I've been reading a book called the Ten Day MBA
Its got a pretty interesting chapter on Ethics...
The proponents of relativism hold that we can't decide on matters of right and wrong, or good and evil. Things are rarely black or white. There are so many shades of gray. Relativism proposes that ethics are "relative" to the personal, social, and cultural circumstance in which one finds oneself. Relativists are not torn by ethical dilemmas since they do not believe that truth can be discovered through soul searching. Professors teach relativism so that students may guard against it. To understand relativism, you need to recognize its four forms.
Naive relativism holds that every person has his or her own standard that enables him or her to make choices. No one can make a moral judgment about another person's behavior. So many variables affect behavior that an outsider cannot possibly be privy to all the elements that went into making a decision. Therefore, an executive at Borden is not equipped to make a moral judgement regarding the actions of the CEO of Nestle, whose corporation is possibly selling harmful baby formula in developing countries.
Role Relativism distinguishes between our private selves and our public roles. These public roles call for a "special" morality which we separate from the individual making the choices. The president of a fishing company may personally dislike the incidental killing of dolphins in his company's tuna nets, but as an executive, he must not let his feeling interfere with the best interest of the company.
Social relativism is akin to naive relativism. People refer to social norms to render ethical judgments. "Industry Practices", "club rules", "professional codes of conduct", and "accepted practices" are the cop-outs of the social relativist. In the produce industry, it is "industry practice" to ignore child labor laws and employ small children to work in the field and miss school.
Cultural relativism holds that there is no universal moral code by which to judge another society's moral and ethical standards. If a whole culture holds certain beliefs, how can an outsider sit in judgment? "When in rome..." The concept of cultural relativism becomes more important as companies compete globally. Multinational corporations often follow local laws and customs that may violate ethical standards in their home countries. Discussions about aparthied revolve around issues of cultural relativism. Adopting a cultural relativist philosophy, a multinational corporation might have justified its participation in South African gold and diamond mining activities despite the employment of "slave" labor in the mines.
In some instances US corporations and citizens are barred from adopting the host country's business practices. In some countries it is ordinary business practice to pay bribes to get favorable treatment from businesses and government. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 outlaws overseas bribery.
The relativism concepts provide MBAs with an awareness of and a way to guard against inaction on ethical and moral issues. They provide a framework to go beyond currently held beliefs and patterns of behaviors.
Natural law serves as a guide to some who believe that the "right" thing to do is revealed in nature or the bible.
Utilitarianism holds that an action is justified if it provides the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.
Universalism propounds that any action is condonable if the motive behind the action is good, since the results of a person's actions are so often not in his or her control.
My Personal Take
What is ethics?
Ethics, in my opinion, is what you do when you think that nobody is watching.
People are easily corruptible. Money and more specifically the love of money, really is the root of all evil. To justify putting an additive into a baby formula because it saves you money when it actually hurts the people your giving it to.. is morally wrong. I don't care if you think that because it costs less you can sell it to more people, and thus less babies go hungry. Its evil and wrong to knowingly sell things that hurt other people. Find some other way to make more money. Sure the road is harder, but the payoff is that everyone is better -- Not just the company. Doing what is ethical is doing the right thing, and saying no to doing what is wrong just because it is easy.
Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes, you might find yourself doing something that you think you shouldn't be doing. Making the choices which correct those things after the fact takes courage. Courage to face yourself in a mirror. Do it though. For your self, your family, your community, and your world.