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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Can Business Ethics Be Taught?

A recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News highlighted how business schools are now including ethics in their curriculum ("Business Ethics: No, It's not an Oxymoron"). I think this is great, but when I read the article I couldn't help but wonder "Whose Ethics?".  While it is tempting to believe that universal principles of justice can be arrived by reason alone, in reality all of us are moral agents who are constrained and influenced by the communities in which we are embedded. For instance, I suspect that libertarians and Rawlsian liberals have very different ideas about what constitutes a "just wage." Thus, while the quest for an ethic derived through reason alone is a noble goal, it is most certainly a quixotic one.

The editorial's authors seem to sense that coming to agreement on certain issues may prove difficult, which could lead some business school professors (and business executives) to question the value of teaching ethics, for about half way through they make a utilitarian plea that echoes the Better Business Bureau's occasional motto "Honest is the best policy. It is also the most profitable."
Ethical behavior implies doing the right thing not only from a legal but from a moral perspective, even if there is an adverse impact to the bottom line -- yet choosing profit over ethics is not the norm. In the long run, profitability and ethical behavior most often go hand in hand (emphasis added).
Does this mean that business schools shouldn't include courses on ethics in their curriculum? No, but it strikes me that such classes should be modeled after Michael Sandel's "Justice" class that he has taught at Harvard for almost thirty years (see my earlier post on Sandel's class and companion book and DVD: "What Do We Mean By Justice?"). Business students need to learn that notions of justice are rather difficult to pin down, and that what we believe to be right and just is profoundly influenced by the communities in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). That is why what is obviously "just" to me may not be obviously "just" to you (and vice versa).

Sandel's course (and companion book and DVD) does more than awaken students to the difficulty of arriving at what constitutes justice, however. It also helps them to think critically about various issues and see the role that reasoned debate can play in helping various communities of practice address the ethical dilemmas that come before them. While such courses would not eliminate unethical business practices, one would hope that it would minimize them as much as humanly possible.

That said, there is a difference between learning to think critically about ethics and behaving ethically. I suspect that most of the people in the business world who engage in unethical behavior are fully aware that they are doing so and simply don't care. That is, they know the difference between right and wrong, but they are consciously choosing to do what is wrong. This, of course, is why so many of them go to such great lengths to avoid getting caught -- because if they do, they know they'll go (or at least should go) to jail.

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