When in Rome, Behave as the Romans? Some Cultures Are Hostile to Concepts of Human Rights. the Course of Action You Take Abroad May Need to Differ Markedly from the One You Take at Home

Article excerpt

You are the on-site representative of a Western firm that has just acquired a manufacturing plant in Asia. An employee tells you that his immediate superior treats him unfairly, giving him the worst job assignments in his group while not giving him the raises that others get. To make matters worse, he says, he has no way to voice a complaint; his rights are not respected. What should you do?

The question seems difficult in ways that many other moral questions about international business are not. When asked to acquiesce in local practices of child labour or slavery, for example, the moral repugnance of the practices is so clear that the right answer is unavoidable. Whether or not you agree to your employee's request to recognise his workplace rights, however, you do nothing of the magnitude of acquiescing in slavery. Still, your employee asks you to defend his rights in a culture and country in which rights have a different significance than at home. This difference introduces great complexity to your decision-making. I would maintain that the right course of action in your host country differs fundamentally from what would be the right one in your home country.


We westerners have our own way of doing things. When tackling the hard moral problems in business, we try taking rights seriously. When concerned about our employees, we ask about their rights to decent wages, safe working conditions, and job security. The language of rights also looms large in our deliberations about the proper treatment of shareholders, suppliers, and the larger community in which a firm operates. We take pride in our commitment to rights. Yet what sounds noble to us often sounds crude to others. When I invoke my rights, I ordinarily do so for the sake of one person: me. Even when defending the rights of another, the focus is on an individual, the person whose rights are at stake. For many reasons, this focus on the self may seem far outside the moral ideal of easterners, particularly some of those of a Confucian tradition: it may seem selfish; it may seem to aim to defeat, and hence needlessly humiliate whomever these rights claims are made against; and it may seem divisive in ways that gratuitously harm the prospects for community.

Thus, many people may see a large downside to a moral culture built on rights. It is hard to argue persuasively that the downside is not real, or important enough to provide a reason to avoid seeing moral problems in terms of rights. Indeed, differences between eastern and western perspectives on rights seem incommensurable, which puts the manager facing rights issues in a tough position. Still, a good western manager will strive to find ways to navigate the conflict between eastern and western perspectives, no matter how hard the sailing.


The eastern perspective may be explained through analogy with the family. When a problem occurs within a family, one does not try to solve it by giving each individual his right; doing so would promote self-centeredness and disrespect for the family. So, even in a western culture one instead strives to find a way for the family to flourish as a group. A Confucian may think that the family forms a model for other moral relations, even relations within a firm; we westerners do not, and may even find the family analogy overly paternalistic. …