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?)

How to Make a Man Grow Up

I was recently surprised to discover that in the U.S., men are required by law to register for the “selective service system”.

Only men. I thought women were allowed in their military now.

And required. I didn’t think they had ‘the draft’ anymore.

When I expressed my surprise, hoping to engage someone in conversation, the guy in line behind me (I was in a U.S. post office, where the brochures reminding men of their duty were prominently displayed) says he agrees that it should be mandatory to serve for two years: it makes ‘em ‘grow up’.

Hm. How does teaching someone how to kill make a person grow up? That is, what’s mature about learning how to kill? What’s mature about actually killing?

Of course, it’s not just that. But what’s mature about not thinking or yourself, about being pressured to conform, to obey?

Sure, the forced routine, of physical exercise and psychological effort, might become a habit. And that’s a good thing. A grown up thing. But there are other, far better, ways to achieve that same result.

And sure, the presumed altruism—you’re serving their country, life’s not all about you—is good, mature. But again, is killing someone for others really the best example of altruism we can put before young men? Young men who need to grow up?

It seems to me the selective service system is a bad way to fix a bunch of other bad ways.

The question we have to ask is how do boys get to eighteen without growing up?

Snowmobiles Rule – Only in Canada. Pity.

Snowmobilers are often presented as enjoying the natural beauty of the North.  Oh please.  Not at the speeds they drive.  Not while their exhaust pipes spew fumes into our air.  And their engines roar at a volume that must be endured by everyone within five miles.  And their tossed beer cans litter the forest until someone comes by and picks up after them.

What snowmobiling is all about adolescent males going VROOM VROOM.

Which means that our government has handed over thousands of miles of crown land to a bunch of young men to use as their personal racetrack.  How fair is that?  And did they ask us first?

When a friend of mine contacted the MNR to ask about putting up signs at each end of a short trail through crown land that snowmobilers are using as a short cut to get to their trail and, in the process, making it dangerous (not to mention extremely unpleasant because of the fumes and the noise) for the rest of us to use (for walking and cross-country skiing), she was told No, they can’t put up signs prohibiting snowmobilers from using it because everyone has access to crown land.  Right.  Then why do the signs on the snowmobile club trails say ‘No Trespassing – You must have a permit to use this trail’?

Why has the government done this?  Because they’re adolescent males themselves.  Who still want to go VROOM VROOM.

And because local businesses asked them to, because they want to make money from the snowmobilers.

Snowmobilers are a minority.  Local business owners are a minority.  Why do they get to determine policy and practice?  Policy and practice that affects other people?

When snowmobilers (and ATVers and dirtbikers – essentially, all motorized ‘recreational’ vehicles) use crown land the way they want, no one else can use it the way they want.  Consider the trails, mentioned above, unsafe and unpleasant now for hikers and skiers.  Consider the lake we all live on.  In winter (and in summer too – jetskis, another motorized recreational vehicle), our properties may as well be backing on, well, a racetrack.  (So much for sitting outside and – well, so much for sitting outside.  Not to mention canoeing or kayaking.)  Consider all the backroads we live on, the ones without sidewalks.  It’s nice that we can hear a snowmobile coming from miles away so we have time to get off the road, but it’s not enough to get off to the side (assuming that’s not where we already are), because that’s where the snowmobiles drive.  It’s not even enough to get off the road and up onto the snowbank, because they like to ride the banks.  You have to climb up and over the snowbanks to be safe.  In some countries, pedestrians have the right of way.  In Canada, gas-guzzling, fume-spewing, noise-farting, male-driven snowmobiles do.

Making Certain Words Illegal

Hate speech.  Libel.  Slander.  Threat.  Intimidation.  Blasphemy.

‘Making words illegal violates our freedom of speech!’  Of course it does.  But that freedom, like many others, isn’t absolute.  Our freedoms are limited freedoms.  They are limited by several things (Joel Feinberg identifies six liberty-limiting principles), one of which is the harm principle.  That is, when our action harms another person or society in general, it is limited.  It is illegal.

‘But speech isn’t an action.  I didn’t do anything.  I just said – ’  Saying is doing.  Words are speech acts.  They are acts of speech.  And anyway, if the result is the same, does the method really matter?

‘Yeah but the result isn’t the same.  Words can’t hurt you.’  Well, not physically, no.  But they can cause psychological injury.[1]  And there’s the heart of the matter: should we make causing psychological injury illegal?

Actually, that’s not the heart of the matter.  Yes, we should, and we do.  The crime of torture includes acts which inflict severe mental pain or suffering (CCC 269.1[1]).

The heart of the matter is 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 »

Political Science – A Costly Misnomer

Science is the pursuit of knowledge according to the scientific method: hypotheses must be testable, and results must be verifiable by replication.  Obviously, the more quantifiable something is, the more accurate and precise its measurement can be, and the more accurate and precise something is, the more testable and verifiable it is – it’s hard to test and then verify an uncertain or vague something-or-other.  So the definition of science really comes down to quantification.  Well, that and matter – only material things can be quantified.

Political science is the study of government organization and political systems.  These things are not quantifiable.  It would seem, then, that political science should have been named political art. 

So?  Well, one, Read the rest of this entry »