Teaching Business Ethics: A ‘Classificationist’ Approach
Business Ethics: A European Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, April 2007
10 Pages Posted: 23 May 2011
Date Written: May 17, 2011
It is imperative that business ethics be taught at all MBA programmes, and even at the undergraduate level. While no graduate of law, dentistry, veterinary, medicine, engineering, social work or other professional schools can take a degree in any of these respective subjects without being made aware of the case for the propriety and general beneficence of their calling, the same, unfortunately, cannot be said in the case of business schools. In the latter case, all too often, students are allowed to graduate without ever once being confronted with the argument that business too, and even pre-eminently so, makes an important contribution to society, and is a worthwhile pursuit. All too often, despite even having a course in business ethics, students emerge believing that commerce is either vaguely disreputable, or even that it is totally dishonest per se and exploitative. No graduate school from anthropology to zoology has to suffer any similar ignominy.
Business ethics is seen by many graduate schools of commerce or management as a luxury, which can be jettisoned in favour of other, and sometimes more fashionable, courses. When a business ethics course is offered, the content of the course pays very little attention to the essential ethic of business. Instead, the focus of many business ethics courses is the ethical dilemmas that arise in a business setting. There is a fundamental difference between the ethics of a market and behaving ethically in a business. A market is a process by which individuals interact with one another. Thus, the former examines the actions, interactions and consequences of those actions between individuals as a system, while the later examines the dilemma before an individual and the morality of the choices to be made.
There are 38 unique business ethics titles under the top six textbook publishing companies, 22 of which were published in 2005 or later. (Appendix I lists the publishers and the respective textbooks.) Upon reviewing these textbooks in business ethics, we see a tremendous number of chapters that address corporate social responsibility, the collective responsibility of an organization, how the corporation should treat its employees and personal decision making. (Of the 38 titles, most followed a very similar format, while seven followed the casebook format.) Typically, there is an initial chapter introducing the student to business ethics. Newton & Ford (2006), for example, entitle their first chapter ‘Is Capitalism the Best Route to Human Happiness?’. It then contrasts readings from Adam Smith and Karl Marx, leaving the student with the false impression that philosophical arguments supporting the ethics of the market have not progressed in the past 225 years. Throughout the rest of Newton & Ford (2006), the issue is dropped and the focus shifts to the modern issues that address ethics of business decisions, like corporate responsibility, etc. The exclusion from the discussion of the ethics of business is absolutely typical among these textbooks. Furthermore, in other textbooks (e.g. see Chapter 3 in DesJardins 2006), utilitarianism and private property rights are castigated as Classical Theory that do not withstand modern stakeholder criticisms. Finally, there are the sections of the various textbooks that pit the individual against the corporation. The individual finds himself in conflict with his employer because the company wants him to deviate from his personal code of ethics. For example, a person who is trying to sell a product must lie and say that it is a great product, even though he does not like it himself.
The unfortunate aspect of focusing so much on ethics in a business situation is that it gives scant attention to the underlying morality of voluntary exchange. In short, business ethics classes rarely mention the ethics of business – the ethics of commerce. When the courses do address the topic of whether business is ethical, business is usually cast in a negative light. How can a society’s commerce function at all, let alone in a meaningful and efficient manner, if its practitioners are apologetic about their professions, or even ashamed of them? There is a difficulty in advocating what might be considered by some as ‘boosterism’ for business and free enterprise and this must be faced right at the outset: How can this difficulty be reconciled with academic freedom? After all, there are, no doubt, many professors – both within business schools and outside of them – who see business in precisely this light: a dubious undertaking at best and an exploitative one at worst. It is at this point that the economist can contribute to the dialogue. The economist looks at the economy from both the micro-level and the macro-level. At the micro-level, the economist examines the relationship of trade among individuals and, at the macro-level, the economist takes a systemic perspective. From these vantage points, the economist is able to draw conclusions about the ethicalness of commerce. Unfortunately, not all economists agree; thus, an answer is sought by the ‘classificationist’ approach.
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