Universal Ethics for a Global World

The 17th IESE International Symposium “Ethics, Business and Society” has given a forum for discussion over the possibility of a universal ethics and a common morality amidst cultural diversity and in a globalized world. Almost 100 specialists from some 20 countries presented analyses and proposals which were discussed, and through the inputs of all, produced a fine harvest of observations. Several of these seem to me especially noteworthy:

Ethical relativism and universalism. Cultural diversity and the judgments of people in their individual situations are very relevant facts in intercultural business management, but the recognition of this does not mean having to accept ethical relativism. In reality there are basic shared values which exist beyond cultural differences, and which are attributable to a common human nature.  

Globalization. Economic globalization and that delivered by new technologies are only aspects of human relations which come to have a global reach. To be truly human, these relations have to take the other into account, and not ignore our belonging to a common human family. This requires solidarity and a sense of universal fraternity.

Similarity in conceptions of virtue. World-renowned thinkers Aristotle in the West and Confucius in the East have notably similar positions in respect of virtue. From each there is reference to human nature and to those structural aspects which stimulate virtue. The good habits which allow us to live a happy life are based on the natural human sentiments of shame and of benevolent friendship. On the other hand virtue is built by the family and the community, and developed through the creative tension between social custom and individual rationality.

A single human morality. There are many ethical theories which present norms for universal application (Kantianism, Utalitarianism, Marxism etc,), but there exists only a single human morality profoundly rooted in human nature. While universal ethical theories can be a component of a philosophical, cultural or religious system, universal morality belongs to the realm of human acts, and their relation with good and evil.

The relevance of natural moral law. There are historical and systematic reasons for upholding the importance of natural law to frame and face the ethical questions arising in the practice of business in a global context. As for the historical, it can be argued that the origin of the modern economy is tied to a cultural context still influenced by modern theories of natural right. There is also a systematization of the norms of justice necessary to preserve the space for economic freedom required to develop a commercial society.. This systematization is in symphony with the traditional focus of natural law, which additionally presents further advantages for the development of an ethical focus on economic activity, giving, as it does, a conception of economic agency which is not necessarily bound to the persual of self-interest, rather inspired by ethical motives from the outset.

Human rights. In the context of the firm and its global activities, it is essential to emphasize the importance of human rights and the commitment to these expected from business firms, particularly the transnationals. If only respect for these sufficed in the past, it is nowadays expected that the biggest firms make a positive effort to defend and promote them.

Cultural diversity and the return to the classics. The ethical schemes of classics such as Aristotle and Aquinas merit consideration. These can better shed light on new problems like cultural diversity and globalization than can some modern approaches

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