The problem with business ethics courses is that all too often they’re taught by business faculty. And ethics is, after all, a field of philosophy. And with all due respect to my business colleagues, philosophy faculty are far better qualified to teach ethics than business faculty.
As far as I can see, business ethics when taught by business faculty is superficial at best. The so-called ‘media test’ and ‘gut test’ are in essence nothing but appeals to intuition and childhood conditioning. I think it far better to teach the many rational approaches to ethical decision-making which consider consequences, rights, values, and so on.
A further weakness of business ethics when taught by business faculty (and medical ethics when taught by medical faculty, and so on) is that what takes place is preaching, not teaching. The course is essentially ‘This is the right thing to do’ or ‘Do this in this situation’ – what is taught is simply the current conventions, standard practices, and/or legal obligations. Far better, I think, that a critical thinking approach be used: provide students with a toolbox of approaches so they can figure out what to do for themselves (after all, they are responsible for the decisions they make).*
Unfortunately, philosophy’s disdain for business is matched only by business’ disdain for philosophy. So even when a philosopher does teach a business ethics course, it is unnecessarily difficult and sadly unsuccessful. Students can be quite hostile when things they have been taught as fact (such as ‘The purpose of business is to maximize profit’ or ‘As long as it’s legal, it’s okay’) are challenged. They take it personally and spend a lot of time trying to win – and so miss much of the course. But that’s what philosophers do: we challenge the assumptions that arguments are based on.
And we insist opinions be based on arguments! Clear and logically sound arguments no less! That’s a lot of work! Students are especially hostile when a lot of work is required for what is, after all, ‘a bird course’! If the student is used to knowledge and comprehension courses, then teaching ethics, requiring arguments to support opinions, is doubly difficult. (And business students have led me to believe that the kind of critical and abstract thinking required in these ethics courses is significantly different from anything they’ve had to do before – which is worrisome because this kind of thinking, at a much more advanced level, is required for the Reading Comprehension and Logical Reasoning sections of the GMAT.) (Of course, that’s the least of the reasons why this is worrisome.)
And in ethics in particular, we navigate through grey: there is no right answer; there are only degrees of right. Students resist this, they stand on the sidelines, never really getting the value of the course. They are far more comfortable with the black and white they seem to be taught in their other courses.
And sad to say, though I was a philosopher teaching business ethics, one day I was informed that I would not be asked to teach ethics again. (Well actually I wasn’t really informed – talk about the need for ethics: if it weren’t for the phone call of an administrative assistant acting on her own initiative, I probably would’ve found out I was ‘fired’ by seeing an ad for an ethics instructor in the paper….) Why? I asked the Dean for confirmation and an explanation. Student evaluations have been “mixed”, he said. True enough. In any ethics class, there is a handful, usually the less mature and less academically apt, who react with the hostility and resistance described above. And there are others who nominate me for an Excellence in Teaching Award.
It’s quite possible, though, the ad won’t appear. It’s quite possible the course will simply not be offered anymore. Such was the fate of the IT Ethics course I also taught for a couple years. As it is, the business ethics course was offered only every second year, as an elective, sending a message of unimportance that also makes the course so difficult to teach successfully (after all, since business is profit-driven, ethics is irrelevant, and anyway, everyone already knows right from wrong).
* These weaknesses, by the way, are horribly magnified in business ethics practitioners (consultants, officers, and the like). To my knowledge, most have no training in philosophy/ethics at all! And that’s considered okay! Would you accept an accounting consultant who had no training in accounting? After all, anyone can add and subtract (just as everyone knows right from wrong). Ethics practitioners are either legal people or management/human resources people and so their approach to an ethical issue is either ‘Comply with the legislation’ or ‘Comply with the company’ (but in either case, remember that bottom line). Articles on ethical issues that get published in business magazines (as opposed to those that get published in ethics journals) are, frankly, embarrassing in their lack of depth; business codes of ethics are laughable for their simplicity, their naiveté….)
Postscript: Since this piece was written, a business graduate has been elected president of a country.