Despite centuries of the best efforts of religious leaders, philosophers, and ethics professors, the world remains woefully short of any ideal ethical state.  Those of us who teach ethics would like to know if our efforts are having a positive impact. Some (e.g., Bok, Kaufmann, and Park) believe that ethics can be taught. Others (e.g., Drucker, Forbes) have great doubts.

From time to time, of course, we teachers do receive messages from former students who tell us that the lessons we taught have helped them handle moral challenges they encountered in their careers and personal lives. These stories are heartening, but obviously we’d love to have more than mere anecdotal evidence.

Most early attempts to measure the impact of ethics teaching took an indirect route, measuring whether ethics courses, exercises, or modules improved students’ ethical reasoning or scores on the Defining Issues Test (DIT) (developed by Rest) or some similar instrument. An article by Rest and Thoma, for example, found that 25 of 55 studies reviewed showed significant positive improvements in students’ moral development.  All 55 studies used the DIT test as a yardstick. It is reasonable to hope that improvements in moral reasoning and problem solving will translate into more ethical actions, but this is hardly a given. And, it must be admitted, some studies show little or no improvement even in these indirect measures (e.g., Wang & Calvano, Jones).

But how would we judge the true direct impact of our ethics teaching upon the conduct of our students after they leave campus?  Comparing the real-world careers of students who took our ethics classes to other students who did not study ethics seems difficult. How do we control for their various personalities and natural moral inclinations, for the different careers they pursue, for the disparities in the moral culture of the various companies where they go to work, for the divergent opportunities to profitably defraud victims that may come their way, and so forth? Clearly that would be exceedingly challenging.

Nonetheless, we are heartened by a first step taken by three accounting professors who are now located at the University of Texas (Zachary Kowaleski), MIT (Andrew Sutherland), and the University of Mannheim in Germany (Felix Vetter). Noticing that in 2010 an important qualifying exam (the Series 66 exam) for investment advisers changed from 80% rules and ethics and 20% technical material to 50% rules and ethics and 50% technical material, they designed a clever study to determine as well as one can whether this change in ethics teaching might have had an effect upon later behavior. Would this reduction in ethics emphasis lead to greater misconduct by those who took the new 50-50 test as compared to those who had taken the 80-20 test? Following earlier researchers (Egan et al.), Kowaleski, Sutherland and Vetter relied largely on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA’s) BrokerCheck data base to identify customer complaints, arbitrations, regulatory actions, employment terminations, bankruptcy filings, and any civil or criminal proceedings from 2007-2017 involving advisers who had taken one of these two versions of the Series 66 test.

To the delight of those of us who teach ethics, the researchers found significantly (approximately 25%) fewer instances of misconduct among those advisers who took the “ethics heavy” 80-20 exam versus those who took the more technically-oriented 50-50 exam. Similarly, those who took the 80-20 exam were less likely to tolerate ethical wrongdoing at the firms where they worked and were quicker to leave such firms when scandals were brewing than were those who took the 50-50 exam.

The professors took heroic measures to control for differences in individuals’ upbringing, gender and formative career experiences. Further, they took pains to compare advisers working for the same firm at the same location, but who had taken different versions of the test.

Importantly, the authors also undertook to explain as best they could why less ethics and rules education correlated with more instances of misconduct. Was it because the 50-50 exam takers were more aware of the rules? Or that the old exam’s focus on ethics altered test-takers’ perceptions of right and wrong conduct? Or both? Focusing on 18,754 incidents of theft, fraud and deceit that anyone should know are wrong regardless of which version of the test they took, the authors found that the 50-50 exam takers were more likely to engage in such wrongdoing, suggesting that the exam change altered the test-takers’ perceptions of acceptable conduct.

Unfortunately, if test-takers went to work at firms with pervasive cultures of wrongdoing, the beneficial effects of the 80-20 test’s emphasis on ethics was overwhelmed by the conformity bias. (See Dimmock et al. and the conformity bias video at:

And, if test-takers had already engaged in wrongdoing themselves or had several years of experience in the industry, they tended to respond little or not at all to the extra ethics training of the 80-20 test.

This is just one study, but it is very well done and the self-serving bias (see helps propel us to the conclusion that it provides very credible and persuasive evidence that ethics can, indeed, be taught.



Derek Bok, “Can Ethics Be Taught?” Change, pp. 26-30), Oct. 1976.

Stephen Dimmock et al., “Is Fraud Contagious? Coworker Influence on Misconduct by Financial Advisors,” Journal of Finance 73(3): 1417-1450 (2018).

Peter Drucker, “What Is Business Ethics?” Public Interest 63: 18 (1981).

Mark Egan et al., “The Market for Financial Adviser Misconduct,” Journal of Political Economy 127(11): 233-295

Malcolm Forbes, “Fact and Comment,” Forbes, 140(4), 17-19 (1987).

R.D. Jewe, “Do Business Ethics Courses Work?  The Effectiveness of Business Ethics Education: An Empirical Study,” Journal of Global Business Issues, 2(1):1-6 (2008).

Thomas Jones, “Can Business Ethics Be Taught?” Business & Professional Ethics Journal, 8(2): 73-94 (1989).

Larry Kaufmann, “Can Ethics Be Taught?” Journal for the Study of Religion, 31(1): 207-223 (2018).

Zachary T. Kowaleski, Andrew G. Sutherland & Felix W. Vetter, “Can Ethics Be Taught? Evidence from Securities Exams and Investment Adviser Misconduct,” Journal of Financial Economics 138: 159-173 (2020).

Hun-Joon Park, “Can Business Ethics Be Taught?: A New Model of Business Ethics Education,” Journal of Business Ethics 17: 965-977 (1998).

James Rest, Development in Judging Moral Issues (1979).

James Rest & Stephen Thoma, “Educational Programs and Intervention,” in Moral Development (Rest, ed. 1986).

Liz Wang & Lisa Calvano, “Is Business Ethics Education Effective? An Analysis of Gender, Personal Ethical Perspectives, and Moral Judgment,” Journal of Business Ethics, 126: 591-602 (2015).

Ethan Waples et al., “A Meta-Analytic Investigation of Business Ethics Instruction,” Journal of Business Ethics 87: 133-151 (2009).



Conformity Bias:

Self-serving Bias: