In the Beginning: Ethical Perspectives of Business and Non-Business College Freshmen

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INTRODUCTION

In the last decade stories of questionable, and at times criminal, corporate activities have dominated the U.S. business press. Beyond the most well-known case involving Enron Energy, Cendant's "creative earnings," Archer Daniels Midland's price-fixing, Bankers Trust's leveraged derivatives and use of customer funds, and LongTerm Capital's high-risk bets with others' funds are all examples of unethical and/or illegal actions by North American managers. We can also cite Rite-Aid and Wal-Mart, who have been profiled for their charge-back policies that leave suppliers confused and temporarily or permanently underpaid. Sears Roebuck's disregard for bankruptcy laws, debtors' rights, and creditor priorities led to a $63 million fine-the largest in U.S. bankruptcy law history (Jennings, 1999). More recently, one can look to the U.S. Department of Education's administration of student loans and practices tied to preferred lenders as well as significant violations of the honor codes at several U.S. Military Academies.

Ethics represent the moral principles and values that govern the actions and decisions of an individual or group (Lazniak and Murphy, 1993). Results of public opinion studies indicate that 58% of American adults rate the ethical standards of business executives as only "fair" or "poor," 90% believe white-collar crime is "very common" or "somewhat common," and 76% say the lack of ethics in businesspeople contributes to plummeting societal moral standards (Krohe, 1997; Dallas Morning News, 1998; Walker Information, 1998).

In the essay, "The Myth of the Amoral Business," DeGeorge (1999) discusses a commonly held view of American business. One of DeGeorge's major assertions is that the American public does not view businesspeople as unethical or immoral, but instead, as being amoral due to the fact that ethical considerations are often seen as inappropriate in business situations. "Business is not structured to handle questions of values and ethics, and its managers have usually not been trained in business schools to do so," (DeGeorge, 1999, p. 7). The re-examination of this line of reasoning has begun as a result of three significant societal trends: (1) more reporting of scandals and the public reaction to these reports; (2) organizing of consumerists, environmentalists, and other socially-conscious groups, and (3) emerging corporate codes of ethical conduct and ethics programs in addition to ethics conferences, and magazine and newspaper articles on the subject (DeGeorge, 1999). Although all three of these trends are important to the understanding of business ethics, the first two lie beyond the scope of the present paper. A brief account of the third, the corporate ethics movement and its impact on American society, follows.

THE CORPORATE ETHICS MOVEMENT

Prior to the 1960s, business ethics were discussed in U.S. culture but not in a widespread manner. During the decade of the 1960s, however, businesses came under increasing attack for a general lack of social consciousness and unwillingness to address questions related to consumerism, the environment, and the build-up in the U.S. military-industrial complex. Corporations often found themselves on the defensive. American business schools then began to offer "social issues" courses to explore allegations against business practices as well as to discuss possible solutions and remedies.

As the demands of students and consumer groups spread to the general population in the 1970s, the business ethics movement gained strength. Corporations and institutions of higher education responded to this growing widespread disapproval of infamous business practices by sponsoring conferences on business ethics. Over time, colleges and universities established business ethics as a discipline separate from the more general field of philosophy. Courses, textbooks, professional societies, and journals related to business ethics began to form. …