I agree that moral standards and business ethics aren't necessarily the same. While there are cultural differences which make certain practices more or less acceptable, there are undoubtedly clear and diverse ethics in every culture. Even in America, the business practices and ethics in a big city are much different than in a small, rural community. In one, the expectation may be business based on bribes or connections or "name." In the other, deals may be conducted by a handshake at a church social. Being punctual, staying true to one's word, and honoring one's commitment are not things every person does, and the same is true for businessmen. These are some stereotypes, I know, but these kinds of differences do exist even within the span of the United States. Throw in the often huge cultural differences, and there's no way that business ethics, like business practices, can be universal.
Much of ethics knows no language or cultural boundary. Stealing is wrong in any country, in any culture. Lying is unethical whether it's done in Japanese, German, or English.
Where the gray areas lie are in activities like giving gifts. In some countries and cultures, it is perfectly acceptable and expected to give gifts to government officials in order to "grease the wheels" of commerce, so to speak. In the United States, such behavior is frowned upon, although it certainly occurs on a regular basis.
It is essential in the contemporary global economy to become conversant with the mores and customs of the countries where one does business. Not to do so is to risk violating ethical boundaries that one may not even have known existed.
I think you would find very different standards of ethics if you looked at countries that are still largely tribal in nature vs. modernized.
Certainly even tribal nations carry on business of some sort - but I think in what we would call more "primitive" societies - there is still a standard of genuine protection for humanity. It seems in a more modernized business perspective - there is no common courtesy for others - it is more of the dog-eat-dog, do whatever it takes to get ahead mentality.
Consider even the once ethical standard that lying was generally considered wrong. I'd say this is no longer "standard" in Western society. Now it is, "Lie or cheat - just don't get caught."
Having lived in more places than just the USA, I have to agree that ethics are not the same everywhere. Much of what is considered correct and right, or even how to go about achieving the "right" and "correct" is dependent on culture.
For instance, when I was working in South Korea at a university there, I had my students in the computer lab to begin an English language class. My colleague, Dr. Lee, thought she should be in the computer lab. Instead of pulling me out into the hallway to solve the situation, she came into the classroom, and in front of my students, she began using a very loud voice to tell me that I was not supposed to be there, that she was sure she had told me to take my students to my classroom for that class period. In the western world, that would be considered yelling, and rude in any case. However, in Korea, many who seem to be yelling are simply communicating. People seemed loud and angry all the time, but I was repeatedly told that they were just talking. It tok some getting used to. In addition, Dr. Lee saw nothing in the world wrong with communicating to me in this fashion in front of my class. Professors over there have a decidedly different view of their status and the status of their students. Children and students are expected to be seen and not heard, and never would they be allowed to correct a teacher at any time. They are not considered to by anywhere near an equal status as the adults in the schools.
Another example I can think of also took place in Asia. My friends and I were repeatedly invited to attend certain functions, and everyone always said, "Yes" to these invitations. However, it became clear to me that even if you did not intend to go, "Yes" was the answer you gave. Often I was left waiting for someone who never came and didn't intend to meet me. It is considered better to say "Yes" and avoid conflict than to (in my mind) be honest with a "No, I have other plans." To them, it was rude to tell others "No;" to me, it was rude to say, "Yes" and then not show.
I realize these are mostly social examples, but it seems to me that the same cultural differences in ethics and protocolwould apply to business practices outside of the USA.
When it comes to business ethics in general, I do think that they are almost completely variable. I do not think this is the case for broader moral issues, but in terms of business ethics, I do think that they vary.
For example, I do not think that there is a general prohibtion against lying and cheating when it comes to business. I believe that there are parts of the world where it is considered perectly proper to lie to your competitors or to try to cheat them. In addition, I think that there are many places where it is acceptable to lie to people in order to induce them to buy your products.
When it comes to business, I do not think that there are universally held ethics.
I tend to think that most ethical standards are relatively ubiquitous but so too is the basic profit motive that tends to override any standards when positive behavior is not rewarded.
If you look at the recent collapse in the mortgage backed securities market, it is relatively well known that a few small groups of traders and whiz kids basically brought the whole thing down. It is true that lots of people were complicit in creating the fraudulent mortgages and the bonds made from those mortgages, but most people tend to actually be honest, even in a situation where being dishonest was massively profitable.
So I think most business people might have small variations in their smaller ethical decisions, but there is a general prohibition on things like lying, cheating, stealing, etc.