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Do YOU know right from wrong: Ethics Across Cultures

A friend of yours becomes distracted while driving, causing the horrible death of a pedestrian.  Nobody sees the accident so he quickly leaves the scene, knowing that if he were discovered as the culprit it would mean jail time for him and a consequent hardship for his wife and two children.

The dead pedestrian also leaves behind a widow and family.  Do you have a moral obligation to tell the police?

In a cross-cultural study, people from different countries were given this scenario and asked what they thought the friend should do. The majority of Westerner respondent felt he should be honest. Asians, on the other hand, felt the friend should lie.

More interesting than the results, were the judgments they elicited. Westerners reacted with comments like, “See, you can’t trust Asians. They’re not honest!”

Asians saw it entirely differently.  “See,” they said. “You can’t trust Westerners. They’re not even loyal to their friends!”
 Another study titled "Honesty and Beliefs about Honesty” was conducted by the University of East Anglia in the UK.

In their first experiment, the participants would receive a minimal financial reward if they reported that they had a favorable outcome on a coin toss.  Many lied for the financial reward, but the results varied greatly across cultures.

Honesty Order in the coin toss test was Great Britain, South Africa, Greece, USA, Russia, Brazil, India, South Korea, Japan then China.

The same participants were then asked to complete an online quiz without looking up the answers on the internet. The results were slightly different.

Honesty Order in the Quiz was Japan, Great Britain, USA, South Africa, South Korea, Greece, Russia, Brazil, India then China.

In analyzing results, Dr. David Hugh-Jones found that while the honesty of countries related to their economic growth, this relationship was stronger for growth that took place before 1950.

We like to think that ethics transcend cultural bounds, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Culture, in fact, defines ethics, and a failure to understand this can elicit self-righteous judgments, inadvertent criminal offenses, or simple failure to follow accepted norms.

I once met an ethics teacher in Japan and asked him what sorts of things he taught.  After a pause he responded, “If I can get students to wait at a red light, even when no cars are coming, I will feel that I have succeeded.”

Knowing how much value Japanese put on rules and order (see Order, Structure, Rules) I was not surprised.  What’s more, a recent article in the Japan Times bore this out.

It seems Cedric Sueur of Strasbourg University in eastern France led a team of researchers that recorded 3,814 pedestrians crossing the street at a light in Strasbourg and 1,631 in Nagoya.

The study showed that in France, 41.9 percent of the pedestrians crossed the street even though their light was red, while in Japan the rate was just 2.1 percent.

Wouldn’t our Japanese ethics teacher be pleased!

by Diana K Rowland


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