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A few thoughts on teaching Ethics

Are Business Schools using the Best Approach to Teach Ethics?

The other day I reflected on a lecture I gave to my ethics students on how to apply philosophical reasoning methods to teach business ethics. I wondered whether my students were grasping the difficulties that exist in making one’s voice heard when faced with ethical dilemmas in the workplace. While I truly believe even business students should be exposed to philosophical reasoning methods to analyze conflict situations in business, I do worry that their learning may stop at applying the methods but fall short on taking the ethical action needed to voice their beliefs.

Business students tend to react favorably to methods such as Utilitarianism where the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action are weighed and decisions made based on selecting the action that maximizes net benefits to the stakeholders. Utilitarianism is a common tool of financial analysis so business students seem comfortable using it for ethical analysis. However, the method downplays the importance of evaluating the “rights” of the stakeholders. In accounting, for example, the investors and creditors have a right to receive accurate and reliable financial statements and no utilitarian analysis should supersede that obligation.

The Rights Theory approach is based on the Categorical Imperative. It holds that (in the ethics of Immanuel Kant), this unconditional moral principle to guide one's behavior should accord with universalizable maxims which respect persons as ends in themselves; the obligation to do one's duty for its own sake and not in pursuit of further ends. For accountants and auditors, it is the public interest that stands above all else as the overriding consideration in making ethical decisions.

The problem with the philosophical reasoning methods is they do not focus on the traits of character needed to carry through ethical intent with ethical action. In other words, regardless of one’s ability to reason through ethical dilemmas and come to the best course of action, the decision-maker still has to fight off the pressures that may exist within an entity to deviate from making the most ethical decision.

What good is it to know what should be done if the decision-maker fails to go the extra mile and act accordingly? This is where virtue ethics comes into play. In contrast to the Rights approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or Utilitarianism which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism), Virtue Theory focuses on the traits of character that make for a moral person. By inculcating these traits, a person becomes better able to make moral decisions.

Recently, I have added a new approach to my toolbox of teaching ethics that is based on the “Giving Voice to Values (GVV)” technique developed by Mary Gentile at Babson College. As Gentile points out on the GVV website:

“Business faculty in ethics courses spend a lot of time teaching theories of ethical reasoning and analyzing those big, thorny dilemmas—triggering what one professor called ‘ethics fatigue.’ Some students find such approaches intellectually engaging; others find them tedious and irrelevant. Either way, sometimes all they learn is how to frame the case to justify virtually any position, no matter how cynical or self-serving. Utilitarianism, after all, is tailor made for a free market economy.”

The point is that traditional methods do not go far enough. They fail to consider how the decision-maker can best express his/her values once they have made a decision. It can be difficult to voice those values when pressures exist to deviate from them. Issues that need to be addressed include what to say, to whom and how to say it when a manager knows what he or she thinks is right when an ethical breach occurs—but doesn’t feel confident about how to act on his or her convictions.

I’ve use GVV in role-play exercises and find that students react well to this approach. By simulating the real-life pressures that exist in the workplace, and providing students a way to counteract those pressures, I find that students better understand what the right thing to do is and how to do it. Rather than focus on ethical analysis, a GVV approach focuses in ethical implementations and asks the question: What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 27, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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