ethical issues in international situations discussion board

Several recent American films have dealt with ethical issues in international situations and raise thorny questions for students of leadership ethics. One such film is Zero Dark Thirty. If you have not seen the film, you will probably want to watch it, but you can also get a synopsis of the plot on IMDb if you don’t mind spoilers.

There is only one thread for both weeks in this discussion, but be sure you participate at least twice, once to post your own thoughts and once to respond to other students. Of course, if someone engages with you, you should also post a return response. Remember that ethical issues can raise conflicting points of view. It is fine to disagree with a post—we want to generate discussion—but always be respectful.

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is a fictional account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and presents us with important ethical questions regarding the morality of torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques”) and the responsibilities of filmmakers to represent the truth.

Please post your thoughts on the ethical issues raised by this film by responding to one or more of these questions:

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. Did Zero Dark Thirty change your perceptions about “enhanced interrogation techniques”? If so, how did they change?

2. Regardless of the semantic question of whether waterboarding is a form of torture, the fact remains that its use presents us with serious ethical dilemmas. Is it ever morally acceptable to subject a prisoner to pain, duress, or humiliation? If so, what circumstances call for such drastic means?

3. Moreover, if coercive modes of interrogation are ever permissible, where should we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable interrogation methods, and what criteria should we use to establish that line? Who should have final say?

4. Do filmmakers have a moral responsibility not to misinform their audiences about important issues, or do their artistic licenses trump such concerns?

5. The film’s conflict is resolved by the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Should the U.S. government have done more to capture him alive? If avoidable, was this killing—and indeed, the creation of a “Kill List” of terrorists—ethical?

Source: Ethics on Film: Discussion of “Zero Dark Thirty.” (2013) Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.…

Background Information:

Universalism vs. Particularism

In Ethics 501, you learned several different approaches to thinking about and analyzing ethical issues. The models you were exposed to reflect, by and large, a Western approach to ethics. A more multicultural model can be found in considering the difference between Universalist and Particularist approaches to ethics. This typology was developed by Fons Trompenaars and considers the ethical question, “What is more important—rules or relationships?” Read the following synopsis of these two perspectives. As you read, note how these approaches mirror the qualities of individualism/collectivism, high/low context, and monochromic/polychromic time orientations discussed in Modules 2 and 3.

Universalism versus Particularism. (n.d.). Retrieved from…

Differences in the Concept of Social Responsibility

At the very heart of any discussion of social responsibility is the question of why the organization exists. Is it to maximize the financial return to the owners, as many Western business schools teach—or is it to promote the well-being of society, a perspective reflected in the mission statements of many Japanese companies?

In the following essay, Kidus Mehalu of Ethiopia considers the role that leaders of multinational corporations might play in balancing the profit motive with the need for addressing worldwide social and economic problems.

Mehalu, K. G. (2011). Social responsibility and managerial ethics: A focus on MNC’s, 3rd Global Drucker Forum, Vienna. Retrieved from…

Making Ethical Choices

Though any ethical dilemma can present a leader with difficult choices, resolving cross-cultural ethical dilemmas can seem downright impossible because the moral beliefs and values concerning what is right and wrong may not be the same in both cultures. The question then arises, do we take the position of ethical relativism (deciding what is right or wrong depending on the ethical norms and standards of the culture where the action takes place) or risk being complicit in cultural imperialism (imposing the ethical standards of one’s own society on another which has made different judgments in accordance with the morality of their own culture).

To understand more about the relative nature of moral practices across and between cultures, read:

Velasquez, M., Andre, C., Shanks, S. J., & Myer, M. J. (2014). Ethical relativism. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Retrieved from
Are there any ethical standards that cut across all cultures and help leaders make the right choice when societal moral codes conflict? Marc Hauser, a Harvard psychologist, argues for the existence of a moral code that is shared among all human beings, regardless of nationality, political affiliation, religion, race, age, or gender. This does not mean that all humans respond to moral situations in the same way. They will respond within the guidelines of their own social norms. But it does suggest that we will respond to certain moral imperatives following universal underlying principles—such as killing is wrong—though the application of that principle may vary from society to society (for example, laws about death penalties or assisted suicides).

Let’s look at an example we are all familiar with—South Africa under apartheid. Many international companies conducted business in South Africa during the apartheid. Most were headquartered in countries that did not tolerate racial discrimination. It is interesting to compare the different strategies employed by these companies when deciding how to interact with a culture where the social discrimination would be considered to be ethically wrong in their own countries.

Strategy Approach Examples of Companies
Individually refuse to abide by apartheid Refuse to follow rules of apartheid (e.g., integrate factory washrooms) Polaroid, GM
Collectively refuse to abide by apartheid Sign a promise to adhere to the “Sullivan Principles”*


Fortune 500 Companies

Comply with apartheid Play by the rules Citibank
Forced withdrawal Economic sanctions 89 U.S. firms including IBM, GM, P&G
Stand fast Protect investment in South Africa Multiple European firms
Invest Buy up companies at bargain prices Asian firms

*Companies that signed the Sullivan Principles pledged to:

  • Express their support for universal human rights, especially for their employees, the communities in which they operate and for the parties with whom they do business.
  • Promote equal opportunity for their employees at all levels of their company with respect to issues such as color, race, gender, age, ethnicity, or religious beliefs. Also they would not operate with worker treatment that exploits children, includes physical punishment, abuses females, imposes involuntary servitude or incorporates other forms of abuse.
  • Respect their employees’ voluntary freedom of association.
  • Compensate their employees enough to enable them to meet their basic needs and provide the opportunity to improve their skill and capability in order to raise their social and economic opportunities.
  • Provide a safe and healthy workplace, protect human health and the environment and promote sustainable development.
  • Promote fair competition including respect for intellectual and other property rights and not offer, pay, or accept bribes.
  • Work with governments and the communities in which the company does business to improve the quality of life in those communities, including their educational, cultural, economic and social well-being. They would also seek to provide training and opportunities for workers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Promote the application of the Principles by those with whom the company does business.

As this case illustrates, arriving at a common approach to dealing with cross-cultural ethical problems is hard to achieve.

Stages of Moral Development

There are four common rationalizations leaders use to justify unethical behavior.

  • It is not really immoral/illegal.
  • I am acting in the best interests of the individual or organization.
  • It will never be discovered or publicized.
  • My actions help the organization and therefore the ends justify the means.

These rationalizations stem from Kohlberg’s “Stages of Moral Development.” Kohlberg theorized that individuals progress through various stages of moral development ranging from an immature basis for deciding what is the right thing to do out of a fear of punishment to a fully self-actualized code of ethics based on internalized principles of justice. There is a link to an article on Kohlberg’s model under “Optional Reading” if you care to know more about this model.

Some scholars argue that organizations can be characterized by a similar stage model and they make ethical decisions according to the stage of development they have achieved. Read the following article that explains these stages and gives examples of real organizational responses to ethical dilemmas.

Reidenbach, R. E., & Robin, D. P. (1991). A conceptual model of corporate moral development. Journal of Business Ethics, 10(4), 273.

In order for leaders to set the proper guidelines for making ethical decisions within their organizations, leaders must engage their subordinates in open discussion, without fear of punishment or reprisal. These discussions should be informed by the levels of moral development described in the article above, with the goal of making decisions at the highest level of moral reasoning possible.

As stated by INSEAD professor Henri-Claude de Bettignies:

The purpose of these discussions and debates is not to impose values or give solutions, but to enhance awareness, to provide frames of reference, to give analytical tools to explore in-depth tradeoffs among short and long-term alternative decisions, to involve individual managers in assessing their own values and paradigms in order to be more lucid and responsible in their own choices.

Application: Ethics and Negotiation

An effective way to initiate a discussion at this level is to consider an application of the ethical frameworks we have been considering to a practical activity like negotiation. For an in-depth study of how cross-cultural differences can effect ethical action in negotiations, read the following research article. When reading this article, focus on the Introduction and Conceptual Framework, skim the Research Methods and Results, and focus again on the Discussion and Conclusion.

Ma, Z. (2010). The SINS in Business Negotiations: Explore the Cross-Cultural Differences in Business Ethics Between Canada and China. Journal Of Business Ethics, 91, 123–135.


There may be certain ethical principles that are universal, as some experts claim. These could include such principles as honesty, integrity, and protection of society. Others are decidedly culture-specific, such as whistle-blowing, bribery and kickbacks, profiteering, social welfare, patent protection, etc. The challenge is to recognize similarities and differences and identify the underlying rationalization (protection of group or protection of the individual). The leader needs to help his or her followers look for ways to resolve the differences through a shared sense of common human values.

In the end, the resolution of ethical dilemmas is likely to be culturally determined. Individualist cultures will evaluate moral decisions based on a personal ability to live with the consequences; collectivist cultures will look at whether or not the group can live with them. Low-context cultures will seek to codify legal rules—or at least written ones; high-context cultures will adopt tacit standards shared by members of the society. And universalist cultures will expect ethical standards to apply equally to all; particularist cultures will apply standards depending on who or what is involved.

And so we find ourselves coming full circle, wondering if it is ever possible to find a set of ethical principles that will apply to cross-cultural situations where each party operates under different values and assumptions about what is right and what is wrong.

Optional Reading

An example of a typical analytical tool used to facilitate ethical decision making is described in the following article:

Bagley, C. E. (2003). The ethical leader’s decision tree. Harvard Business Review 81(2), 18.

Dolcheck, M. M & Dolcheck, C. C. (1987). Business ethics: A comparison of attitudes of managers in Hong Kong and the United States, The Hong Kong Manager. (April–May) 28–43.

McLeod, S. A. (2011). Kohlberg. Retrieved from

Stewart, J. B. (2011). Amandla! The Sullivan principles and the battle to end apartheid in South Africa, 1975–1987. Journal Of African American History, 96(1), 62–89.

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