Rethinking Ethics Education

In a recent Business Week column, Deborrah Himsel of the Thunderbird School noted, accurately, that business schools are trying harder than ever to teach their students lessons in ethics. She was equally on target in pointing out that there is a lot of room left for improvement. She cited several recent FCPA violations by Wal-Mart, GSK, Avon, and other firms as evidence of the problem.

In his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argued persuasively (though not without some controversy) that overall the world is a less violent place than it used to be (notwithstanding today’s headlines coming from Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Ferguson, MO.). Having read a fair amount about how business was done a century ago, when there was no FCPA, no concept of corporate social responsibility, and little or no ethical training in business schools, I would argue that the business world is a more ethical place than it used to be (again, notwithstanding the scandals cited by Himsel and the many others she could have referenced).

However, I believe that nearly everyone who has thought about the topic would agree with Himsel that the global business climate needs to be even more ethical and that we must find more effective ways of educating our students in this regard. Himsel describes a program at Thunderbird which addresses the FCPA problem fairly directly. Students are sent on seven-week consulting projects in developing nations where they can experience first-hand how business is done and have brought home to them how difficult FCPA violations can be to avoid. While a seven-week program like this is probably not feasible for all business schools, it is obviously a good way to address the FCPA problem and other ethical issues that arise out of cross-country cultural differences.

Himsel additionally recommends that business schools “put more emphasis on doing rather than telling,” foster experiences where U.S. business students can interact with business students from other countries, and foster international internships. These are all good ideas, consistent with the conclusions of experts like Kolb and Nees who note that the most effective learning is active, integrative, and experiential.

Another good idea suggested by Himsel is that schools adopt Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum, “which moves from theory to action by putting students in situations in which they must demonstrate how to act on their convictions and answer the question: ‘If I were going to act on my values, what would I say or do?’”   Our eight Ethics Unwrapped videos that are (free and) devoted to the GVV program should be helpful to anyone studying or teaching Gentile’s program.

I would like to add that a promising development is that business schools at Harvard, NYU, Indiana, Texas and elsewhere are increasingly adding behavioral ethics training to their business ethics courses. This training emphasizes a psychological (rather than a philosophical) approach to thinking about ethics and has the potential to give business students tools to improve their chances of living up to their own ethical standards. I have written an article arguing that behavioral ethics has a chance to lead to meaningful improvement in the ethical conduct of students exposed to it. This article–“Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (and Others) Be Their Best Selves?”– will soon be published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy. The gist of my argument is that the psychological and cognitive learning that has enabled companies to shape consumers’ behavior for the purpose of selling them more products and enabled governments to shape citizens’ behavior in order to advance policy goals, can also be used to enable individuals to more fully realize their own ethical goals and companies to shape the choice architecture in their firms in order to improve their employees’ ethical behavior.

Much additional attention is given to behavioral ethics on the Ethical Systems website founded by Jonathan Haidt at NYU and the Behavioral Legal Ethics Blog founded by law professor Tigran Eldred. And, of course, I do not wish to omit reference to the many free videos on this website that teach foundational concepts in behavioral ethics.

 

References

Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values (2010)

Deborrah Himsel, Business Schools Aren’t Producing Ethical Graduates, Bloomberg Business Week, Aug. 6, 2014.

Anne Tucker Nees et al., Enhancing the Educational Value of Experiential Learning: The Business Court Project, 27 Journal of Legal Studies Education 171 (2010).

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (2012).

David A. Kolb, Experiential Learnings: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984).

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2012).

Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (and Others) Be Their Best Selves?, __ Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy __ (forthcoming).

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