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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Balancing Culture and Ethics

A Business Ethics Case Study

Natalia Garcia ’23

Natalia Garcia ’23 graduated with a major in economics and minor in international business and was a 2022-23 Hackworth Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.


Ben is a dedicated manager at a prominent multinational company, where he manages teams spread across different countries that ultimately report back to him in California. Ben finds a great deal of fulfillment in his work, particularly when he has the opportunity to travel and visit his team leads around the world. Ben made it a point to immerse himself in the local culture during his business travels, dedicating an extra day or two to learn about the culture before heading into his company’s office or factory in whatever location he was at. 

On one trip, Ben traveled to Chennai, India, to visit JP, a lead manager in the local operation. Ben asked JP to spend the day with him exploring the area and its traditions, and JP graciously agreed and took Ben on an eye-opening excursion to a nearby village that, like many in rural India, was poor. Ben noticed JP’s close connections with the villagers. JP, an esteemed member of the Brahmin caste and an elder at the Hindu temple, was highly respected and considered a leader in the community. Ben was grateful for the warm welcome extended to him by the villagers and appreciated the effort JP put into arranging this visit. 

But Ben also found himself in an uncomfortable spot. 

JP wanted to take Ben to this particular village not only because he knew the people well, but also because a local Chennai clothing company had recently established a business here and he thought Ben would be interested in this new development. The company had adopted a business model that involved renting looms to families in the village, which enabled them to produce cloth materials and fulfill orders from the company. While the families earned money for the piece work, they also had to pay the rent for the looms. 

As Ben observed the process, he couldn’t help but notice children as young as ten working at the looms. When visiting one family, Ben and JP met with the parents who told them how this local business was really helping their family. And, as they said that, their two children sat nearby working at the looms. 

Ben was cut to the core. He had read about the dangers of child labor and in particular about the way that work on looms can be especially harmful (and how children due to their better eyesight and ability to see subtle distinctions in color are in demand to work on looms). These conditions pose significant risks to children, especially in terms of the potential hazard of diminishing their eyesight and its impact on their overall well-being. It pained him to see these children working while he envisioned his own eight and 11 year-old kids back home (the children in Chennai were about the same age) engaging in such laborious, risky tasks. He would never let his own kids do it. Then again, he thought: I’m not dealing with the circumstances these parents are dealing with. 

Ben was aware of how JP spoke very positively about the village and the additional income the children’s labor provided for the families. It was also clear that the children’s parents didn’t object and that the whole village appeared to be on board with this income-producing project. 

As Ben’s visit to the village came to an end, some of the villagers, including JP, eagerly asked him to share with them his thoughts on the new business development in the village. Did he approve of it? 

What should Ben say?

Questions to Consider:

  1. Please identify what you think are the most significant ethical values at stake in Ben’s decision? It will be important to identify these values on all sides of this dilemma. 

  2. For assistance in this matter, please consult “Six Ethical Lenses” from the Framework for Ethical Decision Making by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

  3. How can Ben navigate this delicate conversation, ensuring his response reflects both his genuine concern for the well-being of the children and his appreciation for the villagers’ hopes and aspirations tied to the new business development?

  4. Evaluate the ethical implications of the clothing company’s business model in the village. Should Ben prioritize the economic benefits it provides to families, or should he focus on the potential exploitation of child labor and the associated risks?

  5. Explore the concept of cultural relativism and its relevance in this case. Should Ben approach the situation with an understanding and acceptance of cultural practices, or should he advocate for universal ethical standards, such as the prohibition of child labor?


Aug 10, 2023