Intercultural and Multicultural Communication Ethics. Part One.


In the Elements of Moral Philosophy, James and Stuart Rachels discuss Cultural Relativism and how it questions the objectivity of moral truth. As Cultural Relativism is explained, we may understand that defining cultural customs as correct or incorrect may lead us to prejudice, as there are no ethical standards and every standard is deeply rooted in its culture.

Cultural Relativist claims:

  • 1) Different societies have a different moral code.
  • 2) Society’s moral code defines what is right and what is wrong at least with the bounds of that society.
  • 3) There is no objective standard that can judge one society against the other.
  • 4) The moral code of our society has no special status, it is just another code among many.
  • 5) It is ignorant to judge other cultures. We must be tolerant of others.

So, by applying these claims, we accept norms determined by society and we have to be tolerant toward those norms, but what if these norms are of a foreign society and are intolerable? In that case, Cultural Relativism suggests that we accept our cultural norms to “reign supreme within the bounds of the culture itself,” according to Rachels. In other words, no other society may break the boundaries of the sovereign society (or state). What if the cyber borders of our society are penetrated by a foreign state for the purpose to alter our societal ethics and promote cultural conditioning in the favor of foreign interests?

What about the ethics and norms that are no longer acceptable within our society? How do we improve our own ethics? Present society better than the past, which breaks transcultural borders of the Cultural Relativism within the society and provides the antidote in a form of progressivism and social reform – to make the society better against its own ideals.

Cultural Relativism prevents us from dogmatism, it broadens our minds and helps us understand that our personal feelings are really not perceptions of truth, rather they are susceptible to cultural conditioning (Rachels, p32). Cultural Relativism I may then suggest promotes values that support open mind, human rights, happiness consent and welfare of people. Yet, today our culture ethics divide us, we seem to disagree on many things and our intercultural communication struggles continue. However, on the organizational or company perspectives, I do believe the unity exists. Global companies are a good example of cultures values and ethics that resemble each other but differ from the cultural perspective.

Bradford Hall in Culture Ethics and Communication introduces a single definition of culture, defined by three approaches:

  • 1) As a code or system of values, meanings, premises, ideals, etc., made up of meanings of specific behavior that has become a common sense.
  • 2) As a conversation, of people’s experiences, as we share our experiences of how we overcome common problems.
  • 3) Viewed as an equivalent to the community, or a group of people. 

Hall defines the relationship between culture and ethics as problematic for, yet again, three main reasons:

  • 1) The notion of culture, that is not common-sense but rather an individual’s sense of belonging, threats to which put an individual on a defensive, which implies the existence of the ethical system.
  • 2) Universalism and relativism are not separate and work in unison to define the ethical system.
  • 3) Issues of ethics and culture are tied to the issues of identity and affect us personally and emotionally.

In his analysis of communication, culture, and ethics, Hall explains that understanding communication and how it relates to the norms and values makes up the ethical system. An intercultural connection may be created through ethical communication and dialogue. It is how we chose to communicate what transforms our identities.

In chapter 12 of Intercultural and Multicultural Communication, Johannesen seeks transcultural ethics based on universal rather than religious principles. He gives an example of Dalai Lama’s ethical approach where a human can live an ethical life without religion or religious faith. Ethical virtues such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, sense of responsibility are not religious principles but essential qualities of human spirit and would counteract lying, racism, or any malicious intent.

The many ethical virtues act as common values within intercultural communication. I would go further and define religion as not an ethic but a culture which is problematic for intercultural communication due to Hall’s reason 3) Issues of ethics and culture are tied to the issues of identity and affect us personally and emotionally. However, religions, as mentioned by Murphy do contribute to the definitions of virtues.

In Character and Virtue Ethics in International Marketing: An Agenda for Managers, Researchers and Educators Murphy’s conclusion on five core virtues (integrity, fairness, trust, respect, and empathy) for global marketing provides an argument that each virtue will only grow powerful as long as it is practiced and not just talked about. In his examples, Murphy provides subtle differences between organizational leadership and how they define the most important virtues, which suggests it is not the difference but rather the level of importance.

I tend to agree with the notion that virtue ethics would dominate the future global marketing and more or less through globalization, social media and interconnectedness of people may indeed provide a universal set of basic values that transcends the cultures.

Timeless values (virtues) that would apply across culture and era. In the last part of chapter 12, communication about ethics across cultural differences Deni Elliot lists five principles of cross-cultural communication ethics. These principles embody within themselves the bigger good, promote cooperation, respect individualism, defines the good and the bad, promotes cultural diversity, and values opinions of those who may not have the voice loud enough. Most importantly these principles are applicable not only to the growth of individual ethics but to the growth of organizational values as well:

  • 1 Recognize needs and interests held in common
  • 2 Recognize and agree on what is considered to be intolerable
  • 3 Value diversity over conformity
  • 4 Listen to and value nondominant culture (respect minorities)
  • 5 When the needs cannot be met, favor the most vulnerable



Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2014). The Elements of Moral Philosophy (8th ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.

Bradford J. Hall, “Culture, Ethics, and Communication,” in Fred L. Casmir, ed., Ethics in Intercultural and International Communication (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1997), pp.11-42.

Zaharna, R.S., “Intercultural communication and international public relations: Exploring parallels,” Communication Quarterly, v. 48 no1 (Winter 2000) p. 85-100

Murphy, Patrick E., “Character and Virtue Ethics in International Marketing: An Agenda for Managers, Researchers and Educators,” Journal of Business Ethics 18 (1999): 107-124

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