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Abela: Will Teaching Business Ethics Make Business More Ethical?

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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).

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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