Building Stronger Business and Professional Ethical Practices: A Survey of Research That Asks the Question: Can We Teach Ethics to Young Adults or Is It Too Late?

By Lawrence, William J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Building Stronger Business and Professional Ethical Practices: A Survey of Research That Asks the Question: Can We Teach Ethics to Young Adults or Is It Too Late?


Lawrence, William J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


The question of whether ethics can be taught at all, much less to post-secondary level adults, has haunted philosophers, educators, and scholars for centuries. Educators and professionals continue to ask this question, and no definitive answer has yet come forth. Skeptics feel that morality and ethical standards have been well set by adulthood, and, as many great thinkers of the past have stated, virtue, like morality, is not something that can be taught. Others thinkers, equally qualified, feel that we can teach as well as influence character and behavior and therefore a person's fundamental ethical structure. It is my intention in this paper to explore both sides of this debate and why it more important than ever before to answer this age old question and to seek conclusions as to how a curriculum containing ethics education can be made more effective and relevant to current professional and business needs.

A most important point must be introduced at this point. I draw a distinct separation between the teaching of origins and evolution of ethics as a philosophical concept, one which has been so beautifully developed and taught through the ages by many scholars and professors. These courses can and indeed must be introduced as a fundamental liberal arts core of knowledge to all students. We are in this paper, dealing strictly with the question of whether ethical practices and behavior can be taught in an academic environment to young people whose fundamental moral character has most likely already been largely formed. A moral imperative exists for educators of business and professional students to meet the challenge of dealing with what many feel is a wholesale breakdown in ethical practices, a breakdown that is impacting almost ever sector of our social, political and economic life.

We are bombarded almost daily by newspaper articles, court proceedings, and scholarly journals relating case after case of an ethical breakdown. We see examples of everything from minor indiscretions to outright fraud and the embezzlement of millions of dollars that destroy corporate profits, shareholder trust, and the value of investments and retirement commitments. These examples have left us with an almost total lack of confidence in time-honored capitalistic and social systems as well as in the checks and balances that have protected those systems for many generations

The New York Times (May 20, 2007) ran an article on the appearance before Congress of Monica Goodling who had recently resigned her position as a Bush administration Justice Department liaison. Testifying under immunity, Ms. Goodling admitted to crossing the line in terms of using political considerations in choosing replacements for fired states attorneys general. She stated that "crossing that line" was business as usual and, as many professional studies following the Enron and WorldCom and other cases revealed, almost all persons involved did not feel as though they were necessarily doing anything wrong, much less breaking longstanding ethical guidelines of their professions. Apparently loyalty, working with the team, or each person's individual sense that "everyone was doing it and that made it right" prevailed.

Professor Samuel Freedman, a faculty member of Columbia University's renowned School of Journalism, teaches a course called Critical Issues in Journalism, which deals specifically with ethical issues confronting journalists. As an examination for the fall 2006 course, the professor assigned two essays on ethics in journalism. The exam was published for student access on the class website. Students were instructed that, once they had downloaded the questions, they were to complete the essays in 90 minutes and discuss their work with no one else. As reported in the New York Times, "a review of the examination revealed that a significant number of the 200 students taking the exam had cheated". (NYT December 2, 2006)

During the first half of 2007 alone, the chief of staff to the vice president of the United States was convicted of lying under oath, investment bankers at several major international banks and investment companies were arrested for insider trading and financial fraud. …

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