Applying ethical principles across cultures

By Lindsay Falt

[This is the seventh article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in the spirit of brotherhood.[1]

ethics word cloudThis is article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and one of the guiding principles for any public relations practitioner who engages in ethical contemplation. It seems straight forward enough, however practical application of ethical issues is always much more complicated than theoretical contemplation. Making ethical decisions or suggestions becomes even more complicated when multiple perspectives from multiple cultures are involved.

Every society develops believing in what some theorists have described as an innate sense of right and wrong, however I would argue that what makes our sense of ethics innate exists as a result of the cultural norms and ideals by which we are surrounded from birth until maturity (and often for much longer). This idea of moral relativism is not a new one, but is especially relevant in today’s global economy. It is not surprising then, that when members from one culture encounter another culture, they may initially believe that the choices that comply with their own cultural beliefs are the most ethical ones. However, it is important to remember, especially in the field of communications, that just because our society believes something to be right, does not necessarily make it so.

New technology has only compounded the complexity of ethical deliberation. It has given us the ability and the liberty to interact on a global scale, resulting in much more intercultural communication, collaboration and facilitation. The development of international companies and organizations has made it necessary to reflect on our notion of right and wrong. I think many of us, especially those in public relations, have come to the conclusion that if we are to facilitate authentic communication between our organizations and their publics (publics who may or may not have grown up with similar cultural beliefs), we have to learn to consider ethical dilemmas from as many angles as there are belief systems and interests. This is not an easy task and the mere existence of multiple interests and views often makes evident conflicting and complicated ethical considerations.

Luckily, we have some help. For example, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is an organization that provides guidance, research, education and more, so that public relations professionals may have the tools and guidance they need to make decisions that are arrived at through careful ethical consideration. Its vision is “to enhance the role and value of public relations and communication management to organizations, and to global society.”[2] The Global Alliance, as well as many other international organizations uses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when developing guidelines for PR professionals. This is a document in which the United Nations has identified the rights and freedoms that every human being should be granted.

While documents and organizations like the ones I have mentioned are great resources for PR professionals, there will always be ethical dilemmas for which there are no clear-cut choices. Daniel Bell and Joseph Carens summarized a discussion with several practitioners and theorists on the topic of international human rights ethical dilemmas.[3] The group identified inner conflict felt when faced with respecting local cultural values that were inconsistent with their own notions of human rights. Doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières were especially torn when they were told by their Somali patients that they would rather die than have an amputation. In a culture where living with a visible mutilation is worse than death, the doctors endangered their own lives simply by trying to convince their patients to amputate; an effort that was considered the only ethical choice by western medical standards.

Another example involves international non-governmental organizations with a presence in Nigeria. Some of these organizations have taken a less proactive approach toward promoting gay and lesbian rights as a result of strong local religious and cultural beliefs. Taking a more utilitarianism approach, workers there have chosen to consider the overall good they are able to accomplish by working with community members even though those community members may hold views that contradicted the mandates of the organizations. Workers have found this to be the most effective way to create a more tolerant community.

Whether or not these actions are in fact the most ethical may be debated, however this debate is what helps to encourage intellectual growth and the desire to strive toward careful ethical deliberation. Global Alliance states that “Ethical performance, not principles, is ultimately what counts. No one can dictate precise outcomes for every situation. However, we can apply common values and decision-making processes to arrive at a decision and justify it to others.”[4]

Multiple viewpoints will always mean multiple interpretations, however as long as we honestly adhere to that principle, we are doing our duty.

Lindsay Falt is working on her Master of Arts in Communications and volunteers with the International Association of Business Communicators- Toronto Chapter. She has a special interest in cross-cultural communication and is currently researching communication practices of NGOs.


[1] United Nations (1948). The universal declaration of human rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

[2] Global Alliance (2013). Vision statement. Retrieved from http://www.globalalliancepr.org/website/page/vision-mission-values

[3] Bell, D., & Carens, J. (2004). The ethical dilemmas of international human rights and humanitarian NGOs: Reflections on a dialogue between practitioners and theorists. Human Rights Quarterly, 26(2), 300-329.

[4] Global Alliance (2013). Global Alliance Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.globalalliancepr.org/website/page/code-ethics

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