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How do you define ethics?

Jan Garrison

Handling cultural differences


October 11, 2021

What is ethics?

It is a question that may be harder to answer than simply giving the definition written in a dictionary, the guest speaker at the Culver Academies Global Studies Institute session told students Friday evening, Oct. 8.

Joan Dubinsky, who co-authored “Global Ethics and Integrity Benchmarks” and directs the Rosentreter Group, a management consulting practice, discussed the meaning of ethics with the students via a Zoom conference and how that definition may differ within different cultures.

Dubinsky asked the students and faculty members present how they personally viewed ethics. What is ethics all about?” she asked, giving them different options to consider.

  • Is it a system for determining the right thing to do?
  • Is it a system that teaches leadership?
  • Is it a system to learn right from wrong?
  • Is it a system to reduce risk?

Dubinsky said the definition she uses is a system you use to make “tough choices.” It is taking into account the values, choices, and criteria available and then taking action. And when you make those “tough choices,” you may not know if it was the right thing to do.


Audience members stand for their definition of ethics.


Addressing those tough choices has been a part of Dubinsky’s work through her career of more than 30 years. She has been a leader in the global business ethics movement, having served as the chief ethicist for several leading international organizations and corporations, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, BAE Systems, Inc., and the American Red Cross.

As the director of the United Nation’s Ethics Office from 2010 and 2015, she chaired a panel that promoted coherence among ethics functions within the UN system. She also found that ethics is dependent on whether or not “your ethical reality is shared” and what your frame of reference is.

She did two small group activities, presenting test cases for the packed audience in Roberts Auditorium, one being an actual situation and the other being a hypothetical case. She then asked students representing each group to present their group’s thoughts on the situation.

The first case involved a meeting of education officials in Egypt shortly after the Islamic Brotherhood took over the government. A younger member of the education department was to make a presentation. While she was dressed conservatively, including a hijab, she was not wearing a burka which only shows the eyes.

When she entered the conference room, all the people – including all the women, who were wearing burkas - stood up and faced away from her, then turned their chairs and sat down facing the opposite direction. Taking into account the high tension already running through the country at the time, the presenter had to consider several options.

Among those were maintaining her self-respect versus the overall success of the program, worrying about her physical safety, “being heard” for what she had to say, and other aspects. “After 30 long seconds,” Dubinsky said, the presenter gave her presentation, thanked the people for their time, and left the conference room.

Dubinsky said part of the ethical decision-making in the case involved “the religious and cultural context” of what was happening. “We have to ask ourselves what is being respectful” to the speaker within the framework of Islamic Brotherhood, Dubinsky said.

The hypothetical case was an employee who was charged with hiring a new person. One candidate is a personal friend and the other candidate is a friend of the boss. As is often the case, Dubinsky said, the employee procrastinates about the decision until the boss tells him that his own promotion is on hold until he makes “the right decision.”

Does the employee hire his friend? Does he hire the boss’s friend? Or does he start the job search process all over?

“Ethical actions take courage,” she said after listening to the students’ responses. “Sometimes, there is no right answers.” Is “your ethical reality” and frame of reference shared? That is why patience and humility must be brought to the question, she said.

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