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How does culture influence ethical decision-making?

Ethical decision-making is the process of evaluating various alternatives and choosing the most ethical option when faced with a moral dilemma. Culture plays a significant role in shaping an individual’s ethics, values and moral standards which in turn impact ethical decision-making. Cultural influences on ethics can be understood by examining various cultural dimensions like individualism versus collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance etc. Understanding how culture affects moral values is key to making ethical decisions in today’s global business environment.

What is ethical decision-making?

Ethical decision-making involves identifying a moral issue, considering various alternatives and their consequences, evaluating the options through the lens of ethical principles, and finally making a choice that is morally justified. It aims to determine the ‘right’ or ethical course of action when encountered with a moral dilemma. Ethical decision-making employs the use of ethics theories like utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics etc. to evaluate the problem at hand. It requires the decision-maker to go beyond self-interest and legal requirements, weighing broader implications for all affected stakeholders.

Key factors influencing ethical decision-making

Some key factors that influence ethical decision-making are:

  • Personal values: An individual’s personal values of right and wrong, developed through upbringing, education and life experiences.
  • Stage of moral development: The developmental stage of a person’s moral reasoning abilities, as per Lawrence Kohlberg’s model of moral development.
  • Ethical identity: The degree to which an individual sees themselves as an ethical person and acts consistently with that identity.
  • Locus of control: An individual’s perception of control over events and outcomes, whether external or internal.
  • Ego strength: The capacity to exercise willpower over immediate needs and desires in favor of ethical conduct.
  • Cultural values and norms: The ethical values and norms prevalent in the society/culture the individual belongs to.

However, one of the most significant influences on ethical decision-making is the culture of the individual and society. Let’s examine cultural influences on ethics and decision-making in detail.

How does culture influence ethics and values?

Culture consists of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors and artifacts that are transmitted from one generation to another within a social group. Different cultures have diverse values, practices, norms and traditions that shape an individual’s ethical attitudes, behavior and moral judgments.

Key ways in which culture affects ethics are:

  • Providing moral guidelines: Cultures impart values and norms about right-wrong, good-bad, moral-immoral through early life experiences.
  • Shaping moral identity: Cultural values shape the moral self-identity of individuals i.e. whether one sees themselves as an ethical person.
  • Influencing ethical perceptions: Cultures impact how people perceive and judge ethical situations, issues and behavior.
  • Defining ethical priorities: Cultural values determine what stakeholders and ethical issues are given priority in decision-making.
  • Establishing norms for behavior: Cultures establish norms for acceptable/unacceptable conduct, affecting actual ethical behavior.

Some examples of cultural values and norms affecting ethics are: priority given to community vs. individuals, importance of hierarchy and status, emphasis on competition vs. cooperation, attitudes towards corruption, gift-giving, nepotism etc. Ultimately culture shapes the moral philosophies and ethical frameworks individuals draw upon for evaluating right and wrong.

Key cultural dimensions relevant to ethics

Cross-cultural research has identified various cultural dimensions along which societies differ in cultural values that influence ethics. Some key dimensions are:

Individualism vs Collectivism

This dimension refers to the degree of interdependence in a society. Individualistic cultures like the US emphasize individual goals, needs, independence and personal uniqueness. Collectivist cultures like China focus on group goals, sharing, interdependence, and conformity.

In individualistic cultures, ethical behavior prioritizes protecting individual rights and serving self-interest. In collectivist cultures, ethical behavior involves promoting social harmony, fulfilling duties to groups, and self-sacrifice for common good.

Power Distance

This refers to how societies deal with inequality in power and status. Large power distance cultures like Russia accept steep hierarchies, authority and status differences. Small power distance cultures like Denmark emphasize equality, democracy and flatter structures.

In large power distance cultures, ethical behavior means respecting authority, knowing one’s place and fulfilling duties based on status. In small power distance cultures, ethical behavior implies empowering others, merit-based treatment and accountable use of power.

Uncertainty Avoidance

This dimension examines society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. High uncertainty avoidance cultures like Japan rely on structure, detailed planning and clear rules. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures like Jamaica are more comfortable with unpredictability, risk and limited structure.

In high uncertainty avoidance cultures, ethical means playing safe, following rules and avoiding risks. In low uncertainty avoidance cultures, ethical involves being flexible, open to change and innovative in dealing with moral grey areas.

Masculinity vs Femininity

Masculine cultures like Italy feature assertiveness, heroism, achievement, and material success. Feminine cultures like Sweden emphasize modesty, cooperation, quality of life, and caring for the vulnerable.

In masculine cultures, ethical behavior translates to asserting rights, achieving status, and personal advancement. In feminine cultures, ethical means being altruistic, promoting harmony and voluntary simplicity.

Long Term vs Short Term Orientation

Long term orientation cultures like China prioritize thrift, persistence, and fulfilling obligations. Short term cultures like Argentina value immediate results, leisure, and reciprocation of favors.

In long term orientation cultures, ethical behavior involves vision, prudence and concern for future generations. In short term cultures, ethical means seizing opportunities, spontaneity and maximizing present gains.

How culture influences ethical decision-making

Culture affects ethical decision-making in various ways:

  • Framing the moral issue: Cultures impact how a moral dilemma is interpreted in the first place based on shared norms.
  • Shaping ethical orientations: Cultural values instill certain moral philosophies e.g. rights, justice, welfare etc. which guide choices.
  • Defining stakeholders: Cultures determine whose rights and interests are considered relevant in ethical analysis.
  • Influencing blind spots: Cultures create ethical blind spots by legitimizing certain behaviors while ignoring their moral implications.
  • Determining social consensus: Cultures affect the anticipated social consensus regarding a decision which can sway ethical choices.
  • Establishing consequences: Cultures determine the penalties/rewards associated with certain ethical choices e.g. shame, status.

For instance, gift giving to clients to build relationships may be a standard practice in some cultures while others may interpret this as an unethical bribe. The decision of a pharmaceutical firm to withhold a drug that could save lives but is unprofitable, may be analyzed very differently across cultures. Ethical analysis draws heavily from cultural mores.

Challenges in ethical decision-making across cultures

Key challenges involved in ethical decision-making across different cultures include:

  • Differing value frameworks: Behavior considered completely ethical in one culture may be regarded unethical in another due to different cultural value orientations.
  • Clash of moral norms: Universal ethical principles may conflict with deeply ingrained local norms on occasion, creating moral dilemmas for decision-makers.
  • Varying stakeholder significance: Stakeholders given high priority in one culture e.g. community, may be neglected in another culture with differing value priorities.
  • Mismatches in moral development: Individuals may be at different stages of cognitive moral development across cultures affecting analysis of ethical issues.
  • Lack of cross-cultural competence: Lack of understanding of cultural dimensions and values can lead to moral blind spots, errors and unethical decisions.
  • Differing legal/regulatory climates: Laws and regulations governing issues like corruption, environmental protection etc. vary across countries complicating unified ethical stances.

Thus cultural variations in ethics make it difficult to always ascertain what is universally ethical. Navigating these cross-cultural ethics dilemmas requires flexibility, cultural sensitivity and sophisticated moral reasoning abilities.

Navigating ethical decisions across cultures

Here are some principles for making ethical decisions across diverse cultural environments:

  • Understand both surface behavior and cultural value orientations driving conduct rather than judging based on surface ethics only.
  • Scan for blind spots created by one’s own cultural values e.g. gift giving as bribery.
  • Identify fundamental universal human values e.g. honesty, fairness that cross cultures.
  • Determine areas of ethical common ground through dialogue rather than assuming differences.
  • Employ culturally intelligent negotiation to resolve dilemmas arising from clashing moral norms.
  • Distinguish between culturally accepted practices and unethical conduct by assessing harm caused.
  • Develop level 3 and 4 moral reasoning abilities to solve cross-cultural ethical dilemmas.

Training in cultural intelligence, ethical perspective-taking, cross-cultural ethics negotiation and advanced ethical decision-making enables more effective resolution of cross-cultural moral dilemmas in today’s global environment.

Case studies: Culture and ethical decision-making


The payment of bribes to win contracts is prohibited by law in the United States but may be an accepted cultural practice in some Asian and African countries. American executives of an MNC operating in Indonesia may view bribing local officials to gain permits and licenses as unethical. However, Indonesian managers consider small bribes to facilitate business as harmless local norms not worth jeopardizing business over. How should the ethical dilemma between adhering to US anti-bribery laws vs. accommodating local customs be resolved?

Here both fundamental values like integrity and valid cultural arguments exist on both sides. The ethical decision would involve holding dialogues to change local attitudes towards bribery, building anti-bribery practices into operations and allowing some flexibility to accommodate local culture in minor transactions where no major harm is done. Dismissing bribery as just a local cultural practice fails to consider its ethical implications. But imposing US anti-bribery values dogmatically without respecting the local cultural context is also likely to fail.

Gift giving

Exchanging gifts with suppliers and clients during festivals is considered a cultural tradition in China useful for building trust and loyalty. But American executives may see this as unethical influencing of business partners. Blindly avoiding gift-giving could isolate Chinese staff and damage business relations. But engaging in lavish gift giving crosses ethical boundaries. What should company policy be?

A nuanced practical policy of permitting cultural gift exchanges of nominal value along with orientation of local staff on ethical considerations would address this dilemma. This respects local custom while preventing unethical excesses. Setting gift value limits, avoiding gifts during contract negotiations and transparency norms are also helpful cross-cultural ethics measures.


An American apparel firm finds female employees at its Indian production facility frequently subjected to harassment like touching, staring and vulgar comments on the shop floor. Indian managers feel such behaviors reflect cultural norms and attitudes that will change slowly. How should the ethical dilemma between protecting employee rights vs. respecting local culture be addressed?

Here the ethical argument for women’s dignity and safety outweighs cultural norms. The decision should involve enforcing clear workplace harassment policies through orientation of Indian managers on gender sensitive behavior. Some flexibility in the approach to implementing anti-harassment guidelines is needed considering the cultural context. But accommodation cannot be at the cost of ethical employee treatment.


Culture exerts a profound influence on ethical decision-making by shaping moral philosophies, principles, values, blind spots, stakeholder significance and shared norms for behavior. Ethical decisions that balance fundamental moral values like integrity, fairness, responsibility with flexibility to accommodate local cultural norms and moral viewpoints are needed in global business. Training in cultural intelligence and advanced cross-cultural ethical decision-making skills is an imperative for sustainable and responsible global business management.