Text: In Mexico City, police salaries are extremely low. They live decently enough, though, by adding bribes (mordidasin Spanish) to their wages. During a typical week they pull in bribe money that more or less equals their monthly salary. All the locals know how it works, especially when it comes to the most avid collectors, the traffic cops. In the standard procedure, the officer pulls a car over, takes out his codebook, walks up, and hands it to the driver. Ostensibly, he’s allowing confirmation that the law actually prohibits whatever was done. This is what actually happens: the driver slips about fifty pesos (a little under five dollars) into the book, closes it, hands it back, and is free to go. The practice is so routine that frequently the procedure is abbreviated and participants don’t even bother trying to hide the payoff or going through the codebook pantomime. They may approach the officer’s patrol car and directly drop the money onto the guy’s lap. Or they may stay in their own car and just hand cash out to be directly pocketed. Regardless, the transaction is smooth and efficient. Despite the bribery’s efficiency and its penetration to society’s core, not everyone in Mexico City is happy with the constant mordidas. According to a story in the city’s largest circulation daily, a mayor in one of the suburbs decided to take a lonely stand against the informal police action. Since all the police are in on it, he couldn’t resort to an Untouchables-styled internal affairs operation. And since all the citizens considered the payoffs perfectly normal, he couldn’t appeal to them for help either. Really, he was left with only one choice. To inter- rupt the habit, he made traffic tickets illegal. His suburb became a free driving zone where anybody could do whatever they wanted in their car and the police couldn’t respond. A lot happened after that, but there’s no doubt that the payoffs stopped.
Questions: 1. About the bribery in Mexico City, not only is it the way things have been done as long as anyone can remember, but the process actually makes a lot of sense; it’s even very economically efficient because the middlemen are being cut out. Instead of having to pay an administrative staff to process traffic tickets, then accept deposits into the city’s account, and then redistribute the money back out as part of police salaries, here the money goes straight into the officer’s pocket. < What is cultural relativism, and how does the vision of ethics associated with it diverge from the traditional ethical theories? < The Mexico City process of getting and paying off a traffic ticket is different from the US process. What values and advantages can be associated with the process in Mexico City? How can it be justified in ethical terms? < The Mexico City process of getting and paying off a traffic ticket is different from the US process. What values and advantages can be associated with the process in the United States? How can it be justified in ethical terms? < The Mexico City process of getting and paying off a traffic ticket is different from the US process. How can that difference be converted into an argument in favor of the idea that cultural relativism is the right way to look at things? Does the argument convince you? Why or why not? < Your company, FedEx, has sent you to Mexico to open a branch in Mexico City. You’ll be there for three months, with all expenses paid. Can you make the case with culturalist ethics that FedEx should reimburse not only your car rental and gas but also the two mordidas you had to pay even though you obviously don’t have any receipts? < After you return from your successful overseas experience, FedEx assigns you to train a set of recruits to go to Mexico and open more branch offices. When you talk about the police and mordidas, would you counsel a culturalist approach, or would you advise them to go by the book (as that phrase is understood in the United States)? How would you justify your decision? < For owners of office buildings in Mexico City, FedEx is a great client. They pay their rent every month and they’re probably willing to negotiate an amount in dollars, which is extremely attractive because the Mexican peso is prone to the occasional and steep devaluation. As a result, if you’re opening up a new FedEx office, you’re going to have building owners lining up, trying to rent you space. Does a decision to play by local rules and pay mordidas to cops also allow you to play by local real estate rules, which allow you to take a generous cash gift in exchange for renting in one building instead of the place across the street? Why or why not? < You are sent to Mexico City to rent office space. You find two equally good spaces only distinguished by the fact that one owner offers a larger bribe than the other. No one’s watching, no one will ever know, you can do whatever you want. What do you do? Why?
2. Think of yourself as a virtue ethicist. < Very quickly, what are some of the virtues you personally attempt to live by, and what social institutions played a role in shaping your character? < If you were sent to Mexico on a work assignment and found yourself in the situation typically faced by local drivers after being caught driving a bit fast, how would you handle the situation? Which virtues might come into play? < Most advocates of virtue ethics believe companies—like other organizations including schools, churches, and community associations—play a role in instilling virtue. If you were training FedEx recruits destined to open branch offices in Mexico City and you wanted to prepare them for the ethical challenges of bribery, what virtues would you seek to instill in them? Can you think of any life experiences that some recruits may have had that may have formed their character to respond well to the situation on the Mexican streets? < The mayor in suburban Mexico City who decided to cancel traffic tickets was, in fact, fighting against what he saw as corruption. Most advocates of virtue ethics believe government organizations play a role in instilling virtue in its citizens. Could this action be considered part of that effort? What virtues might it instill? How would it help people become better practitioners of those virtues?
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