Reengineering Ethics Education

Jason Fertig

Good discussions sometimes need a devil’s advocate, so in the case of teaching ethics in college, this business school professor is assuming the role of the red-skinned pitchfork carrier.

If someone asked for my opinion on the best way to teach ethics in college, my reply would be that “ethics” should not be taught at all.  Now, before a reader wants to commit me, allow me to clarify my position.

Last week, NAS published three well-argued pieces on recommended approaches to ethics education.  There is very little that I disagree with in these essays; I would love to take an ethics course from all three of these individuals.  As I wrote in a piece on teaching ethics that I published last year, I agree with the notion that best way to present ethics in the classroom is to assign the writings of great thinkers of the past and to force students to justify their reasoning behind decisions that they make in their daily lives.  Yet, I emphasize present ethics because any attempt at “teaching ethics” is unlikely to bring about more ethical behavior from students because professors have no way to control behavior once students leave the classroom.   Much of what is called ethics education, especially in business schools, is unfortunately no more than an insurance policy against students’ future decision-making – “We taught him ethics here.  Please don’t blame the school.”

My frustration with the outcomes of “teaching ethics” is rooted in one particular anecdote.  I vividly remember when a student once told me that he was “studying for his ethics test.”  Ethics tests occur every day that an individual walks out the door.  The notion that ethics can be assessed in a manner similar to organic chemistry is a cause for concern. 

Math classes are designed to enhance the quantitative skills of students.  Composition skills classes help students communicate better using the written word.  History classes sharpen students’ knowledge of past events and help students clarify the present.  What does an ethics course teach?

I do not pose that question to personally attack the professors who teach ethics in their classes. I’m actually raising my concerns from the position of a professor who teaches courses in a discipline that is open to the same criticism – management.  What do students learn in a management course?  Do they become better managers as a result of taking a management course or by majoring in management? 

Personally, I make no attempt to tell my students that they will directly become better managers through my courses; the best that a management course can do is to teach students “about management.”  I choose to take my students on a historical journey of the practice of management.  My students are then assessed on their knowledge of management over time and they editorialize about how past management thinkers’ practices would fare today.  If I help them become more interesting and educated, hopefully they will bring that into whatever career they choose.

Hence, in order to answer how ethics should be taught, we have to be honest about how learning about ethics should be assessed.    Much like my discipline, the best that the university can realistically claim is that it teaches “about ethics.”  Of course, much like teaching “about management,” teaching “about ethics” is not as sexy.  It’s also understandable that after highly publicized scandals (Enron, subprime loans, etc.) bright people will want to play Monday morning quarterback with those events and push for more ethics education as a way of lessening the probability of another major scandal.  I hear that call a great deal having worked in a few business schools.  Yet should scandal-prevention really be the goal of ethics education?  It takes a preternatural belief in one’s teaching abilities to think that the behavior of students can be changed just from a college course, especially if many of today’s students lack an interest in intellectual pursuits.

At the present time, many students who take courses in ethics just see the ethics course as another one on the checklist of courses needed for a degree – Ethics on Monday and Wednesday, Spanish on Tuesday and Thursday. 

Therefore, while I am not an ethics scholar per se, I would still like to offer a pedagogical suggestion as an outsider.  In my former life as a personal trainer, I used to tell clients that the best way to lose weight was not to focus on losing weight; focus on achieving a fitness goal (run 3 miles, increase a bench press, complete four workouts per week for one month, etc.) and the weight loss will come naturally.  Let’s adopt that approach pedagogically.  We can best influence students’ ethical behavior if we accept a small-wins approach.  Let’s focus on what we do best and teach the great works without preaching ethics. 

Assign some of Aristotle’s works, read the Bible, discuss Rousseau, or debate Milton Friedman’s view that social responsibility is earning a profit, but do it over a series of courses.  In turn, this approach will indirectly focus on the works that involve major questions about morality-based decision-making, it will do it at a slower pace than a survey course that aims to cover everything about ethics in 15 weeks, and it will not explicitly tell students that they are now more ethical by virtue of completing the course.

Additionally, I’m going to make the radical suggestion to avoid labeling any course ethics.  Doing that sends the message that ethics is not involved in any other courses, when it is really a part of daily life. 

And by all means, avoid the disastrous solitary survey course in ethics.  That only looks good on a colorful brochure – “Our students learn about ethical decision-making.” 

While it takes more than education to motivate a person to act ethically, we shouldn’t eliminate ethics education completely – rather, I propose reengineering it.  I’d rather hear a student talk about wrestling with the messages of the Great Books than see Ethics or (worse) Business Ethics as a resume bullet point under Relevant Coursework between Intro to Psychology and Managerial Accounting.

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