Can Ethics Be Taught in Business Schools?
It’s a common refrain. Don’t blame the business schools for all the bad stuff happening on Wall Street. It’s not the b-schools’ fault, because after all, ethics can’t be taught. The first bit there is reasonable enough: the recent financial crisis is the result of a complicated convergence of factors, apparently including bad decisions by quite a number of individuals, and some poorly-structured institutions. But the latter part, implying the futility of ethics instruction at business schools, is simply wrong-headed.
For the latest iteration of this mistaken view, check out this opinion piece by Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, in the Globe and Mail: Can we teach ethics? When pigs fly
Ethics is a serious business. And that’s why, reading in last weekend’s Globe and Mail about the gurgling wave of ethics education sweeping North American business schools, I had to laugh.
“MBA programs around the globe,” wrote Joanna Pachner, “are rushing to prove that they teach students to be good – not just rich – by revamping their curriculums and encouraging debates about ethical corporate behaviour.”
I blogged about the MBA ethics oaths here. But Orwin’s real focus is on business school curriculum:
I’m not suggesting that business students are bad people, or that those who would teach them to be good are any less competent than the rest of us. It’s just that the whole notion of teaching ethical behaviour rests on a fundamental misconception – namely, that ethical behaviour can be taught.
But Orwin’s criticism is off-target, for two reasons.
The first problem is that Orwin neglects that the main goal of business education is to teach people management skills. So we can usefully teach people to devise management structures that minimize wrong-doing on the part of their employees, even if we can’t change the characters of future managers themselves.
The second problem: people like Orwin wrongly assume that the key to better behaviour is modifying character. But that flies in the face of our best understanding (as represented in the criminology literature) of the psychology of wrongdoing. The key to wrongdoing is not primarily that wrongdoers have the wrong values (from which it would follow that ethics classes need to accomplish the difficult, perhaps impossible, task of instilling the right values in just a few short months of instruction). The key to wrongdoing is much more likely to involve faulty ways of thinking about certain behaviours, namely thinking about them in ways that “neutralize” them, morally, effectively exempting the wrongdoer from moral blame. (A simple example is the redescription of theft as “borrowing”, or the redescription of stealing from one’s employer as “merely taking what I deserve”). The arguments behind such neutralizations are generally fallacious, and fallacies of reasoning are something that can be taught, either in an ethics class or indeed in a first-year Critical Thinking class.
Thus it’s not that Orwin is wrong in claiming that virtue cannot be taught. It’s that he’s wrong in thinking that that’s a decisive argument against ethics education.
My take on the moral psychology of wrongdoing, and the conclusion it implies about ethics education, is adopted entirely from Joseph Heath’s wonderful paper, “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective,” Journal of Business Ethics 83:4, 2008. Here’s the abstract.