A Business Ethical Bridge Too Far?
November 8, 2009 § 6 Comments
I am struggling with how best to teach my Business ethics course in the Master of Science in Global Leadership program. I find ethics fascinating – the struggle over the nuances of principle, of choosing between conflicting principles, the weighing of potential good consequences against complying with principle, and applying critical thinking to complex decisions involving human values. I also find fascinating the interplay between culture and ethical values, and how people from very different cultures and backgrounds struggle to find common ground for ethical decision making. Yet I’m finding that many people DO NOT find these topics as fascinating as I do.
I’m finding that a majority of my students are of a very practical mindset. These are good, intelligent, hard working, and moral people, who want to make themselves better, who want to succeed in their lives AND serve their communities. Most students have chosen to study for a graduate degree in business in order to acquire skills and knowledge which they hope they can apply to problem solving relevant to their lives. In other words, they want a good, practical business education. They frequently struggle to see where philosophical ethics fits into that objective.
I sometimes think that we (I and my teaching partner) may be trying to do too much in the course we teach. We introduce our students to the foundations of Western ethical thinking (principle or duty based thinking, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), we introduce them to the fundamentals of the debate regarding the ethical responsibilities of business in society (free market capitalism and corporate social responsibility,) and we introduce them to the role of culture in shaping business values. We ask them to apply all of this in analyzing case studies in which multi-national corporations confront difficult dilemmas in doing business in countries with very different histories, cultures, and political-economic structures. Our students with the strongest undergraduate backgrounds, and who have the greatest aptitude for dealing with issues that have no clear answers, love it, thrive and do well. However many seem to finish the course at least somewhat overwhelmed and confused, with their most important take-away being: “Right and Wrong are not as simple as I thought. There are a number of factors that must be considered, and good people can disagree.” Sometimes I think this may be a sufficient take-away; other times I’m not so sure.
I recently met with some of my colleagues who also teach ethics and we discussed whether and to what degree philosophical ethical theory should be included in applied ethics courses. I was surprised to learn that several had come to the conclusion that theory should not be taught up front (as we do in our course) but should emerge after looking at practical cases. In other words, they argue that the fundamentals of theory should be distilled out of struggling with real cases. I have another friend who begins her ethics class with the WIIFM principle – What’s In It For Me? – knowing that this is an explicit or implicit question that practical students always ask. Not only what is it to be ethical, but why be ethical? Indeed this is the fundamental question that underpins Aristotle’s virtue ethics. She tells me that she believes her approach resonates well with her students, that it is effective in helping them to see the ethical issues and make good decisions, and she barely touches ethical theory.
One of my mentors outlined 5 sequential steps that he believed lead to the development of ethical thinking and action: First, ethical awareness, second ethical reasoning, third ethical decision making and action, fourth ethical responsibility, and fifth achieving ethical results (in other words, good consequences, which we all want.)
I wonder whether the minimum objective of an introductory business ethics course should simply be developing ethical awareness. If so, then our goal would be to AT LEAST enhance students’ critical thinking skills to the point that they recognize that there are ethical issues associated with many business decisions. My IDEAL would be that students also develop some of their ethical reasoning skills to where they are able to apply them to dilemmas in international business cases, are able to make better and informed decisions, and are better able to understand and take responsibility for their decisions. Is this a bridge too far?
Being a ‘good person’ and having good intentions usually aren’t enough to help one understand and deal with the complex confluence of cultural values with the demands, rights, and perceived entitlements of a large number of stakeholders in a business decision. Awareness of the ethical implications of many business decisions, and the critical thinking required to dissect ethical dilemmas into various components and perspectives, are indeed ‘skills’ that DO have utility in the business world. These ‘skills’ can help a business leader to navigate tricky waters to achieve better outcomes, avoid doing unnecessary harm, and perhaps, even stay out of jail.
I am beginning to believe that we spend too much time on ethical theory, or at least more than necessary to meet reasonable objectives in our short, introductory course. I’m thinking we should spend less time on theory, and more time on critical thinking, and seek primarily to develop and refine the practical analytical ability to identify the ethical issues associated with business decisions in the global market. Is it a ‘bridge too far’ in an introductory course in business ethics to ask students to rationally and effectively apply ethical theory to complex business issues, and then justify and assume responsibility for their decisions? I don’t know. That IS a lot.
And I still wonder to what extent ethical theory important is useful in an introductory course on ethics for global business. I continue to struggle with how best to teach this course to make it work well for most students, not just the few who already have an aptitude for critical thinking about values.