In my Ph.D. program I discovered I had a great passion for teaching ethics in a business context, partially due to my mentor and former Western president, Harvey Bunke. When I came to Western and began teaching, I discovered this passion translated into a goal of giving students the best possible education in business ethics. I have thus been led to pursue two distinct roads to reach that goal. One road includes the development and alteration of business ethics coursework. The other road includes efforts to integrate discussions of ethical issues in business across the business curriculum. I believe both roads contain lessons for those seeking the same goal.
My original assignment at Western was to teach Management 482, Business and its Environment. I taught that course with little reference to ethics as a philosophical discipline, because in my view social ethics and political philosophy are tightly related. Personal ethics is a different subject, however, and I believe business students need a good introduction to the social and political environment in which they are to operate after graduation. However, that approach left a hole in what I believe they need to know—that hole being ethical theory and ethical decision making. Therefore, I developed Management 483, Ethics in Business Decisions, as a complementary course. Although I no longer teach either course because of my changing responsibilities, I do teach a module on ethics in the core of the MBA program and an elective course, MBA 527, that is equivalent to Management 483.
Fundamentally, to me, ethics is about making good decisions. The issue in ethics, the debate that has taken place for more than 2,000 years and shows no signs of resolution, is what "good" means. All moral theories take a stance on that issue, and most moral theories differ from each other on their stance. The problem I've run into in teaching moral theories is that, since they do differ from one another on what is "good," the students find the water they are staring at so muddy that they cannot see the beauty or goodness there. They get bogged down in the differences among theories, wonder about the flaws in each theory and what that means for its usefulness, and tend to move toward a practical subjectivism where any decision is acceptable.
This move is not good in any environment, but it is at once easier to make and more problematic in its implications in the business environment. That environment is more complex and more important, at least in a societal sense, than the social environment in which we make most of our decisions. A practical subjectivism may not be as harmful as it seems, as most students I've taught have had a moral base from their childhood to fall back on. However, it is far less desirable from my standpoint, that of a college-level teacher, than the outcome of giving students a solid moral toolkit with which to operate.
Success in science requires more than applying the quantitative elements of principles. As a science educator I strive to help students develop an understanding of the scientific process so they can think through a problem critically while interpreting data. Part of their preparation comes from practicing the quantitative aspects of a scientific concept. I make frequent use of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and statistics in my courses to develop and apply theories and for analyzing data. Students who master the quantitative principles and theories may do well professionally, but the most successful scientists are those who can also effectively communicate scientific information in writing.
What I've done—and this movement in some sense is still in progress—is to move from a focus on different moral theories to a focus on complementary moral considerations (the types of things that should be taken into account in making a moral decision). This is not as much a move away from theory as it is a move toward a broader discussion in which theory has its place.
Currently I focus on seven different considerations:
Through most of the course each individual class session focuses on one specific moral consideration. In both writing assignments and class discussion we focus on three subjects: the consideration's definition, situations where it seems relevant, and situations where it seems irrelevant. Theories fitting in to the consideration in question, such as utilitarianism under consequences, Kantian theory under principles, or virtue theory under character, are used as examples of using the consideration in decision making. The classes include conceptual discussions, where definitions are clarified and other questions answered, and case analyses showing the decision process using the consideration. For example, when discussing consequences, the case analysis focuses on how we assess and weigh consequences. When discussing character, the case analysis focuses on identifying important character traits. My objective in all these sessions is to clarify what the consideration means and how it fits into a person's moral toolkit along with the other considerations discussed in class.
At the end of the course, we complete a few more general case analyses, using a decision framework that includes all the considerations discussed during the quarter. In all case analyses I ask students to identify alternatives and choose the best according to the consideration in question. In the more general analyses at the end of the course, students identify alternatives and choose the best according to two criteria: whether an alternative responds positively to the most important consideration in this situation, and whether it also responds positively to other considerations or at least does not respond negatively to them. This allows them practice in making decisions using multiple considerations. I believe such practice is among the most important elements of any course in ethics.
Because the consideration of duties tends to be the most all-encompassing, it probably is the best one to discuss last. One can see a duty that pertains to any other consideration—for example, a duty to follow accepted moral principles or a specific moral principle like keeping promises, a duty to benefit others (consequences), or a duty to improve oneself (character). Duties tend to be the consideration students find most relevant, as well. In fact, the use of duties as an overarching framework, tying other considerations together, is a slight variant of the approach I'm taking, but a variant with merit.
The final paper is partially a self-reflection, in which students identify the considerations they believe are most important in general, and partially a general case analysis. In this analysis students follow the general format of the classroom case analyses, although the case is usually more complex than the ones used for class discussion.
This approach, as I have used it and compared with other methods of teaching ethics I have tried, seems more intuitive to the students. They tend not to get bogged down in specifics of the theories, instead asking about details of definitions and discussing relevance with more understanding of the subject. Their level of knowledge of and comfort with the topics seems to be higher.
Overall I would recommend it highly as a basis for discussion of ethical issues in any setting across the curriculum. Little theory needs to be taught. Instead, considerations can be defined without the extensive discussion we have but with a sufficient level of clarity for the students, and general case analyses can show the value of each consideration. Any specific case analysis need not occupy the entire class session, and a number of shorter case analyses can be used to illustrate a broad variety of situations within a discipline.
It is clear to me, as it is to most teachers of business ethics, that neither a stand-alone course in ethics nor integrating discussions of ethical issues across the curriculum are sufficient in themselves to help students make decisions in a moral context. What is needed to truly have "ethics across the curriculum" is both a stand-alone course and discussions throughout the rest of the curriculum.
In CBE we have a stand-alone ethics course. What we needed was discussion of ethical considerations in other courses. Unfortunately, getting these discussions accomplished is easier said than done. It is not that faculty are not interested in the topic. To the contrary, I have routinely found them genuinely interested in ethical issues in business.
Often, two related issues give them pause when considering the inclusion of discussion of ethical issues in their courses. One concerns their own preparation. Typically faculty are experts in their own disciplines, knowledgeable about related disciplines, and have passing knowledge of other, less-related disciplines. Ethics typically is not seen as a related field. It is not taught in Ph.D. programs. It is not always a required subject in undergraduate curricula. And it is not always the most accessible subject, even for an intelligent layperson. So most faculty don't bring a great amount of knowledge of ethics to the classroom, and they worry that they will not be able to lead a discussion on ethical issues.
Another issue concerns textbooks. Most faculty use textbooks in their courses. Often these texts cover ethics in a chapter (often at the back of the book, sometimes at the front). The texts themselves are written by experts in the field, not in ethics. The ethics chapters thus suffer. Faculty typically realize this and then are faced with a dilemma: cover this important subject with a less-than-ideal reading, or don't cover it at all. With little confidence in their ability to discuss the subject, and the lack of a good guide in the text, faculty often decide not to cover it at all.
I have seen this in business schools, but my belief and understanding is that similar views exist across universities, except for the lucky department with one or two faculty who take the time to study ethics or have a background in it. In fact, it may be an even more difficult problem in other disciplines, as at least some business schools require a course in social and ethical issues, but it's unclear to me that many departments require either a similar course in their own departments or an ethics course in the philosophy department.
I must admit, being an ethics teacher and trying to model ethical behavior, that my idea is not original; although I did not steal it and have made modifications to the basic framework. Bentley College, a stand-alone business school in the Boston area, developed what it calls its ethics gadfly program in the late 1980s. The motivating idea was to help faculty from across the university integrate discussions of ethical issues into their courses by giving them both the background and the enthusiasm to do so.
This workshop format has great potential to help faculty become more comfortable in leading discussions on ethical issues. The format is simple. Two facilitators, one from the business faculty and one from philosophy, come together with a small group (eight is the usual number) of faculty, half from business disciplines and half from outside the business faculty. The program consists of about 25 hours of workshop over two weeks. The first week concentrates on ethical theory, corporate social responsibility, and ethical decision making. During the second week, participants in the workshop present their ideas for incorporating discussions of ethical issues into their courses. The workshops are conducted seminar-style, and critiques of the participants' ideas are given to improve the ideas. Finally, the facilitators give a lessons-learned session during the last day.
The combination of conceptual discussion with case examples in the first week, and application to courses in the second week allows participants to both learn and try out ideas on their peers before they do so in a course. I pursued the possibility of conducting such a workshop at Western and was encouraged to do so by people within CBE (especially Dean Dennis Murphy and Joseph Garcia, the director of the Center for Excellence in Management Education), at Western, and at Bentley. Phillip Montague, from Philosophy, agreed to co-facilitate the workshop (called Ethics at Work) with me in the summer of 2004. We received great support from Murray Dow of Dow Hotel, a member of the Center for Excellence in Management Education Advisory Board, and the workshop was sponsored generously by Hilb, Rogal & Hobbs, and McGladrey & Pullen, LLP.
However, Phil and I decided to emphasize different aspects of ethics than do the Bentley facilitators. Because of our experience, we believe it is very important to understand and be able to refute the arguments of two views of morality:
Therefore, we begin the workshop by discussing these two views, the problems with them, and ways to help students turn away from them. Many students believe they are subjectivists, although they realize they are not when they are pressed. Also, many students want to say people behave in egoistic ways, although few wish to say they are themselves egoists.
We also believe that, for the reasons discussed in the previous section on my own business ethics courses, the teaching of theories is not as productive as the focus on considerations. This becomes especially important in the context of a course with a disciplinary focus other than ethics. Moral theories take time to explain and explore. Most courses do not have the time to focus on more than one or two, and those sparingly, if they are to discuss ethical issues in context. However, many considerations can be discussed relatively quickly, and a framework can be given and understood quickly, allowing for more of the discussion that allows students to understand the ethical issues in a specific context. For this reason, we plan for our next workshop to focus on using considerations in a decision-making model so the participants can get a solid yet simple framework to use in class discussions.
Bentley has found its gadfly program quite helpful in getting ethical issues discussed throughout the curriculum. Although it's a bit early to say Western's program is as successful, the first workshop last summer received good evaluations from its six participants, and we hope to build on that success in this summer's workshop.
Ethics is one of the most important elements of a truly liberal education, as it deals with the daily decisions we make—decisions that affect the functioning and overall survival of a society. Some argue that we cannot change the morality of a student by the time he or she reaches college. That may be true. But even if it is, discussions of ethics in context, across the departmental, college, and even university curriculum, can accomplish good.
The first good is the practice students engage in when they discuss ethical issues. Most moral theories posit at least some use for moral judgment, or practical wisdom. It is sometimes argued that humans have an innate moral sense; but even if we do, that sense must be developed. The most often-discussed method of developing moral judgment (whether innate or not) is through observation and practice. Although observation remains important at the college level, it could be argued that practice is even more important as one comes closer to becoming an adult in the larger society. Students get a chance to practice through discussions of ethical issues.
Second, such discussions can help students understand how their morality fits into the context of their chosen field of study. As an example, because the world of business is different in many ways from the environment in which we grow up, we should expect the ethical context of business to be different as well. One needs practice in all contexts, but practice in the specific context in which students plan to operate as adults is arguably the most important type of practice for society to support.
Third, although it might be generally true that one's morality is difficult to change by the college years, a discussion or series of discussions about ethical issues can eliminate what might have been considered good reasons for actions or decisions in the past. If students understand that subjectivism is not morally acceptable, and that pure egoism likewise is morally unacceptable, they can move beyond such easy justifications for wrong behavior. With such justifications removed, they will be more likely to resort to their evolving moral judgment, and thus likely to make better decisions.
These three goods are well worthy of our effort—whether we are students, faculty, staff, administrators, or citizens in general. As the final stop for many students in their formal education, we have a duty (justified through any reasonable moral theory) to engage them in discussions of ethical issues. It is my hope that we can continue this dialogue to find better ways of incorporating such discussions across all our curricula.