What Can an Ethics Course Really Do?

The only thing nearly as common as the view that business schools should pay greater attention to ethics are heartfelt expressions of the view that doing so is in fact useless.

Typically, skepticism about ethics education is rooted in a mistaken view of what the goals of such education are. If you think that giving students a course in ethics is supposed to “make them into good people,” then of course you’re going to think it’s useless. An ethics professor can’t turn bad people into good ones, any more than she can turn water into wine. Luckily, that’s really not what’s needed, and so doing so it’s not the aim of any sane ethics course.

The most recent volley in this ongoing debate is a short blog entry on Forbes, written by MBA student Lachlan Magee. Magee admits to some skepticism about the idea of teach ethics in a formal educational setting. After all, he says, ethics comes from “a person’s environment and inherent motivations.” But he goes on to say some very sensible things about the connection between ethics and white collar crime, and the value of teaching students about how easy it is to slide into engaging in such crime. What Magee rightly implies (though he doesn’t quite put it this way) is that the reason we don’t need to worry about turning bad people into good people is that most wrongdoing in corporate settings is actually done by good, honest folks to make bad choices, sometimes due to spectacular pressure and often aided by a range of self-serving rationalizations. When the pressure is on to “make the numbers,” it can be awfully appealing to tell yourself that “everybody does it” and that “no one is really getting hurt, anyway.”

(Magee’s piece is actually a guest blog, posted by Forbes contributor Walt Pavlo. Pavlo knows what he’s talking about when it comes to workplace wrongdoing: he did 3 years in a US prison about a decade ago, for his role in the MCI fraud. He has since then dedicated himself to helping others avoid his mistakes.)

So what can courses in ethics offer? There are as many approaches to teaching ethics as there are ethics instructors. But here are a handful of ideas that have influenced my own teaching. They could also prove useful for in-house ethics training.

First, as Magee suggests, a course in ethics can help students understand the dangers of rationalization. A lot of bad behaviour goes on because good people tell themselves that such behaviour is not, in fact, bad. In the vast majority of cases, such rationalizations are rooted in very poor reasoning — reasoning which, if made explicit, would be clearly and transparently untenable. A course in ethics gives students an opportunity to look at some of the most important rationalizations, in order to examine them under the cold, dispassionate light of logic.

Second, a course in ethics can quite simply give students the opportunity to talk, at length, about ethics, something they likely wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. This can have several different positive effects. First, it can make students more comfortable talking about topics that might otherwise be too awkward to raise. How can you talk in a constructive way about Conflict of Interest, for example, if you’ve never even uttered the words before? A chance to talk at length about ethics in a classroom setting can also reveal to students that not everyone shares their views on ethics, and that they shouldn’t be so cocky. The student who thinks it “obvious” that the bottom line is all that matters can find out that — lo and behold! — not everyone thinks that way. An ethics course can also give students a chance to enunciate their own values in a constructive way. A student who finds herself repeatedly speaking, from the heart, in a safe classroom setting, about the importance of treating people fairly may come to realize that that’s an important part of who she is. She may then find it easier to speak up when she observes injustice in the workplace.

Finally — and here it shows that I’m a philosopher by training, and in fact used to teach in a philosophy department — there’s even something practical to be gained by having students read theoretical, scholarly articles on business ethics. Such articles can have two benefits. First, if chosen carefully they can exemplify for students what first-rate reasoning about ethics actually looks like. In other words, good articles on ethics are effectively special-topic exemplars of advanced critical thinking skills. Students who study such first-rate reasoning in the classroom stand a better chance of being able to engage in solid ethical reasoning in the workplace. A further benefit of exposure to scholarly articles is that such articles tend to be relatively high-minded: they call on readers to think carefully about ethics, and to take the ideas of moral obligation seriously. This is not to say that reading such articles will immediately change anyone’s behaviour, but it’s good to know that my students go out into the workplace — with all its pressures and temptations — having read some things that will pull them, even gently, in kinder and nobler directions.

2 comments so far

  1. Marvin Edwards on

    In a study of cheating in college, William Bowers found that the most influential factor in deciding not to cheat was “perceived peer disapproval”. If a student felt that most other students through cheating was okay, then he was more likely to cheat. But if he felt other students strongly disapproved, he was the least likely to cheat. And the effect of perceived peer disapproval upon cheating was even greater than the student’s own personal disapproval.

    Sometimes it is hard for a single person to stand alone when the popular thing is to cut corners or use dishonest means to meet workplace demands.

    I think you’re right on target with making personal attitudes more explicit through class discussions and also by studying professional articles.

    Codes of professional ethics that are kept current and alive in the workplace would also support the guy or gal who wants to do the right thing.

  2. […] See also: What Does an ‘A’ in Ethics Mean? What Can Ethics Courses Really Do? […]

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