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4 Challenges of ‘Teaching’ Business Ethics

The perpetual drone of news stories describing corporate scandals has lead to criticisms that business schools aren’t doing enough to teach ethics. This criticism is not surprising when you look at the self-interested microeconomic decision-making models we teach based on the rational choice tautology of marginal costs and marginal benefits. Yet, ultimately business is not physics. It cannot be explained with mechanical-mathematical models alone. Business is a social science that includes the values/ethics of individuals in the decision-making process and the actions businesses take. To teach ethics we have to know how these individual values are formed. However, reviewing the theories of value formation leads to one significant concern for those who wish to include ethics education in the business curriculum: Can ethics be ‘taught’ or only ‘learned’?

Challenge 1: Inherent Values and Cognition

The Kohlbergian perspective of values development suggests we have certain inherent values that develop with age. Unfortunately this development happens at a very early age and is largely dependent on, and limited by, the individual’s inherent cognitive ability to self-construct categories of ethics (like justice, duty, rights, and social order) and to determine which concepts of ethics are more developed (and therefore better) than others. Kohlberg’s individuals would infrequently be able to reach the level of a highly ethical person and would be more concerned with the macro-ethical formal structure of society (laws, roles, institutions, and general practices) than with treating individuals well and being empathetic. Ethical development would be more of an intrinsic process and not necessarily influenced directly (but perhaps indirectly) by others. In other words it is ‘learned’, but not necessarily ‘taught’.

Challenge 2: Unconscious Schemas

The Neo-Kohlbergian school asserts that most individuals don’t engage in abstract, philosophical thought prior to making a decision. Instead they automatically develop “schemas” that exist in the individual’s head or long team memory and are presumed to structure and guide an individual’s ethical thinking. These schemas are learned and developed over time, but through a largely unconscious process. The good news is others can influence these schemas, but not necessarily consciously.

Challenge 3: Selective Learning

Social learning theory provides more hope that business ethics can be taught. In this theory of values development we learn by observing role models throughout life and use conscious, cognitive processes to determine the values we adopt. The challenge, however, is that observational learning results in selectively and conditionally manifesting the characteristics of the model. In other words, if a university ethics professor is attempting to model ethical behavior through his or her lessons, students will sort through the information and determine which ethical characteristics (if any) they will adopt.

Challenge 4: It’s Voluntary

The problem is we can teach ethics, ethical decision-making, and ethical leadership, but we cannot force learning. Learning ethics under all three theories (and engaging in ethical behavior) has a significant voluntary component. Social learning theory provides the greatest evidence that ethical development is a conscious and ongoing process; yet individuals selectively and conditionally choose the characteristics of the model they wish to adopt, they do not simply parrot ethical behavior. Through the attentional process they determine what information they will pay attention to and extract, whether from role models or professors. An individual might actually choose to adopt the less ethical characteristics of one model rather than higher-level ethics being exhibited by a second model. Self-produced motivational processes are impacted by existing values and previous values formation. These preexisting values can also impact how an individual will transfer observations into ethical rules. In other words, while we can teach, previous learning will impact what an individual pays attention to, adopts, and utilizes. An individual’s existing schemas, learned values, and biases are always present and processing the information being taught to them.

A Final Thought

Teaching ethics is a lot more challenging than simply adding an ethics class to business programs. To ‘teach’ ethics is not enough. We need to convince business people as well as business students, it is in their best interest to learn and execute ethical practices. This happens by holding individuals and companies who engage in unethical practices accountable. The consequences should be so unpleasant that individuals want to learn to do business the right way. If business is a social science, then society must take some responsibility.

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