converted

it into a proposal for life: we should always act as though the eternal return were real. Do, Nietzsche says,

what you would if you had to live with the choice over and over again forever. The eternal return, finally,

gives us a reason to do one thing and not another: it guides us in a world without morals.

How Does the Eternal Return Work?

Start with the eternal return as it could be applied to an altruist, to someone dedicating life to helping

others. One way to do altruism would be by working for a nonprofit international organization that goes

to poverty-wrecked places like Amazonas and helps coca farmers (the coca leaf is the base for cocaine)

shift their farms to less socially damaging crops. This would be difficult work. You might figure on doing it

though, getting through it, and feeling like you’ve done some good in the world. But would you do it

infinitely? Would you be willing to suffer through that existence once and again forever? Remember, the

world would never get better; every time you’d just go back to being born on earth just the way it was

before. Obviously, people can make their own decisions, but it seems fairly likely that under the condition

of the eternal return there’d be fewer people dedicating themselves—and sacrificing their own comfort

and interests—to social well-being.

What about some other lines of work? Would there be fewer snowplow operators, long-haul pilots,

teachers willing to work in troubled schools? What kind of professional lives, Nietzsche forces us to ask,

would be too hellish, bothersome, or exhausting to be repeated forever? Those lives, whatever they are,

get filtered by the eternal return; they get removed from consideration.

If certain careers and aspirations are out, then what’s in? What kind of existence in the economic world

does the eternal return recommend? One possibility is Wallace Souza. The question is, why

would his career trajectory fit the eternal return?

The job of a reporter is fast and dramatic, the kind of thing many imagine themselves doing if they weren’t

tied down by other commitments. People with children frequently feel an obligation to get into a safe and

conservative line of work, one producing a steady paycheck. Others feel a responsibility toward their aged

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parents and a corresponding obligation to not stray too far just in case something goes wrong. So trekking

off into the Brazilian jungle in search of drug operations may well be exciting—most of us would probably

concede that—but it’d be irreconcilable with many family responsibilities. One thing the eternal return

does, however, is seriously increase the burden of those responsibilities. When you sacrifice something

you want to do because of a sense of obligation, you may be able to swallow the loss once, but Nietzsche is

demanding that you take it down over and over again. Family responsibilities may count, but at what

point do you say “enough”? Can anyone oblige you to sacrifice doing what you really want forever?

Taking the next step into Souza’s amoral but dramatic career, assuming you do decide to become a crime

reporter, and you’re inside the eternal return where everything will recur infinitely, then aren’t you going

to go about making your reporting work as exciting and successful as possible? Probably, yes. So why not

hire some hit men to fire things up a bit? Normally, of course, our moral compass tells us that killing

others to get ahead isn’t really an option. But with all morality canceled, it becomes an option, one just

like any other. Be a banker, be a reporter, be a killer, there’s no real difference. Just choose the one you’d

most like to do repeatedly without end.

Souza also chose to be a drug dealer. Again, this is one of those jobs many would find exciting and

satisfying. Thrills and easy money are attractive; that’s part of the reason Hollywood produces so many

films about traffickers and their lives. Most of us wouldn’t actually do something like that, though, at least

partially because dealing drugs feels morally wrong. But inside the eternal return, that shame factor falls

away; when it does, the number of people entering this field of work might well increase.

It’s critical to note that Nietzsche’s eternal return is not the idea that you should go off and be a crime-

reporting, hit man–hiring drug dealer. Instead, Souza’s life just exemplifies one thing that could happen

in the world of your career if you accept Nietzsche’s proposal of living beyond any traditional moral limit.

Regardless, what the eternal return definitely does do is force you to make decisions about your

professional life in very different terms than those presented by traditional ethical theories. There’s no

consideration of sweeping duties; there’s just you and a simple decision: the life you choose now will be

repeated forever, so which will yours be?

What’s the Reward of Morality?

One of the strengths of Nietzsche’s idea is that it forces a very important question: Why should I want to

be morally responsible? Why should a salesman be honest when lying could win her a healthy

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commission? Why should a factory owner worry about pollution spewing from his plant when he lives in a

city five hundred miles away? Now, a full elaboration of this question would be handled in an airy

philosophy class, not an applied course in business ethics. Nietzsche, however, allows a taste of the

discussion by puncturing one of the basic motivations many feel for being virtuous: the conviction

that there’ll be a reward later for doing the right thing today.

The certainty of this reward is a critical element of many religious beliefs: when you die, there’ll be a final

judgment and you’ll enjoy heaven or suffer punishment at the other extreme, depending on how you

behaved on earth. A similar logic underwrites Hinduism’s concept of reincarnation: the life you are born

into next will be determined by the way you live now. This discussion could be drawn out in more

directions, but no matter what, Nietzsche spoils the idea that you take the moral high road because you’ll

be repaid for it later. Within the eternal return, there is no later; all that ever happens is exactly the same

thing again.

Advantages and a Drawback of the Eternal Return

One advantage of the eternal return is that it adds gravity to life. Forcing you to accept every decision you

make as one you’ll repeat forever is compelling you to take those decisions seriously, to think them

through. Another connected advantage of the eternal return is that it forces you to make your own

decisions. By getting rid of all guidelines proposed by ethics, and by making your reality the one that will

repeat forever, Nietzsche forces you to be whom you are.

The disadvantage of the eternal return is Wallace Souza. If everyone is just out there being themselves,

how are we going to live together? How can we make peaceful and harmonious societies when all anyone

ever thinks about is what’s best for themselves forever?

K E Y T A K E A W A Y S

 The eternal return is a thought experiment in which you imagine that the life you choose will repeat

forever.

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 According to the eternal return, when faced with a dilemma in the business world—what career should I

choose, should I kill (or maybe just lie or cheat) to get ahead?—you should imagine living the decision over

and over again forever.

 The eternal return maximizes individuality but does little to help individuals live together in a community.

R E V I E W Q U E S T I O N S

1. In your own words, what is the eternal return?

2. Why might the eternal return be considered a reasonable response to cultural relativism?

3. Write down some factors leading to a significant decision you’ve made. It could be about choosing a field

of study or a career path. Now, can you walk through each of the factors within the eternal return? Are

there any decisions you made that you’d take back and change?

4. If you knew the eternal return was true, could you still make the reasonable decision to choose an

altruistic profession? Why or why not?

[1] Dom Phillips, “Brazil Crime Show Host ‘Used Murder to Boost Ratings,’” Times, August 13, 2009, accessed May

12, 2011,http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6793072.ece.

[2] Danny Gallagher, “Brazilian Crime Show Host Kills for Ratings?,” TV Squad, August 14, 2009, accessed May 12,

2011, http://www.tvsquad.com/2009/08/14/brazilian-crime-show-host-kills-for-ratings.

4.3 Cultural Ethics

L E A R N I N G O B J E C T I V E S

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1. Define cultural ethics.

2. Consider how cultural ethics works in the business world.

3. Examine the truth of cultural ethics.

4. Consider advantages and drawbacks of a culturist’s ethics.

What Is Cultural Ethics?

Culturists embrace the idea that moral doctrines are just the rules a community believes, and they accept

that there’s no way to prove one society’s values better than another. Culturists don’t, however, follow

Nietzsche in taking that as a reason to turn away from all traditional moral regulation; instead, it’s a

reason to accept and endorse whichever guidelines are currently in effect wherever you happen to be. The

old adage, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” isn’t too far from where we’re at here.

Gift or Bribe or Both?

The Entrepreneur magazine article posed a problem for Americans going overseas to do business. In

some places, passing money under the table is necessary to spark negotiations and win contracts.

However, bribery is illegal in the United States, and US law makes it illegal for Americans to do that kind

of thing abroad. Gifts, on the other hand, are allowed. But, according to the Entrepreneur article, it can be

difficult to determine the difference between a gift and a bribe. In some cultures, a gesture may be seen as

a gift, and in others it looks like a bribe.

Looking at this uncertainty, what a culturist sees is not ambiguity about whether handing the money over

to a potential client is a legal gift or an illegal bribe. That’s not it at all. A culturist sees it as both a gift and

a bribe. In one culture—a nation overseas where the payment is occurring and where similar payments

always occur when business is getting done—there are no moral qualms. It’s right to give a cash gift

because that’s the rule of the country; it’s the way things are commonly and properly done there. By

contrast, from the perspective of American business culture, the conclusion that’s drawn with equal force

is that it’s an immoral bribe because that’s what US customs and normal practices tell us.

Cultural Ethics and International Bribery

Culturists see moral rules as fixed onto specific societies, but that doesn’t help anyone know what to do

when confronted with an unfamiliar set of beliefs. How, the really important question is, does a

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culturist act when forced to make decisions in a place and among people whose beliefs are different and

unfamiliar? The Entrepreneur interview with Steve Veltkamp provides one answer.

What can you do if your overseas associate demands a bribe? Veltkamp doesn’t recommend

asking embassies or consulates for assistance, as “they have to stick to the official line.” Instead,

he believes “the best resource in almost every country of the world is the U.S. Chamber of

Commerce, where you can find Americans who live in the country and understand how things

are done.”
[1]

Immediately you can see how different the culturist approach is to moral dilemmas. The message is: get in

touch with the locals and try to do as they would in the same situation.

Most traditional ethical theories go in exactly the opposite direction. They say that it doesn’t necessarily

matter what people are actually doing. Stronger, the entire point of studying ethics has normally been

to escape conventional wisdom and ingrained habits; the idea of doing what we ought to do requires a

step away from those things and a cold, rational look at the situation. So, a morality based on duties sets

up guidelines including don’t lie, don’t steal and appeals to men and women in business to follow them.

Acting in an ethically responsible way in the world means obeying the dictates and refusing to be swayed

by what the guy in the next cubicle is up to. Handing someone money under the table, consequently, while

publicly insisting that everything’s on the up and up can’t be condoned no matter what anyone else does;

it can’t be right because it entails at least implicit lying.

More specifically for the culturist, Entrepreneur advises overseas business people to avoid seeking

guidance from embassies or consulates because those people have to stick to “the official line.” What’s the

official line? Presumably, it’s the set of practices delineated and approved by the State Department back in

Washington, DC. The strength of these practices is that they’re formed to be universal, to work at every

embassy everywhere in the world. A culturist, however, looks at that and says it’s silly. There are no

practices that work everywhere in the world. The advice government bureaucrats give is worthless; it’s

less than worthless because it departs from the error of conceiving ethics as a set of rules fitting a

transnational reality. What people in business should actually do is get in contact with people who really

know something about ethics, and that requires turning to the locals, including the chamber of commerce,

because they’re on the scene.

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Conclusion. The culturist deals with the question about whether a bribe is ethically respectable by

ignoring all dictates received from other places and obeying the customs and standard practices of those

who live and work where the decision is being made.

Cultural Ethics and the News Reporting of Wallace Souza

Another example of how culturist ethics works comes from the flamboyant TV reporter Wallace Souza.

Like many action crime reporters the world over, he raced to violent scenes hoping to get the first and …

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