Ethics and Governance 2220, Length: 1000 words maximum (+/- 10%) (exclusive of references, appendices etc.) Learning objectives assessed: CLO1: Integrat



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Learning objectives assessed:

CLO1: Integrate and apply contemporary Ethics & Governance issues in a business context

CLO6: Effectively communicate ethics and governance concepts and arguments in a logical manner

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Getting trained and immersed in ethics and governance scholarly literature can be challenging, that students of this important subject need to understand, that to become future ethical business leaders and contributors. The purpose of this assignment is to build up your ability to bridge normative theories and scholarly readings.

From each of these readings, identify whether each uses Deontology, Teleology or Virtue ethics, or a combination to justify their approach. While it may seem like a challenging reading task, please remember, the use of these given readings makes your assignment easier.

Assignment 1 Readings


Drašček, M., Rejc Buhovac, A. and Mesner Andolšek, D., 2021. Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge between Duty, Utility, and Virtue in Managers’ Ethical Decision-Making. Journal of Business Ethics, 172(4), pp.803-819.


Batten, J.A., Loncarski, I., Szilagyi, P.G., 2018, When Kamay Met Hill: Organisational Ethics in Practice. Journal of Business Ethics, 147, pp. 779–792. ** For this reading, students are to focus on page 785 onwards (Stylised Models on Linkages Between Ethical Norms, Rules and Regulation).

These two readings give you significant opportunities to demonstrate your understanding of ethics theories. For both of these readings, identify and critically discuss at least two underpinning ethics theories, that inform the authors’ approaches.

For each of the theories you choose to discuss, find at least one more reading that helps supports your definition of the theory, e.g. readings that substantiate definitions of normative theories (Kantian, Deontology, Utilitarianism), or non-normative  theories.

Avoid writing in dot-point form, construct your sentences in argumentative form. Practice this skill for Assignment 2 and 3 as well.

In your analysis, focus on aspects of the readings that demonstrate aspects of an underpinning ethics theory.

To assist, you may wish to consider:

Analytically, do you find one or more than one ethics perspective? If so, which are they and why?

  • You could critically analyse the selected aspects or features of the paper against the ethics perspectives.
  • Using appropriate in-text citations, you may indicate paragraphs of the papers that may sustain your justification, but you must not cut and paste verbatim, but learn to cite the paragraph and produce paraphrased analysis.
  • Critically analyse the selected paragraph for normative or non-normative (including psychological) approach to study of ethics.

Vol.:(0123456789)1 3

Journal of Business Ethics (2021) 172:803–819


Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge Between Duty, Utility, and Virtue
in Managers’ Ethical Decision‑Making

Matej Drašček1 · Adriana Rejc Buhovac2 · Dana Mesner Andolšek1

Received: 23 December 2019 / Accepted: 18 March 2020 / Published online: 28 March 2020
© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

The decline of empirical research on ethical decision-making based on ethical theories might imply a tacit consensus has
been reached. However, the exclusion of virtue ethics, one of the three main normative ethical theories, from this stream of
literature calls this potential consensus into question. This article investigates the role of all three normative ethical theo-
ries—deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics—in ethical decision-making of corporate executives. It uses virtue ethics
as a dependent variable thus studying the interconnectivity of all three normative ethical theories in specific circumstances.
We find that managers use different ethical theories in different circumstances (business vs. private life, formal vs informal
ethical leadership, etc.). A predictive model of ethical decision-making, however, cannot be established. We also find that
only a limited number of variables influence the choice of ethical theory, which leans business ethics towards postmodern
management paradigm. We suggest that moral pragmatism could provide the answer to ethical decision-making.

Keywords Ethical decision-making · Managers · Moral pragmatism · Virtue ethics · Postmodernism


Ethics, as a philosophical discipline, serves as a theoretical
basis for the ethical decision-making of managers (Arjoon
2007; Hunt and Vitell 1986; Paul and Elder 2005; Treviño
et al. 2006). However, less than 10% of all empirical studies
on ethical decision-making use philosophical ethical theo-
ries to understand the decision-making phenomenon (Craft
2013). Additionally, only a few have been done in recent
years (see Amirshahi et al. 2016; Khalid et al. 2017; Paik
et al. 2019; Vance et al. 2016; Wisler 2018). Indeed, there
has been a major decrease in the overall number of published
studies, particularly compared to 1993–1994, when 11 stud-
ies on this topic were published (O’Fallon and Butterfield

2005). This decrease in research might indicate a tacit con-
sensus on the extant empirical findings related to ethical

However, there are a number of issues that make the
lack of research—and the potential consensus—concern-
ing. First, our literature review indicates that the majority
(21) of empirical studies of ethical decision-making based
on ethical theories investigated two main normative ethical
theories, namely utilitarianism and deontology, with other
studies including also other theories, e.g. Machiavellianism
(e.g. Cyriac and Dharmaraj 1994; Hegarty and Sims 1978);
theory of justice and rights (e.g. Kujala 2001; McDonald and
Pak 1996; Premeaux 2004). In total, 19 different combina-
tions of ethical theories have been researched, with some
studies testing only one theory (e.g. Corey et al. 2014) and
others testing up to nine different ethical theories simultane-
ously (Wisler 2018) (Table 1 shows all the variations of test-
ing theories). Second, the simultaneous testing of the basic
three normative ethical theories has been limited only to
testing of ethical reasoning with limited inclusion of factors
(e.g. Khalid et al. 2017). In addition, from the perspective of
research participants, only slightly more than a third of stud-
ies included managers (largely from lower decision-making
levels) to study ethical decision-making. Finally, the major-
ity of studies were done in the USA, with around 25% done

* Matej Drašček

Adriana Rejc Buhovac

Dana Mesner Andolšek

1 Faculty of Social Studies, University of Ljubljana,
Kardeljeva ploščad 5, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia

2 Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana, Kardeljeva
ploščad 17, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia

804 M. Drašček et al.

1 3

in Latin America, Asia and Australia and less than 10% done
in Western Europe, which suggests that the relative lack of
diversity in study sites is additional limitation of previous

This article aims to determine whether the tacit consen-
sus on the dominance of utilitarianism and deontology in
managers’ ethical decision-making holds if virtue ethics is
considered. Virtue ethics has been recently reintroduced in
the field of business ethics (Fontrodona et al. 2013; Norman
2013; Whetstone 2001) and we lack the understanding of
its influence on ethical decision-making when tested along
with utilitarianism and deontology (e.g. Furler and Palmer
2010; Khalid et al. 2017; Yoon 2011). Our study investi-
gates the phenomenon on C-suite managers and executives,
which has received limited research coverage (Craft 2013),
with the inclusion of vast and various personal and organi-
sational factors influence (Campbell and Cowton 2015).
Finally, the article aims to investigate the possible existence
of ‘ethical ambidexterity’, which occurs when managers
do not use grand ethical theory consistently, but base their
ethical decisions on reasonable deliberation and choose the

one that resonates most in a given situation (Bazerman and
Tenbrunsel 2011a, b; Lemoine et al. 2019; Shafer-Landau
2015; Simons 2002).

Theoretical Background

The Big Three: Utilitarianism, Deontology and Virtue

The arguments for the three main ethical theories—utilitari-
anism, deontology and virtue ethics—originate from philos-
ophers (e.g. Fieser and Lillegard 2002; Foot 1978; Louden
1984; Hursthouse 1999; MacIntyre 1981; Sher 2012) and
are supported by mainstream bodies of knowledge (e.g. the
Routledge Philosophy Dictionary and Stanford Encyclopae-
dia of Philosophy; The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory),
business ethicists (Arjoon 2007; Donaldson and Werhane
1993; Norman 2013; Whetstone 2001) and leadership theo-
ries (Lemoine et al. 2019).

Kymlicka (2002) summarised the historical evolution of
three main ethical theories. Virtue ethics was the first ethi-
cal theory established by Aristotle (2000) in ancient Greece.
Aquinas used it as the foundation for the ethics of the Cath-
olic Church, which prevailed until the eighteenth century.
Deontology, which was formally introduced by Kant (1788),
is grounded in the divine command theory, which was part
of the tradition of justifying ethics based on the existence
of God. Utilitarianism, which was formally introduced at
almost the same time as deontology by Bentham (1789),
opposes the established tradition of connecting ethics with
divinity and instead is based in empiricism.

The division of ethical theories into only utilitarianism
and deontology started with the Anglo-Saxon school of phi-
losophy, which classifies ethical theories based on two main
types of moral reasoning: teleological, which judges moral-
ity based on the consequences of the action, and deontologi-
cal, which does not consider the consequences of an action
(Schüller 1973). The basis of teleological ethics (utilitarian-
ism and virtue ethics) is the Platonic and Aristotelian idea of
good and happiness (Greek: eudaimonia), which is viewed
as the ultimate goal of life, while deontological ethics is
based on law, obligations and duties (Ricouer 1990). While
some research on ethical decision-making has used this divi-
sion (e.g. Galbraith and Stephenson 1993), virtue ethics has
been largely omitted. This is particularly strange since the
most prominent figure in teleological ethical theory, which
includes utilitarianism as well, is Aristotle, who developed
virtue ethics (Heidegger and Schüssler 1992).

One possible reason for this omission could be that
utilitarianism and deontology have long been seen as the
only legitimate ethical theories (Sher 2012). Virtue eth-
ics was reintroduced to mainstream philosophy as another

Table 1 The underlying ethical theories in the empirical studies of
ethical decision-making

Philosophical theory Number

Machiavellism 2
Deontology and utilitarianism 21
Rule and act utilitarianism; act and rule deontology; egoism 2
Personal values, professional values 1
Egoism, utilitarianism, Kant’s imperative, goaled rule 2
Relativism, justice, utilitarianism, deontology, hybrid


Self-interest, theory of role conflict 1
Utilitarianism, Machiavellism 1
Self-interest, utilitarianism, categorical imperative, duties,

justice, neutralisation, religion and light of day

Contractualism, rules, conformism 1
Justice, deontology, relativism, utilitarianism, egoism 1
Rule and act utilitarianism, theory of justice, theory of


Utilitarianism, morality (duty), justice 1
Ethical sensitivity 1
Justice, utilitarianism, relativism and egoism 1
Deontology (formalism and idealism), social contract


Linear and nonlinear thinking 1
Fatalism, virtue ethics, utilitarianism, deontology and


Economic egoism, reputation egoism, rule and act utilitari-
anism, self-virtue, other’s virtue, rule and act deontology


Utilitarianism 1
Total 44

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1 3

normative, philosophical, ethical theory by Anscombe
(1958) and reinforced its role as a basis for the other two
by MacIntyre (1984). What separates virtue ethics from the
other two theories, however, is the importance of virtues of
decision makers itself. While utilitarianism considers virtues
to be characteristics that result in good consequences and
deontology considers them to be characteristics of someone
who fulfils his duties, virtue ethics resists any definition of
ethics that does not rely on virtues (e.g. justice) (Kawall

The confusion between the main ethical theories is even
greater in other professional and management academic
sources. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, for
example, differentiates between 39 different types of ethics.
However, there is a clear distinction between the main ethi-
cal theories, on the one hand, and derived, professional, and
political ethical theories, on the other hand. Derived ethical
theories build upon main ethical theories but change their
propositions. For example, the theory of rights is derived
from Kant’s definition of duty as a categorical imperative
(Forst 2012). Professional ethical theories are based on
main ethical theories but are applied to a specific profession
(medicine, law, journalism or business; Singer 1979). Politi-
cal ethical theories are mostly the consequence of socio-
cultural influences; for example, the feminist ethics of the
1970s was an answer to the rising importance of women in
society (Dagger and Lefkowitz 2014).

In the context of ethical decision-making normative
models and processes, ethical theories are mostly divided
into deontology (or universalism) and utilitarianism (or
relativism) (Ferrell and Gresham 1985; Forsty 1980; Hunt
and Vitell 1986). This division has been adopted in most
empirical research on ethical decision-making based on ethi-
cal theories (Craft 2013); since the first study in this stream
of research (see Hegarty and Sims 1978), almost half of all
related studies have included this dual view. This dualism is
also present in quantitative (Craft 2013; Ford and Richard-
son 1994; Loe et al. 2000; O’Fallon and Butterfield 2005)
and qualitative (Lehnert et al. 2016) meta-reviews of ethi-
cal decision-making based on ethical theories. On the other
hand, virtue ethics has also been mostly studied in leadership
theory (e.g. Bauman 2018; Neubert et al. 2009; Cameron
2011; Whetstone 2001; Knight and O’Leary 2006), values
studies (Moore 2008; Murphy 1999; Chun 2005; Chan and
Ananthram 2019), personality traits studies (Riggio et al.
2010; Walsh et al. 2016) and applied to selected professions
(Oakley and Cocking 2001), such as medical profession (Jor-
dan and Meara 1990; Pellegrino 2002; Brody 1988; Barlow
et al. 2018). Also, virtue ethics has yet to be researched in
comparison with the other two main ethical theories in the
domain of managers’ ethical decision-making.

Anyhow, even without inclusion of major normative eth-
ical theory, these meta-reviews conclude that deontology

(universalism) positively and utilitarianism (relativism)
negatively effects ethical decisions (Craft 2013; O’Fallon
and Butterfield 2005). However, this is paradoxical for two
reasons. First, by definition, the use of utilitarianism, one of
the main ethical theories, cannot lead to unethical decisions
because that would mean that the ethical theory is unethical.
Second, unlike utilitarianism, deontology does not see con-
sequences or results of ethical decision as a part of ethics,
and so the conclusions of research cannot be based on the
same end results (i.e. ethical decisions).

Thus, the basic problem remains: if a tacit consensus has
been reached regarding empirical research on the outcomes
of ethical decision-making, but consensus regarding the
division of the main ethical theories has not, how could the
outcomes of prior research be valid? Indeed, there are, as
previous mentioned, 19 different divisions of ethical theories
in empirical research, so there could not be a tacit consensus.
Additionally, utilitarianism is viewed in ethical decision-
making research to lead to unethical decisions and deontol-
ogy is viewed to lead to ethical decisions, but virtue ethics
is not even included in the meta-reviews research.

Moral Pragmatism as the Bridge Between Theory
and Practice in Decision‑Making

Moral pluralism is independent from meta-ethical views
(Mason 2018). As a theory, it offers an explanation of the
existence of complex super-eminent structure of ethical
values. It means that each value has its own basis and that
values cannot be derived from only one super-value (for
example from justice or fairness) (Becker 1992). However,
the philosophical concept of moral pluralism should not be
confused with moral relativism, which claims that moral
actions are judged in relation to, for example, culture, values
and society (Hinman 2012).

On the other hand, moral pluralism goes hand-in-hand
with the postmodernist theory of organisational studies,
which emphasises a fragmented view of the people in an
organisation (Alvesson and Deetz 2006). This theory is
a step away from the modernist perspective of people as
wholes, which emphasises masculinity, reason, vision and
control. In contrast, postmodernism claims that each person
is complex and that people are inadvertently part of the web
of sex, age, sexuality, power and other factors, all of which
have moral weight (Cooper and Burrell 2015).

The concept of narrative fallacy provides the same expla-
nation about perceptive as people as whole as postmodern-
ism, but it focuses upon models based in social studies. It
claims that such models cannot be developed, but attempts
are still made because of humans’ tendency to look at a
sequence of events or facts and explain them through forced
logical connections (Taleb 2008). Explanations connect
facts, creating a story that makes it easier for humans to

806 M. Drašček et al.

1 3

remember. However, a problem arises when this is miscon-
strued as an understanding of actual facts or modus operandi
of phenomena, similar to predictive models, which are both
not valid (Taleb 2007).

Rosenthal and Buchholz (2007) attempted to resolve this
postmodernist approach and the normative fallacy in busi-
ness ethics through pragmatism and moral pluralism. This
is in accordance with England (1967), who claimed that
the first approach to managerial decision-making must be
pragmatism, after which the ethical theories of deontology
and utilitarianism, for example, can be applied, but again
leaving out virtue ethics. However, moral pragmatism raises
two questions: can managers employ more than one ethical
theory simultaneously during decision-making, and does
business ethics as a discipline need grand ethical theories
and predictive models to further establish itself as a legiti-
mate scientific discipline?

Donaldson and Werhane (1993) state that determining the
dominance of an ethical theory is not necessary for further
development of business ethics. Other notable authors with
a similar outlook include Boatright (1993), who states that
differences in theories should not lead to an endless search
for the ‘best’ theory, and Beauchamp and Bowie (1993),
who believe that philosophy should help society find reason-
able and systematic approaches to moral problems, but not
mechanical solutions or steps for decision-making regarding
these problems.

The act of making decisions based on multiple moral
frameworks is called a ‘metaphysical music chair’ (Callicott
1990; Weston 1991). Many philosophers have started to state
that moral principles should be separated from philosophi-
cal foundations (Wenz 1993). As a result, they have tried to
develop one moral theory that could embrace a variety of
moral principles, but at the same time claiming that ethics
cannot be reduced to or derived from only one normative
ethical framework. (Rosenthal and Buchholz 2007). How-
ever, empirical research has yet to prove the validity of this

Hypothesis Development

The major gap stems from the omission of virtue ethics
as dependent variable in the empirical research of ethical
decision-making based on ethical theories (Arjoon 2000;
Crossan et al. 2013; Whetstone 2001; Yoon 2011). While
one could argue that virtue ethics has been included in
research, e.g. as part of deontology (Premeaux 2004) or the
personality traits (e.g. Allen and Davis 1993; Crossan et al.
2013), the use of virtue ethics as independent variable raises
theoretical and empirical considerations. From the theoreti-
cal perspective, the inclusion of virtue ethics as personality
traits misuses the proxy of personality traits or character as

virtue ethics (Walker 1989; Mitchell 2015). Thus, virtue eth-
ics should not be treated as personality traits, which happens
often in the implications of the virtue theory in the research
of ethical decision-making, where personality is involved
(Solomon 2003). From the empirical perspective, the use of
personality traits as independent variable, both in empirical
(e.g. Groves et al. 2007; Mencl and May 2009) and theoreti-
cal research (Hunt and Vitell 1986), stems for the above-
mentioned misunderstanding of personality traits as part of
virtue ethics, thus leading to wrong conclusions. Using vir-
tue ethics as independent variable implies that virtue ethics
is not a normative ethical theory, at pair with utilitarianism
and deontology and also leads to wrong conclusions about
which ethical theory is being used by decision makers.

Another major gap in ethical decision-making research
is related to the fact that most empirical studies studied a
limited number of independent variables (on average 4–6
variables), with the most studied variables being nine
(McDonald and Pak 1996) and some only with one (e.g. sex
(Galbraith and Stephenson 1993), profession (Cohen et al.
1993) and age (Brady and Wheeler 1996). The included
independent variables have also mostly been proxies them-
selves (Campbell and Cowton 2015), e.g. personality traits
(e.g. Hadjicharalambous and Shi 2015; Brady and Wheeler
1996), ethical culture (e.g. Verbeke et al. 1996), intentions
(Cohen et al. 1993) etc., they were not measurable per se,
but compounded from other variables to form a new one
(e.g. ethical culture).

Moreover, most studies have investigated the reasons for
unethical behaviour/decision-making (Campbell and Cowton
2015). Research has yet to show which variables are corre-
lated with ethical decisions based on ethical theories (McDe-
vitt et al. 2007). This is supported by “positive psychology”
approach in organisational studies research, which empha-
sizes the need for more research of “positive” phenomena
(Peterson and Seligman 2004). To determine which ethical
theory and variables lead to ethical decisions, it is neces-
sary to understand the causes of managers’ choice of ethi-
cal theory when engaging in ethical decision-making. This
stream of research would avoid the natural fallacy (Kohlberg
1971; Moore 1903)—also called is-ought problem, where an
ought is established from an is—from which some studies
have suffered. Even though there is a vast amount of research
on the variables in ethical decision-making, limited research
has been done on the multiple personal and organisational
variables that affect ethical decision-making (Lehnert et al.
2015). Based on this, our first hypothesis is as follows:

Hypothesis 1 A predictive model of managers’ choice of
ethical theory in ethical decision-making can be established.

Some believe that managers use one grand ethical theory
that aligns with the modern theory of organisations, while

807Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge Between Duty, Utility, and Virtue in Managers’ Ethical…

1 3

others believe in moral pragmatism or “ethical ambidexter-
ity”, claiming that there is no one grand theory and instead
highlighting the mutual interdependence between theories
based on various variables (Rosenthal and Buchholz 2007;
Treviño and Nelson 2007) that dictate the use of pragma-
tism in ethical decision-making. Theory of ethical decision-
making (Arnold et al. 2010; Rosenthal and Buchholz 2007)
has already elaborated upon whether managers consistently
use different ethical theories or tend towards pragmatism
(England 1967; Fraedrich and Ferrell 1992). According to
the leadership theory, pragmatic managers are best when it
comes to problem-solving (Bedell-Avers et al. 2008). Due
to the fundamental differences between normative ethical
theories, it can be expected that managers will use the same
ethical theories in all their decisions, which is in accordance
with Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (Kohlberg
1971). But even Kohlberg (1971) argues that adults live
most of their time on the third or the fourth level of moral
development and only occasionally reach the fifth or the
sixth level. This might indicate a low level of consistency in
moral reasoning of managers. Furthermore, one might con-
clude that moral agents are prone to using ethical theories
which suit them best momentarily. In this case, a pragmatic
view is the cause of ethical confusion of managers. If man-
agers do use different theories in different circumstances,
regardless of internal (i.e. personal, biological) or external
(i.e. societal, organisational) factors, they are ethically ambi-
dextrous. Extant leadership and management literature rarely
examine whether they consistently use one moral philosophy
(Lemoine et al. 2019). In normative moral reasoning theory,
however, two opposing views are held about consistent use
of ethical theories in different circumstances (Hooker and
Little 2000).

Moral particularists believe that one absolute principle
cannot be applied to every moral circumstance, meaning
the moral agent should choose reasonably the most suitable
ethical theory in different circumstances (Dancy 2004). On
the other hand, the moral generalists believe that absolute
moral principles are the backbone of ethical theory and the
consistent use of ethical theory, no matter the circumstances,
is the moral person’s imperative (Raz 2006). Based on this,
our second hypothesis is as follows:

Hypothesis 2 Managers consistently use one ethical theory
in all circumstances.

Research Design and Data

To test the hypotheses, managerial ethical decision-making
scenarios in six different circumstances were chosen (see
Appendix 1): private/family life, business environment, gen-
eral ethical dilemma, refusal to do unethical acts, ethical

leadership of colleagues, and informal ethical leadership in
ethical decision-making. The scenarios were developed and
pilot tested in in-depth interviews with nine C-suite manag-
ers (see Appendix 2 for sample characteristics) who were
carefully selected to ensure diversity in terms of tenure,
industry, age and sex.

The scenarios are short, concise and unambiguous (Bed-
nar and Westphal 2006). They allow for many options,
as the purpose of the research is to find out what ethical
theory managers use rather than developing a solution to
ethical dilemmas (Bazerman and Tenbrunsel 2011a, b). All
solutions are ethically correct and not ethically disputable,
unlike previous research, where the main focus has been to
study the variables that lead to unethical behaviour. Con-
sequently, the ‘socially desirable answers’ effect (Randall
and Fernandes 1991) was eliminated. Finally, each solution
represents only one normative ethical theory: deontology
(duty, obligations, universal laws, golden rule), utilitarian-
ism (results, consequences, added value, benefits, costs), and
virtue ethics (character, values, golden mean, practice).

The population of managers under investigation (Slove-
nian managers) was identified as 48,513 based on official
statistical data (Republic of Slovenia Statistical Office). The
target sample was 200 respondents with the aim to get the
approximate same ratio of micro, SME and large organisa-
tions’ respondents in the sample. Being aware of the fact
that response rate in business ethics’ research is low (Bab-
bie 1986), the survey was sent to around 2000 managers. In
the first round, we used help of two associations, the Man-
agers’ Association of Slovenia and the Institute of Internal
Auditors Slovenia. The first one was aiming at small and
medium-sized organisations, while the other targeted large
organisations (by Slovenian law, internal audit is obligatory
in large organisations). Because the response rate did not
yield desired results, the second round of personal contacts
via LinkedIn was used to get the target sample. In total, 166
managers completed the survey. The sample was compared
regarding the average characteristics of all Slovenian c

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