The Problem with Business Ethics Courses

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.

Telling our Members of Parliament How to Dress

So I recently found this on the Parliament of Canada website:

While there is no Standing Order setting down a dress code for Members participating in debate, [84]  Speakers have ruled that to be recognized to speak in debate, on points of order or during Question Period, tradition and practice require all Members, male or female, to dress in contemporary business attire. [85]  The contemporary practice and unwritten rule require, therefore, that male Members wear a jacket, shirt and tie as standard dress. Clerical collars have been allowed, although ascots and turtlenecks have been ruled inappropriate for male Members participating in debate. [86]  The Chair has even stated that wearing a kilt is permissible on certain occasions (for example, Robert Burns Day). [87]  Members of the House who are in the armed forces have been permitted to wear their uniforms in the House. [88]

What could possibly justify this Speakers’ rule?

Could it be that our Members of Parliament can’t dress themselves?  The people we’ve voted into positions of power? Doubtful.  They’re adults.  Many of them even have a university degree.  (Okay, I know …)

Could it be somebody in a higher position of power is prioritizing appearance over reality?  What you look like is more important than what you are like.  That bodes well for, well, the world.

Could it be someone in a higher position of power is making a series of non sequiturs from clothing to behaviour and character?  If you wear a business suit, you must be honest, hard-working, mature – respectable.  Say what?

It is certainly that someone in a higher position of power is appealing to tradition and practice.  Philosophers rightly consider that fallacious reasoning.  Just because we’ve always done it that way, just because we do it that way, doesn’t mean we should.

And the other thing to note?  There’s no mention of what exactly female members must wear.  Because there’s no standard business attire for women?  No, that can’t be right.  To judge by the Speakers’ own criteria, tradition and practice, it is standard for women to wear shoes with high heels (that will be uncomfortable for standing, difficult for walking, and eventually cause postural pain), to wear a skirt or dress (that will ensure their legs are showing, because – men want to see women’s legs at all times?), and at the very least to not wear a jacket, shirt, and tie – because we MUST MUST MUST enforce the gender norms.  Our patriarchy depends on it.

(Oh, one other thing to note: “..male Members wear a jacket, shirt and tie” – what, no trousers?)

Blood & Oil

[since I’m at it — posting about tv that happened oh, a year ago…see June 1 post]

About a year ago, the weather reports became dramatic.  Forecasters started talking about “extreme weather events” with voices and gestures that rivalled sports game commentary, making droughts, wildfires, floods, tornados, and high temperatures all so—exciting.  My god, I realized one day with horror, they’re making the evidence of our imminent death into entertainment.

There was no mention of short-term, let alone long-term, implications for things like, oh, food and water…  There was no mention of why our weather is changing.  No mention of who’s to blame.  (The oil industry for providing the supply, and not telling people about the consequences of use.  The media for agreeing to censorship on that point [whenever any public interest group tries to put out an advertisement informing us, the media refuses to sell them airtime].  And most Americans and Canadians for allowing their worldview to be formed by forementioned censored media.)

I imagined the world actually ending as people continued mainlining television, utterly oblivious.  And that was bad enough.

Then I saw the trailers for the new tv series, Blood & Oil.  Oh    my    god.

They’re making oil sexy.  They’ve got Don Johnson, they’ve got two bare-backed supermodel female bodies, they’ve got a phallic fire-gushing oil rig.  They’re making it exciting (at least to the male brain), what with the sex, the fire, and the blood.

Why?  Why have the oil companies commissioned a tv series that makes oil sexy and exciting?

Do they think too many of us are limiting our fossil fuel use?  Carpooling?  Reducing air travel?  Turning down the heat during these colder winters? Not turning on the air conditioning during these hotter summers?  (Like residential resource use comes anywhere close to the unbridled industrial use…)  (Just for example, it takes 4.3 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from tar sands mining, and once the water’s used, it’s radioactive, toxic, pretty much useless.)

This is decade zero.  We’re halfway through.  Decade zero.  And we’ve already pretty much eliminated the possibility of staying under two degrees.  Given what we’ve already done, we’re certain to reach 1.5 degrees.  Certain.  Cause and effect.  It’s a done deal.  (To stay under two degrees, we need to limit our carbon dioxide concentration to 450ppm.  We hit 400 ppm in 2013.  And we’re adding 2-3 ppm every year.  Do the math.)

So what’s the point, now, of encouraging us to maintain, even to increase our use of fossil fuels?

Are they trying to distract us, play a little pretty music on our way to the gas chambers?  (No, that’s the least plausible explanation.  They clearly don’t care about us.  And there is no need for oil in that pretty little music.)

Do they really not know they’ve already guaranteed the end of the world as we know it?  (According to Naomi Klein’s research, if we don’t get our emissions under control by 2017, “our fossil fuel economy will ‘lock-in’ extremely dangerous warming” [This Changes Everything, p.23].)  (And “under control” means leaving 80% of the claimed oil where it is.  Underground.)

Are they trying to hasten our death?  Move the predicted date of extinction from 2100 (we’ll be at five degrees by then) to 2050? (Watch the insurance companies.  Watch what riders, exclusions, they start attaching to our policies.  Refusing to insure for damages and injuries resulting from nuclear accidents will be the least of it.)

Are they trying to rush the return on their investment so they can buy one more company before we all die?  Guarantee their ticket to ride on the shuttle to the new world—on Mars?

Have they forgotten that the free trade agreements they paid our governments to sign guarantee that their profits trump the planet?   (Never mind that the $775 billion in subsidies that they’ve received from taxpayers make their profits ours.)

Or are they trying to minimize the likelihood that someone, someone, will eventually go all vigilante for justice and target them with a semi-automatic.

Or did Hollywood come up with the idea all on its own?  Could they really not know what they’re doing?  (Just like they don’t know they have single-handedly desensitized millions of people to violence, to harm, injury, pain, death.)  (Ah.)

Given the facts, Blood & Oil is the equivalent of making heroin or the plague exciting.  And making vomit and pus sexy.

No Advertising in Public Space

I once read a sci fi novel in which holographic ads suddenly appeared in front of you, ‘blocking’ your way, almost continuously, as you made your way down a city street. It made me imagine people paid by perfume companies wandering through the streets assailing me with sample sprays…

I am a strong advocate of prohibiting all advertising in public spaces. There is no justification for the desires of one person, let alone the desire of one person for money, to be imposed on everyone. Furthermore, there are enough alternative venues for advertising (radio, tv, newspapers, magazines, websites, malls), all of which, unlike, often, public space, can be used or not (especially as long as there are advertising-free radio, tv, magazine, and website options), making the use of public space is simply unnecessary.

We should be able to go about our lives without the constant assault on the senses, on the mind, that is advertising. Of course this is an argument made by someone who notices ads, who pays attention to her environment, who thinks about what she sees. For most people, ads are not such an assault, because they’re unconsciously perceived. But then they’re even more coercive, subliminally manipulative, and even more indefensible in public space.

Advertising is not only cognitively coercive, but physically dangerous when it appears on roadsides, especially in animated form, which shameless tries to take drivers’ attention off the road. Would we allow drivers to watch tv, similarly visual content with moving images, while they drive?

An additional argument applies to natural environment public space (forest, field, lake, ocean) which is, to my mind, beautiful (or at least more beautiful than city). In this case, there is the added transgression of the destruction of beauty. It was a sad, sad day when advertising was allowed along the perimeter of the rink and even on the ice during figure skating performances. Years to achieve the perfect lines, sullied by persisting, in-your-face, BUY-MY-SHIT signs we can’t help but see while we try to focus on the beauty. (And it’s not like the sign enhances the beauty. It’s not like the sign itself is remotely beautiful.)

Would those of us who can hear allow a deaf person to make a clamour with cymbals all day long? Then why do we allow aesthetically-challenged CEOs to do the same? Why do we allow our natural beauty to be degraded, destroyed, piece by piece, by those who are, obviously, blind to its beauty? Is it because we don’t recognize the beauty or because we don’t value it (or, at least, don’t value it over the individual pursuit of money). (Seriously? Do we really believe that an individual’s desire for money trumps so much?) (Well, no, the people with the power to make regulations believe that. And they are as aesthetically-challenged. And often CEOs.)

 

Have you noticed the way the weather is being reported lately?

Have you noticed the way the weather is being reported lately?  Climate change, specifically global warming, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in severe storms and the decrease in polar ice…they’re making it entertaining.  Entertaining, for gawdsake.

Commentators refer to “extreme storms” — making them sound all exciting and daring, like “extreme sports”.

Another opens with “this week’s wildest weather” as if we’re on a fun safari.

And there’s a video called “Force of Nature – Uncut”.  Again, exciting entertainment.

“Will any records be broken?” the commentator asks, the phrasing suggesting that, like athletic competitions, breaking a record will be a good thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Canada Day – Are you sure you want to celebrate?

Before you get all patriotic and fly your little Canadian flags in celebration of Canada Day and, presumably, of being Canadian, think about it. Are you really proud to be: Read the rest of this entry »

Air Bands and Power Point

I still remember the feeling I had when I saw my first air band performance. It was a sick kind of feeling.

I hadn’t known what an air band was. The announcement came over the p.a. at my school-for-the-day, and I dutifully shepherded the class to the gym. Then I watched, incredulous, as group after group of high school students came on stage and pretended to play their favourite songs. I mumbled a query to the teacher standing next to me. Apparently this air band stuff was quite big. Students spent weeks practising. They really wanted to get it right. ‘It’ being the appearance, the pretence. Read the rest of this entry »

The Futility of Teaching Business Ethics or Why Our World Will End

There are four reasons why teaching ethics to business students is an exercise in futility.

1. The profit motive trumps everything. As long as this is the case, there’s no point in teaching students the intricacies of determining right and wrong. Whether something is morally acceptable or not is simply irrelevant to them. It might come into play when two options yield the same profit, but how often does that happen? And even so, other concerns are likely to be tie-breakers. Read the rest of this entry »

Ethics without Philosophers

Could someone without a business degree become a marketing consultant?  Then how is it that people without philosophy degrees are becoming ethics consultants? [1]  Is it that people don’t know that Ethics is a branch of Philosophy just as Marketing is a branch of Business?  Doubtful.  Is it just the typical male overstatement of one’s expertise? [2]  Perhaps.  Is it that people think they already know right from wrong, they learned it as children, there’s really no need for any formal training in ethics?  Possible.  I have certainly met that attitude in business ethics classes and ethics committees. [3]  Or is it that ethics consultants (advisors, officers, practitioners, and so on) don’t really act as consultants about ethics?  They act as consultants about managing ethical behavior.  No, not even that.  Ethical consultants, practitioners, officers, focus on how to increase the likelihood that employees will follow some specific professional code of ethics or, more likely, the ethical rules the company’s elite want them to follow. [4] [5]

As far as I can see, business ethics taught by business faculty, ethics programs run by managers, and so on    any applied ethics taught by non-philosophers    is superficial at best.  [6] First, following a code if just an appeal to custom, an appeal to tradition, which philosophers consider a weak basis, even an actual error in reasoning: just because it’s common to do it that way, doesn’t mean it’s right; just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s right. 

Second, legal moralism is prevalent: if it’s legal, it’s right, and if it’s not illegal, it’s not wrong.  Few philosophers (and I daresay few intelligent people) accept this equivalence of moral rightness and legality.  After all, slavery was once legal, and even at that time many considered it wrong and had excellent arguments to support their position (which is, to some extent, why the law changed    ethics should determine law, not the other way around).

Third, the so-called ‘media test’ and ‘gut test’ are essentially nothing but appeals to intuition, which is nothing more than childhood conditioning that makes us say X ‘feels’ wrong.  I think it far better to approach ethical issues with thought, to consider the many rational approaches to making decisions about right and wrong, such as an appraisal of values, principles, consequences, and so on. Read the rest of this entry »

People Skills

I’ve always been rather proud of not having any ‘people skills’.  Of not being able to ‘talk to people’, smooth things over, talk them out of their way of seeing things, talk them over to my way, persuade, influence, manipulate, control.  No wonder supervisors, salespeople, and customer relations people need good people skills.  And no wonder I resent them: I’ve always been the subordinate, the consumer, the customer – I’m the one the people skills are used on.

Of course, subordinates are expected to have good people skills too, but what’s meant then is the ability to get along, follow, fold, obey.  And, well, as I said, I’m not very good at that.

But no, no, I’m told, you’ve got it all wrong. Read the rest of this entry »