Real Ethics Education

Jason Fertig

It takes a real “enlightened” individual to think that students’ ethical behavior can be dramatically influenced by a single ethics course. An ethical framework is created through religion, family values, peer groups, in addition to studying great works like the Bible, Aristotle’s Ethics, or recent works by Milton Friedman or Peter Drucker which question the nature of “Business” Ethics. If a single college course is going to influence students’ behavior at all, this course has to force students to evaluate gray areas that they presently encounter in the micro.

Every time a major business-related crisis strikes (e.g. Enron’s implosion, the housing market unraveling, BP’s oil spill, etc.), business schools are pushed to educate students to ensure that such calamities never occur again. The push to create more responsible managerial decision-making has lead to the addition of mandatory business ethics courses in the undergraduate business core and to the inclusion of ethical decision-making in all business textbooks ranging from accounting to marketing.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with the increased focus on ethics. However, in practice, the standard business ethics courses focus on academic theories, corporate scandals and politicized sustainability. Students in these ethics courses are given an academic framework for ethical decision-making – such as Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – and then they are taken on a journey through various crimes committed by corporations over the years and the assortment of ways that different organizations do their part to “save the environment.” Ultimately, the take-home message is that ethics means live sustainably and don’t do anything that can get you raided by the FBI. 

This approach to ethics education addresses ethical behavior at a level that is disconnected from the average undergraduate student’s daily life decisions. The sustainability approach to ethics may even lead to adverse results. Earlier this year, for example, the Guardian cited a study which provided evidence that “green” consumers are more likely to cheat or steal than conventional consumers. 

Even for MBA courses, reading The Smartest Guys in the Room will not prevent the next Enron. While graduate students are likely making more managerial decisions than the average undergraduate, teaching ethics using large scale deviant corporate behavior normally only produces socially desirable head nodding.

Thus, I advocate having ethics courses require students to clarify their framework for right and wrong in everyday life, with the aim of having that framework transfer into their decision-making elsewhere.

Consider the following two questions I have used in management courses as written assignments or as class discussions in seminars.

“If you have illegally downloaded digital media files on your personal computer, why don’t you delete them if you know they violate copyright law?”

When I ask this question to a classroom, it is usually met with giggling or smirking. Repeating the question, “do you realize that most of you are violating copyright law?” is usually followed with the expected nods of indifference. When I repeat my question asking which students are now going to delete their media because they have just admitted to breaking the law, the question is met with a silent “nay.”

Having established their indifference to illegal actions, I ask ,“How do I know that you won’t make unethical decisions at work, knowing that you do not blow the whistle on yourself with the downloading issue?” The initial response is normally, “but those are two different things.” 

This dialogue can lead to a fruitful discussion that forces students to think about whether it is better to justify why they downloaded the content or to show that the temptation to acquire free music and movies was there, but the student decided against it on moral grounds. Another good follow-up discussion is whether there are “sinful” actions that would not be a red flag for future ethical breaches.

“What are your rights and responsibilities as a customer in a store?”

I like this question because it is a prototype for an issue that appears purely legal (don’t steal), but it also has moral factors that are rarely considered.

I first learned of this issue on Dennis Prager’s radio program, and I was happy to see that he now has a YouTube video on it as well. Is it unethical for a shopper to get a full product education from a retail store employee, then leave the store and purchase the product cheaper online? Is there such a practice as stealing the time of an employee or store?

As a person who spends much of my time in bookstore coffee shops (in fact, I am writing this now at my local Borders with Seattle’s Best in hand), I am fascinated at how the patrons of bookstores treat the merchandise like library books. A visitor to a bookstore is likely to find other people throughout the store reading books for lengthy periods of time and returning the books to the shelves.  To be fair, there certainly are patrons who are previewing a book to see if it is worth buying, but those people do not appear to be in the majority. The practice is even more egregious with the magazines, if the stacks left on window sills or trash receptacles are any indicators. 

I urge students to convince me whether these consumer behaviors signal potential unethical behavior at later times. Similar to the downloading issue, who would make the better executive, a person who respects the merchandise at a bookstore (or at least buys a coffee when spending considerable time at the store) or one that tries to justify reading GQ cover-to-cover in the store, when there is a copy at the local library that is available for free use?

Some additional potential topics for classroom use are buying clothes, wearing them once to a function, and returning them; or buying an identical product to replace a broken one, then returning the broken product to the store in the new box.

My objective is to convey that ethical decision-making is deeper than having the right stance on political issues. It is about knowing how to battle your own flaws – knowing when to blow that whistle on yourself when no one else will. No teaching method is ideal, as later life decisions rest on a multitude of variables. However, if the bulk of discussions are somewhat personal to students, there is a greater chance of influencing their behavior (in addition to having a more engaged classroom).

Ultimately, who would you rather have run your company: a person who means well but practices moral relativism or one who takes a stance against illegal downloading and respects the businesses where he shops?

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