A Business Ethical Bridge Too Far?

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.

6 thoughts on “A Business Ethical Bridge Too Far?

  1. Everyone operates on some moral basis whether they are aware of it or not. There are things we just know; our gut instincts tell us what is right and wrong. These are things we learn very early in life often without being aware we are learning them. They come from the example of our parents and other influential people around us. Often these values are simply developed as a way to get along in society and then internalized as “right” and “wrong”. Good behavior is what pleases others in the group. Such rules maintain group authority and social order. (See the writings of Lawrence Kohlberg for his Theory of Moral Development.)I think one of the best things a person can get out of an introductory course on ethics is a realization of what their own morals are; making their implicit value judgments explicit. Sometimes this process causes students to recognize inconsistencies or conflicting values, but mostly it just helps them see why their gut is telling them one decision is better than another. In economics much is made of Rational Man, or the so-called Homo economicus, who makes choices based on his self-interested, utility-maximizing function. This can lead some business students to conclude maximizing personal utility is the only driving force in the decision making process (or to think economists believe it is). In truth we all make utility maximizing decisions WITHIN the confines of our personal value system. Even though our morals play a much larger role in our decision making process than utility, because they are largely subconscious we are typically unaware of their impact. (Economists ARE aware of this but because value functions are unique to each individual they are impossible to model and are therefore set aside, along with other immeasurables, in a process known as ceteris paribus—to hold all other things [including morals] constant.)It is debatable whether we can change our moral values. Many social scientists believe these values are established quite early and are deeply rooted in our world view. But even if we cannot change our morals we can acknowledge them and recognize when we are making decisions based on values to which other people may not subscribe.Knowing moral values differ between cultures and within cultures between individuals can allow us to recognize that what may feel right to us does not necessarily feel right to all people. To have an understanding that other people’s value system is also logical and of how it makes sense to them, even if we don’t feel the same, is a valuable tool for cultural understanding.


  2. Thanks Buck – some great insights – particularly the note about the most important value is learning to recognize one's own prejudices and values in making 'ethical' decisions. I will consider how to build some more exercises into the course that force students to face that. I still struggle with how much ethical theory to bring into the class. By the way – I think we can change our values – many of mine have changed and evolved as I've gotten older and more experienced. But there are some fundamentals that haven't changed – and knowing what these are is probably part of the self knowledge that you speak of. THanks again. Bob


  3. If we consider ethical development/progression/evolution as a journey of introspection and reflection throughout one's life that may or may not end with enlightenment or nirvana then it stands to reason that all of us will be at different points along this path at any given time. Some people want to struggle with ethical issues because they have a drive that goes beyond the cliche of just wanting to be a better person. Others haven't the foggiest idea of what ethics means and how it effects one's everyday life – from how we perceive the proper role of government and political philosophy to the way we raise our own children.My point is that one course in ethics will achieve different things for different folks based on where they're at on their journey. Some may walk away from your class having only found the path, others will advance only a few miles down the road, while a few will become true believers in the study of ethics. The course objective should be unique to the student in that it is relative to what the student brings to the class; how far are they down that path when they arrive? Whether they find the path or how far they walk down that path is the true measure of how much they've learned and how much you've taught them. A sophisticated course, such as yours, will appeal to all students in one way or another and help to advance them down the path.Just my $0.02.-Bob L.


  4. Simon or Bob – I can't tell which of you made the previous comment, but I think you have hit a very important point and there's a lot of wisdom in your perspective. I will use this insight in my course introduction. I'm planning on introducing a new book – Defining Moments: When Managers must choose between Right and Right by Joe Badaracco in my next course, and take out Gerald Cavanagh's text book on American Business Values. THanks Bob


  5. I took this course back with Cohort 6. At the time it was a bit overwhelming to dive into thousands of years of ethical theory. And I had a little background in it already. I even had one superior officer tell me that you can't teach ethics in one semester. I hope, at the time, I showed some interest in the class. It was certainly one of the challenging courses during my MSGL program. While I don't know if I understood everything in the course on the last day, this course had the most lasting effects. It affected me so much, I considered a career as a Philosophy Professor after the Navy. It is a tough field, but who knows where life will lead in the near future. While you can't reach everyone, you have to teach to those you can reach. And it worked on me. Thanks for the course.


  6. Hi Bob,It is my recommendation to keep all of the 502 course material as it is all highly relevant for a graduate level education. The key points that stand out as vital in differentiating ones intellectual capabilities compared to others are the ability to comprehend and respect the RIO,understanding the evil scale, Ethical Relativism, and understanding Friedman, Hinman, Donaldson, Cavanagh, Aristotle, Kant and one of my favorites, Rachels. It may be beneficial to add 10 minute contests in class to the curriculum to identify and explain a short paragraph as whether it is Utilitarian or Deontology……Also, spending time writing a one page paper and reviewing in class the RIO for a topic may increase awareness in this area. Being able to present an articulate RIO on the GMAT exam writing portion can make a difference whether a person is accepted into an MBA Program.Regards,Jerry Lang


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s