Can We Teach Ethics?

Scandals surface periodically that reveal highly unethical behavior in companies.  Michael Milken, the “junk bond king” of the late 1980s, was convicted of insider trading violations.  More recently, Enron purposely misled investors through financial manipulations that showed dazzling growth rates based on hiding critical information.  The “great recession” was replete with unethical behavior.

AACSB, the accrediting agency of business schools, requires that business schools teach ethics as part of the curriculum.  Many applaud the attempt to consider the ethical challenges that arise in the course of everyday business; others argue that we cannot teach college students ethics – they must learn it from parents and teachers early in life.

The debate focuses attention on the aim of teaching business ethics.  Are we attempting to teach students the difference between right and wrong?  If so, what grants us the authority to act as purveyors of morality?  If we cannot teach someone to be ethical, why address it in an educational setting?

To me, we do not teach what is ethical, instead we sensitize students to ethical issues that may arise in business.  Research indicates that people who engage in wrongdoing do not lack a sense of ethics, rather they do not stop to think about an ethical challenge when it arises, so they do not actively consider how to respond.  If they think before they act, they are less likely to act unethically. 

Also, discussing it in school legitimizes ethics as a valid issue when students enter the business world.  If their education has not addressed it, they may be more susceptible to co-worker claims that “everybody does it.”

Dr. Thomas Begley is dean of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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