From Analysis to Action: The Evolution of Accounting Ethics Education

By Mintz, Steven | The CPA Journal, August 2016 | Go to article overview

From Analysis to Action: The Evolution of Accounting Ethics Education


Mintz, Steven, The CPA Journal


The overemphasis within accounting ethics education on developing ethical reasoning skills (the "why") to analyze dilemmas maybe failing to engage students in the action process (the "how") because of the clinical nature of moral reasoning methods, such as utilitarianism, Kantian rights, and justice. What is needed is a hands-on approach that builds moral strength and leads to carrying through the analysis with ethical action. Accounting ethics education must evolve to focus more attention on developing skills to act on one's values when ethical conflicts or dilemmas exist in the workplace.

Goals of Accounting Ethics Education

Almost 30 years have passed since Steven Loeb described what the goals of accounting ethics education should be ("Teaching Students Accounting Ethics: Some Crucial Issues," Issues in Accounting Education, vol. 3,1988, pp. 316329):

* Relate accounting education to moral issues.

* Recognize issues in accounting that have ethical implications.

* Develop "a sense of moral obligation" or responsibility.

* Develop the abilities needed to deal with ethical conflicts or dilemmas.

* Learn to deal with the uncertainties of the accounting profession.

* "Set the stage for" a change in ethical behavior.

* Appreciate and understand the history and composition of all aspects of accounting ethics and their relationship to the general field of ethics.

More recently, Tara Shawver studied the effectiveness of a professional responsibility capstone course in meeting Loeb's goals ("An Exploratory Study Assessing the Effectiveness of a Professional Responsibility Course," Global Perspectives on Accounting Education, vol. 3, 2006, pp. 4966,http://bit.ly/294lOWR.) Shawver tested whether case analyses, research papers, class discussions, and exams teach accounting students to relate to the goals by using James Rest's Defining Issues Test, which assesses the effectiveness of these ethics interventions by posing eight hypothetical ethical challenges. She found that "each course component is an integral part of an accounting professional responsibility course and in some way contributed to the effectiveness of teaching accounting ethics." Interestingly, role-playing exercises were omitted, despite their simulation of real world occurrences in accounting.

Accounting students typically know the right thing to do, but when faced with ethical dilemmas they have difficulty actually doing it. Students are exposed to philosophical reasoning methods almost from the first day of class. Mary Gentile coined the phrase "ethics fatigue" to describe the extent of time devoted to teaching theories of ethical reasoning and analyzing ethical dilemmas. She suggests that "some students find such approaches intellectually engaging: others find them tedious and irrelevant. Either way, sometimes all they learn is how to frame the case to justify virtually any position, no matter how cynical or self-serving" (Educating for Values-Driven Leadership, Business Expert Press, 2013).

Giving Voice to Values

In this author's opinion, the goals of accounting ethics education must be broadened to better represent the desired end result. In particular, accounting students should be taught techniques to act on what they know is right in the face of counter-vailing pressures. Internal accountants and auditors, as well as external auditors, face these pressures when top management (or clients) want to put the best possible face on the financial statements without due regard for financial reporting standards. The resulting pressures challenge accounting professionals to voice their opinions in a way that alters the outcome. Gentile calls this "Giving Voice to Values" (GW) (Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right, Yale University Press, 2010).

Traditional ethics education focuses on the why, but not the how. It limits the discussion to the following issues:

* Who are the stakeholders potentially affected by my decisions and actions? …

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