Searching for higher standards of ethics: a real quest, or a wild goose chase?
In 1972 I completed my secondary schooling in Germany. As some readers may know, the final German school examination is the Abitur, and this has a written and an oral component. For the oral Abitur (at least in those days), students could be tested in a small selection of subjects in which they had either excelled during their studies and written exams, or in which their status might be doubtful. I was orally examined in Physics and Philosophy. In the Philosophy section, the examiners (and there were 25 of them in the room) focused on ethics, and I believe I did rather well.
Two years later I was in another exam. This time I had just completed a training programme as a German banker, and this too ended with a written and an oral examination. In the oral exam (and again there were over 20 examiners, all of them established bankers) I was asked this and that: about letters of credit, principles of monetary policy, central banking controls – and then, perhaps as an afterthought, the chair of the panel asked me what I thought about the ethics of the banking sector. Oh good, I thought, I can pick up where I left off two years ago, and I launched into a quick oral treatise on Aristotle right up to Habermas. But I had not been talking for more than 45 seconds when I was interrupted by the chair with this: ‘I was not intending you to talk about philosophy, but rather I wanted you to say something practical’. Well, I thought I was about to say a few very practical things, but I sensed the mood, smiled politely and just stopped. I passed my exam with flying colours, but my report noted in passing that ‘he has a possible tendency to theorise’, not meant as a compliment, I think.
Exactly ten years later, in 1984, I was a lecturer in the School of Business Studies in Trinity College Dublin. My then Head of Department, Professor Charles McCarthy, was keen to explore whether we might establish a senior post in business ethics, and called a meeting of some staff of the School and a small number of prominent Irish businessmen (and they were just men). The consensus offered by the businessmen was that (as one of them actually said) ‘ethics has no relevance for business’. I avoided my little lecture on Aristotle and Habermas.
A quarter century on again, and we have come some distance from those perspectives. Many financial and business scandals later, and with some offenders against codes of ethics pondering these matters in prison, nobody would seriously argue that ethics and business are unrelated. But despite that, business ethics as a framework for analysing business decisions and practices is not yet very far advanced. In the minds of the general public, it is probably largely about dealing with and preventing serious corruption such as bribery and fraud; some businesspeople may regard it as being about avoiding regulatory problems. But while these are indeed significant, the real issues we need to address are more subtle, and are not easily summarised in a ‘thou-shalt-not’ code. They include an analysis of the philosophy of business, and of corporate social responsibility.
As we face up to the reality of some serious misjudgements, and indeed some serious wrongdoing, in various business and financial circles, we have to see that we don’t solve these problems by throwing a few people in jail while we wait for the next generation to do more or less exactly the same thing. We need to develop a much better understanding of what ethics is really about, why it matters, and what we must do to entrench a code of ethics in both private and public conduct. This is something much more complex than condemning or jailing those whom we once admired but about whom we are now embarrassed. Prison is no more likely to make better people of these guys than it does of any petty criminal.
Universities have a vital role to play here. I cannot help feeling that every undergraduate student, no matter what they are studying, should be doing a module on ethics; and we should have much more sophisticated public discussions on ethical issues, perhaps led by some academic experts. It is time to get practical about ethics.