Business Ethics:

Can Ethics be Taught in Schools?

By Trish Overby

In a recent Times newspaper article (January 28), the question of teaching business ethics was asked. Several Business Schools commented on how they have placed classes on the MBA (Masters of Business Administration) courses. They felt it was important to give their students not only the Business curriculum but prepare them for the 'real' business world which includes "the role of business in society and the environment."

Ethical issues are often in the news and these issues are discussed and debated in these ethics classes. But is it really a subject that can be taught only? Can morality be taught as scientific knowledge or is it an inbred attitude which guides our moral conduct?

Social Responsibility

One aspect of business ethics is social responsibility. The Body Shop is an example of a business which has an ethical mandate to protect the environment (recycling) and protect animals and humans (sweat shop factories). Anita Roddick's awareness of these problems has led her to make sure her company takes the responsibility by promoting 'ethical' products. These are important issues and can be discussed in an ethics course with all kinds of business situations and consequences. Students also can be made aware of the problems which many companies face regarding social responsibility in the Western world.

Another ethical angle is the cultural one. Many developing countries accept the practice of bribes or nepotism. A small fee to the right official or mafia boss can help your business enterprises in that country. Students can ask themselves, "All the business people of that country do it, so why not me?" Or, if you belong to one of the main political families in a country, you have a definite advantage in business. This practice isn't as popular in the Western world but it does help to know the right people to get ahead sometimes! As stated in the Times article by Leo Murray of Cranfield School of Management, "Whatever the company's code of ethics, you're no one's hero if you lose an order because of your principles. Often the question in an ethical dilemma is what do you stand for?"

Company vs. Myself

The moral dilemma which faces many business people is almost always based on the quandary of what is best for the company versus what is best for myself. As stated above, what guides us for our personal principles can be totally different from our company's standards. The choice is ours of which side to uphold. But the knowledge of ethical situations is not always enough to guide us. Sometimes we rely on our intuition or consciences to guide us in tricky business deals. At times, we instinctively know the right way to go in a situation. But where does this intuition come from and how is it influenced?

Intuitive Guidance

Most of us would explain our intuition or consciences as something deep within us which seems to know what is right and wrong in most situations. It can be informed by our experiences and acquired knowledge but generally it is influenced by something outside ourselves. This 'something' can be explained as a higher ethical spirit or authority. Some people would express it as God. God's moral influence can be seen throughout history.

Most countries' legal systems are based on the Biblical principles outlined in the 'Ten Commandments'. These tenets emphasize basic human rights which can be applied to every aspect of life. They also reinforce our intuition's choices and can be influential in ethical decision making. According to the Times article, this religious influence is the main reason why a French business school, ISA, is teaching their ethics course at a Benedictine monastery through monks with previous business credentials. They prefer a well rounded and complete picture of the ethical issues which includes looking at it from a religious view point.

These moral or ethical principles are not only given to us to help us make decisions but also to bring order and design to our world. God is not a tyrant by dictating these principles to us but allows us to choose which ethical way to go. We are not slaves or drones to Him. We choose which way to go in our decision-making based on the influences presented above. This choice is ours and ours alone. And, of course, we all desire to do what is right.

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