The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

On the Possibility of Teaching Business Ethics More Effectively

“It is crucial to help students recognize that there are common (even universal) moral principles that everyone can (or should) accept.”

Darin Gates | April 27, 2017
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A man lost in thought while contemplating an ethical decision.

“Can Virtue be Taught?” This question raised by Plato over two thousand years ago is still relevant today.[1] Of course, anyone who teaches ethics courses assumes, to some degree, an affirmative answer to this ancient question.[2] This question has been particularly important in relation to the teaching of business ethics. Early on, critics questioned both the need for teaching business ethics and effectiveness of doing so.[3] Today few people, if any, question the need. However, the question of how best to do so remains an open one. In a forthcoming chapter of the Routledge Companion to Business Ethics, I (along with Brad Agle and Richard Williams) offer some suggestions for improving the teaching of business ethics.[4] Here I will briefly summarize some of our argument from that essay.

One of the first things we argue for is the need to strengthen students’ moral sense. There are various ways to do this, but it is crucial to help students recognize that there are common (even universal) moral principles that everyone can (or should) accept. While it is also important to use both real life and hypothetical cases to challenge students with difficult ethical choices, including choices between conflicting duties, we argue that before launching too far into the sea of case analysis, we would do well first to strengthen students’ moral sense.  If we simply offer a course filled with cases and dilemmas without also providing students a good ethical grounding, they can easily come to accept a type of ethical relativism that promotes the rationalization of unethical action. However, we can also go too far in the other direction by presenting a maze of moral theories with the result that students end up thinking they can simply appeal to one or another theory in order to justify whatever they do.

Our approach therefore recommends:

Beginning a course by articulating some of the fundamental moral intuitions and principles found in almost all moral theories—for example, that all persons deserve respect and that there are minimal standards in terms of which we all expect others to treat us and which we (in turn) can be expected to treat others, and so on. The important thing is to articulate claims that most students should find fairly intuitive in order to strengthen their sense that there are universally valid moral principles. The point is not that there are easy answers or absolute rules to determine every ethical decision, but rather to show students that there are moral principles that extend beyond individual preference, and across contexts, and can guide us in making such decisions. When we then turn to complex ethical dilemmas, students will more likely be able to navigate difficult decisions without recourse to ethical relativism and skepticism. It is important to present, at first, some of the fundamental insights from different moral teachings and principles in a fairly in-depth manner without simultaneously giving a too-detailed account of different moral systems. . . . However, a hasty overview of various moral theories (for example, simply spending a day covering a one-chapter overview of various moral theories) is also inadequate. We thus need to avoid presenting either a superficial sketch of moral theories—which leaves them with little more than a shallow understanding of ethics—or inundating them further into ethical theory than is needed in a business ethics course. . . [Thus] it is crucial to find some way to help students come to appreciate that there is non-relativistic discernable status to principles of right and wrong.”[5]

In that essay, we go on to give examples of how to present such universal, intuitive principles to students through using contemporary versions of the Golden Rule, as well as through certain basic principles of Kantian moral philosophy (without getting too caught up in the complexities of attempting to use the Formula of Universal Law version of the Categorical Imperative). Another effective way to help students see there are objective principles of right and wrong is through the ethical intuitionism articulated by the 20th century Oxford Philosopher William D. Ross, whose theory of prima facie duties offers a common sense, but persuasive principle-based (deontological) account of ethics. Ross articulates seven categories of prima facie duties where prima facie means that such duties are self-evident (upon due reflection), non-absolute (meaning each one can be overridden by other duties in certain circumstances), and always relevant (in the sense that there is always a good moral reason fulfill these duties whenever they are involved).[6] The list include fidelity (keeping one’s promises, or being loyal), beneficence, non-maleficence (the non-harm or non-injury principle), reparation, gratitude, justice, and self-improvement. If any of these duties are involved in our actions, they provide moral weight that we must take into account. However, since they are only prima facie, or conditional duties, this means we will ultimately need to decide what our actual duty is in the particular situation, which will always require the judgment of an individual agent.[7] Such an approach provides an accessible and intuitive way to show students there are principles we can all recognize as objectively valid, even though we will still need to use judgment when encountering conflicting prima facie duties. Students can easily relate to such prima facie duty conflicts. However, they will see that such conflicts come in the context of objective normative principles that must be given their due.

As part of this effort, it is also important to make explicit the problems with ethical relativism in either its conventionalist or subjectivist forms.[8] As Geert Demuijnk writes: “The rejection of relativism and skepticism is a precondition for business ethics to get off the ground.” Furthermore, “only if people are convinced that not all ways of doing things are equivalent from a moral perspective [that] genuine discussions of business ethical issues will be taken seriously.”[9] There are many ways to educate students on the problems of ethical relativism, one of which is to illustrate the absurd results of accepting ethical relativism.[10] As one example of such absurd results, Joseph DeJardins points out that “the relativist must claim that there is no reasonable and objective basis for establishing that freedom is better than slavery, democracy is better than totalitarianism, heroism is better than murder, and friendship is better than hatred.”[11]  Thus, arguing against ethical relativism is an important step in establishing that there are at least some universal ethical principles of right and wrong, and making that case is significant step in enhancing student’s moral awareness.

It is not enough, however, to deepen and solidify student’s moral sense. We must also help students recognize the types of rationalization that are common in unethical actions.[12] Therefore, we argue it is necessary to spend time discussing common types of rationalization to which we easily fall prey. There are several ways to do this—whether through an examination of techniques of moral neutralization (from the criminology literature), or through a discussion of the mechanisms of moral disengagement (from psychology and behavioral ethics), or through articulating the types of self-deception that both psychologists and philosophers have discussed for years.[13] We would thus agree with Joseph Heath who claims that people “are [most] likely to commit crimes because they have talked themselves into believing some type of excuse for their actions.”[14]  There is, however, an important difference between the deliberate use of rationalizations to deceive others about some unethical action and the much more common forms of rationalization/self-deception that one does not recognize one is engaged in when committing unethical actions. This distinction is important in discussing the difference between unethical criminal acts and those common cases of “unintentional” wrongdoing.[15] I will not be able to say more about this issue here.  In any case, alerting students to our pervasive tendency to use such rationalization is an essential part of effectively teaching business ethics. The goal in educating students in these types of rationalization is thus “to bring to conscious awareness certain patterns of self-exculpatory reasoning, and to flag them as suspicious, so that students will be less likely to accept them at face value when they encounter them” in their own actions or those of others.[16]

So, is it possible to teach ethics? Some have questioned whether a one-semester course in ethics can make any difference since most student’s character is already set. However, we argue one can make a significant difference if it is done the right way. Of course, we cannot set our expectations for such courses too high. As Terry Price points out: “A successful ethics component within a business program does not guarantee that its participants will never behave immorally. Not even churches or prisons boast that kind of effectiveness. So why should we expect it of an ethics class? What we expect is that when students complete the ethics component, they will approach moral problems with greater thoughtfulness and intellectual sophistication, as well as be more likely to resolve these problems in the right way. The goal is improvement, not perfection.”[17]


[1]      See Plato’s Meno, 70a. Plato Five Dialogues, translated by G.M.A. Grube (Hacket Press: Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1981)

[2]      Here, we will leave aside the important questions concerning the differences/relations between virtue and right actions.

[3]      See Ronald A. Duska’s Contemporary Reflections on Business Ethics. Springer: New York, 2007.

[4]      Gates, D. Agle, B. & Williams, R. “Teaching Business Ethics: Current Practices and Future Directions” forthcoming in The Routledge Companion to Business Ethics, 2018.

[5]      Gates, D. Agle, B. Williams, R. “Teaching Business Ethics: Current Practices and Future Directions” forthcoming in The Routledge Companion to Business Ethics, 2018.

[6]      For a good introduction to Ross’s account, see chapter 16 in Russ Shafer-Landau’s The Fundamentals of Ethics (3rd edition). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[7]      Robert Audi illustrates how intuitionism can be very effective way to present basic ethical duties and rights See Business Ethics and Ethical Business. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009 (chapter 4.)

[8]      Conventionalism claims that right and wrong is relative to a particular society or culture, whereas subjectivism claims that right and wrong is relative to the individual. See Pojman and Fieser for an account of the differences between (and the problems of) conventionalism and subjectivism. Pojman, L. and Fieser, J. (2012). Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. Boston: Cengage Learning.

[9]     See Demuijnk, G. (2015). Universal Values and Virtues in Management Verses Cross-Cultural Relativism: An Educational Strategy to Clear the Ground for Business Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 128:817-835

[10]      See Pojman, L. and Fieser. J. (2012) for some absurd results.

[11]      DeJardins, J. (2014). Contemporary Issues in Business Ethics, Boston:Cengage Learning, 2014. p.6.

[12]      Bill O’Rourke gave some helpful comments on recognizing rationalization in his August 2016 Wheatley Fellow Notes.

[13]       See for example Alfred R. Mele’s Self-Deception Unmasked, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2001; Chance, Z., Norton, M. I., Gino, F., and Ariely, D. (2011). “Temporal view of the costs and benefits of self-deception.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108, 15655–15659. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1010658108; and C. Terry Warner’s Oxford Papers. Arbinger Institute, 2013.

[14]      See Joseph Heath’s “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminology Perspective” in his book Morality, Competition, and the Firm. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014. We would disagree, however, with Heath’s claim that there is “no particular reason for business ethics courses to focus on moral dilemmas, or to teach fundamental meta-ethical perspectives (Kantian, utilitarian, etc.)

[15] See Bazerman, M. H., and Tenbrunsel, A. E. (2011). Blind Spots: Why We Fail To Do What's Right and What To Do About It.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 17.

[16]      Heath “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminology Perspective” p. 321. Mary Gentile has a helpful chapter on how to respond when others use such rationalizations. See Giving Voice to Values. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, chapter 8.

[17]      Price, T. “How to Teach Business Ethics.” Inside Higher Education, June 4, 2007.