On the National Catholic Register, Andrew Abela confesses to a “nagging suspicion that teaching business ethics in a university is not delivering on what is expected of it.” The question is both concrete and academic: Abela is the chairman of the Department of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America and an associate professor of marketing. He was awarded the Acton Institute’s Novak Award in 2009. Here, he explains the problem with “amoral” business attitudes:

… we often face the problem that in our business ethics course, we teach students to respect human dignity, but then in marketing, they are taught to sell as much stuff as possible regardless of the good of the consumer; in finance, to maximize profits above all else; in economics, that human beings are nothing more than utility maximizers who find their happiness by consuming more and more stuff. Not explicitly, perhaps. But implicitly, that is the message they get from these courses.

If, after you graduate, real life presents any tension between the lessons you learned in your business ethics course and the lessons from your finance (or marketing or management) course, guess which is more likely to win? “I’ve got to do my job,” our graduates think, “and my job is finance”; therefore, I do what my finance class taught me.

The difficulty here is that when business runs this way, according to supposedly amoral theory, we invariably end up with the greed-induced global malaise we are facing now. Why? Because “amoral” business leads to immoral business: Without a strong notion of the good built into our concept of business, without a strong ethical foundation within the theory, business theory cannot provide sufficient protection from temptation. If businesses were run by machines, we might have such a thing as an ethically neutral business theory. But businesses are run by human beings who suffer from original sin and are therefore susceptible to temptation.

Read “Will Teaching Business Ethics Make Business More Ethical?” on the website of the National Catholic Register (reprinted from Legatus Magazine).

  • Renee Poudrier

    It seems to me that outside of a religious/moral framework, teaching ethics is an exercise in futility. It’s the same thing with some of the “character counts” programs that are utilized in public schools. In a relativistic society, who is to say what is ethical?

  • Patrick Powers

    Are there enough leaders (CEO/CF0) who graduated from business school to make a difference? Gates, Jobs, etc., do not have MBA’s or JD’s.

  • http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/Management-TidbitsForTheNewMillenium.html Maxwell Pinto

    Ethics is concerned with morals, fairness, respect, caring, sharing, no false promises, no lying, cheating, stealing, or unreasonable demands on employees and others, etc. Business ethics calls for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and addressing social problems such as poverty, crime, environmental protection, equal rights, public health and improving education. We need a practical approach rather than a philosophical one.

    Business decisions often concern complicated situations which are neither totally ethical nor totally unethical. Therefore, it is often difficult to do the right thing, contrary to what many case studies will have you believe!

    Leaders have to deal with potential conflicts of interest, wrongful use of resources, mismanagement of contracts, false promises and exaggerated demands on resources, which include personnel. Is it the seller’s duty to disclose all material facts regarding the product/ service in question or is it the buyer’s responsibility to find out the pros and cons of what he or she is getting into? Should the seller answer each question exactly as it was asked, and ignore some pertinent information? Or should he or she merely address the spirit of the question? Is the buyer responsible for due diligence? This is a gray area.

    Can ethics training prevent Bernie Madoff, Vincent Lacroix, Conrad Black, etc. from being themselves? No, but a well-designed & implemented program can

    (a) help good people to do the right thing consistently

    (b) make it more difficult for wrong-doers to succeed &

    (c) raise people’s ethical IQS

    For free abridged books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, women in the workforce, sexual harassment and bullying, trade unions, etc. send an e-mail request to crespin79@primus.ca.