Bribes In Mexico City And The Perspective Of Cultural Relativism

The case study presented challenges traditional ethics through the use of cultural relativism with the bribes that happen in Mexico City. In Mexico City, police salaries are low so, it is widely accepted that these officers supplement their salaries through bribes, mainly through taking payoffs from motorists when pulled over for traffic violations.

Cultural relativism is the idea that different cultures have different values and moral standards, and actions of an individual should be judged by the specific community that individual is in so that it is relative to that particular culture. This diverges from what we have learned about traditional ethical theories thus far. In the traditional ethical theories, the guidance is that we are able to formulate rules for action that everyone can universally follow to decide if something is ethically correct or not. With cultural relativism, we are presented with what moral rules really are, only a set of opinions that one community shares. Anything may be morally good or bad, but it will depend on where you are at, and what that community thinks is morally good or bad.

With the Mexico City process of getting and paying off traffic tickets, there can be many values and advantages to this. One of the major ones is that it cuts out a lot of time and additional expenses. Typically, here in the U.S. when you get a traffic ticket, it is a long drawn out process. You have to wait weeks for your fine to be mailed to you, then, you either have to pay a fine or appear in front of a judge, and then, you have to pay for and take traffic school so that you do not get points on your driving record that could increase your car insurance premiums. The Mexico City process could also help reduce taxes, the officers are paid low and expect to get supplemental income from these bribes. This could be looked at much like a waitress here getting tips. With the officers’ low pay, that is less revenue that is needed; additionally, taking payment directly, eliminates administrative people and processes, further reducing costs. To justify this in ethical terms, a cultural relativist looks at the morals for this particular community. The practice seems to be widely known and accepted and the majority of people are not only comfortable with it but, they are also following and participating in it, therefore, it can be ethically justified.

Personally, if I could pay a cop $50 (and it was also a widely accepted practice) and be on my way, I’d be much happier as opposed to the long drawn out and expensive process described above. This is also of course if it all worked this easily and smoothly and did not actually involve extortion or other illegal activities that do most likely accompany this in Mexico City. This would support cultural relativism and be ethically justified the same as above if the community I lived in was understanding and in support of this practice of paying off the police; then, it could be justified. In reality, here in the U.S., it is not though, it is considered both morally and legally wrong. There are laws against bribes that could result in further punishment and it is also widely considered immoral, much like what is currently happening with the college admissions scandals presently. One of the ways to try and ethically justify this would be to use the eternal return of the same idea presented by Nietzsche. If you are going through life only looking out for yourself regardless of morality, then someone here in the U.S. could find justification ethically that their decision to bribe a police officer is ultimately in their own personal self-best interest for their life. This thought would then help justify it ethically here.

Comparing the way things operate in Mexico City versus how they operate here in the U.S., I think it gives justification to how the idea of cultural relativism works. Peoples’ ideas and morals are formed individually depending on how, when and where they are brought up. In Mexico City, their process of paying off the police can be compared to how we tip a waiter here in the U.S. Their process may have been initially developed to allow for bribes to help cut costs and supplement salaries, and it became a standard practice. From the case study, there is not a lot of background information given on how this developed and became culturally accepted but one could assume this position. In the U.S., where there are stricter rules and guidelines, as well as employee unions that help strengthen and develop employee wages and rights, we developed our police forces being fully funded and consider bribery immoral and against what our ethics suggest for someone in law enforcement. The way these two practices were developed and instituted were totally isolated and separate from one another in two different countries and cultures. Because they were developed by separate communities, the morals that guide them should also be considered separate. I believe this helps to give justification that the idea of cultural relativism is the right approach to look at these different scenarios. A universal rule cannot apply here because they were created under different rules, circumstances and beliefs.

While the briberies that happen in Mexico City may be frowned upon by those of us living here in the U.S. because it goes against what we consider right as a culture, when looking at it from the perspective of those that live in Mexico City through a cultural relativist’s perspective, it may be justified to be ethically right. What is happening is widely known and accepted by the majority of that community and so, who are we to judge what they consider right or wrong?


  1. Brusseau, J. (2012). Business ethics. New York, NY: 2012 Book Archive Project. Retrieved from
  2. Chokr, N. N. (2008). Who is (not) afraid of (cultural) relativism?, Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines, 12. Retrieved from:
09 March 2021
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