Business Ethics Center

Would an Ethics Course Help
(Part One)

by Prof. Michael DeWilde
Seidman College of Business at GVSU

October 27, 2010

Hard to say what changes people.  For the worse, power has always been the leading candidate, with money close behind.  For the better, children, surviving something life-threatening, or a religious experience usually make the list.  Other possibilities – and put them in the category you like – include travel, being fired, losing a parent, finding love, psychoanalysis, and the Red Sox winning the World Series.  It’s rare that anyone will say, “I know, it was that Ethics course I took.”  Sure, people will say education, and if your education hasn’t left any visible mark on you it’s either because you weren’t paying attention (“that was quite a party, 2002-2006”), took the wrong courses, or went to the wrong place. But one single ethics course in the midst of everything else, detached from life, crammed with funny words (“utilitarianism”) and weird ideas (“always act such that the maxim behind your act could be willed as universal law”), well, who’s to say how much impact it had.  I mean, it’s not like you didn’t have morals walking into the class.

Or did you?  If you were headed for a degree in business, people weren’t so sure.  And the last ten years (Enron to Wall St. and everyone in between – too long a list for this space, but you know them anyway) has made everyone even less sure.  So unsure that ethics courses are being proposed, put forward and promulgating like mushrooms in a cool, very dark place.  Harvard Business School students (an impressive number of Harvard MBAs have been implicated in recent debacles) have even written their own ethics code, promising to be good stewards first, profiteers second.  I’m trying not to be cynical, as I’d love to see Harvard take the high ground, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from 30% drops in our 401ks based on financial “services” even they didn’t understand, but I have doubts.  What will these ethics courses do that will, this time and finally, put a stop to all the shenanigans and, you know, greed and stuff?  Will they take off the philosophical kid gloves, instead offer a white-collar version of “Scared Straight”?  Bring in some of the (proliferating) consulting firms that counsel white-collar types on how to survive prison life?  Dispense with the thinking-for-yourself models and simply tell people raised in an age of relativism what’s right, what’s wrong, and yes, there will be a quiz?  Replace ethics professors, a notoriously debauched bunch, with saints?  Make the budding business superstars feel, at least, a little guilty?

This question is not academic to me.  Or rather, it is wholly academic to me since I am, uh, an academic who teaches ethics.  Business ethics.  And the Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Business Schools (aacsb), the accrediting body for business schools nationally and internationally, wants to see a little movement on this ethics business.  I get the impression they’re not alone, that the public wouldn’t mind reestablishing some trust as well.  Hard to say what will be effective.  But in Part Two we’ll offer some suggestions for universities and businesses alike who are wrestling with the question of how and where ethics education fits.

- Michael DeWilde

 

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