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.

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4 Comments on “Searching for higher standards of ethics: a real quest, or a wild goose chase?”

  1. wendymr Says:

    It’s interesting that in just about every profession I can think of ethics is a core part of the curriculum, and an exam that must be passed in order to obtain accreditation or licensure. Here in Canada, where someone is applying for accreditation or licensure based on prior learning – in another country, or through practice – the one exam that is almost always compulsory is ethics. That goes for engineering, social work, law, HR, employment counselling and many other fields.

    I just took a fairly random sample of internationally-known MBA programs – Harvard, MIT, Northwestern (Kellogg), Western Ontario (Ivey), Toronto (Rotman), Manchester Business School, Warwick, Cranfield, TCD. All the North American programmes I looked at have ethics as a core module – whether called ethics or something else. Manchester has it as an elective. I couldn’t see anything related to ethics in the Cranfield or Warwick programme outlines. At TCD, the programme is divided up into large thematic modules; ethics is part of the core Business in Society module.

    Admittedly, just a fairly random sample, but of the market leaders. Business schools in the UK need to do a lot more in promoting ethics as part of management education – and, going back to your anecdote about Trinity, surely the universities should be taking the lead, not allowing the business community to influence curriculum to that extent.

  2. Vincent Says:

    The Quakers in Ireland should be a case study for your Biz-Ethics course. They spend 200 years being very successfully not owing anyone anything. But then they were seen as a cash cow by the Taxation Authorities and were bled dry over 30 years or so.
    They had a sound strategy for Business. They did not speculate with other than what they had to hand, their own hand. They expanded to other areas once they had the ‘dry’ cash to do so. Cash kept well away from banks. They employed thousands at high quality work driven mostly by waterwheels. Today you can see the remains of their work across the southeast and large swathes of Munster.
    If the State sees a group of people much as the Kings of Europe saw the Jews then two things will happen ethics will go out the window and the group will go out the door.
    What made the Quaker so unusual was that they worked with their own money. Actual cash. Not a loan. So they were not leveraged twenty ways to Saturday.
    FYI, the Irish banks hold about 100bil of UK mortgages. Not a lot in the scheme of things over the water. But if we repudiate Bank debt and that paper hits the market. Then there will be some nasty consequences for the UK exchequer and their mostly Government owned banks.
    Now there’s an Ethics Question for you. Repudiate and remove our Banks from the Sovereign allowing the liquidators to render whatever they can. But causing a level of profound distrust in a neighbour with a potential of damaging them. Or ‘our’ economic survival.

  3. Steve Says:

    “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.” – Good luck with that. The vast majority of people I know and meet ask me the same question: ‘Why the hell are you studying Philosophy? That’s of no use whatsoever!’ And then glorious leaders everywhere cut humanities funding. The long view is clearly not a priority.

  4. Al Says:

    I question the approach of setting up Ethics departments and the like.
    In terms of vocational types of learning it is important that successful practitioners of each vocation make the ethical case, because if you cant practice successfully and work from an ethical framework, then the whole exercise of teaching ethics becomes a p.c. exercise.

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