Can We Teach Ethics??

It’s a common refrain. Don’t blame the business schools for all the bad stuff happening on Wall Street. It’s not the b-schools’ fault, because after all, ethics can’t be taught. The first bit is reasonable enough: the recent financial crisis is the result of a complicated convergence of factors, apparently including bad decisions by quite a number of individuals, and some poorly-structured institutions. But the latter part, implying the futility of ethics instruction at business schools, is simply wrong-headed.

Post-recession, one of the major questions that have emerged is whether ethics is something that can be ‘taught.’ How do you teach something that is supposedly inherent and is as natural as a physical reflex?

We can certainly ‘teach’ ethics we can teach ethics the way we teach a technique. It is not as simple as saying: do not lie, do not steal, etc. That doesn’t work. Adopt a humble approach to learning, focus on large questions, and that will help you to convey the core essence of ethics to others.

Besides, it is the way in which an institution, organisation or a company behaves, treats its employees and handles situations that actually creates and sets the discourse for ethics, thus, setting the right examples and instilling the right values among its employees.

Another concern that seems to predominate is the conflict between personal and professional ethics. While your profession may demand a certain way of functioning and handling situations in the larger interest of things, as an individual you may not be comfortable with it. But then, leadership is all about learning to deal with ambiguity and finding a middle path. That is where the real challenge lies — in finding a sustainable solution, which overrides the apparent concerns of an ethical dilemma. And this dilemma can be handled best, if one focuses on the larger horizon and has faith.

Ethics education has its place, especially in professional schools and if you define it narrowly. Doctors, lawyers and businessmen, too, should be informed of what is forbidden to practitioners of their respective professions. This is only fair to them, as well as being useful for us. When they go astray, and the law steps in to hold them accountable, they’ll be all the less able to plead ignorance as an excuse.

In a broader sense of the word we all have faith in something. While some people may rely on personal or religious faith, others may look at the generic virtues of faith (organisational) for motivation. In both cases the idea is to look beyond and work for something that is more virtuous and significant universally. In fact, only when you have faith, you have the courage to explore and make important decisions. A leader evolves with the intersection of two elements — faith and courage

But to inform business students of what qualifies as ethical is one thing. To make them more ethical is quite another. What can ethics education accomplish, then, beyond informing of professional standards? It can serve as an exercise in self-celebration. Look at us students, how earnest we are in avowing how earnest we are. Look at our institution, how bent we are on making our students better people.

One argument can be that the student, who joins the school and goes on to become a manager later. We should bear in mind that the student here is no ordinary kid; he knows his priorities very well, has decided his career path, has immense expectations in terms of the wealth he can create for himself and has good awareness of the happenings in the outside world. By no way is this an indication that B-schools should not try to impart these teachings to their students as people can change any time in life depending on their personal positions in life, but the real teachings about the problems caused to society by one’s decision and action has to come from an early age.

The best place may be primary schooling, at home where parents groom their child, the culture in his surroundings. These are things which can have a real impact on a person’s perspective on how he looks at society, than trying to teach at an older age where one’s actual thinking cannot be altered much.

Looking back, we can see that with unbridled greed and selfishness as significant factors in causing the recession, traditional virtues are emerging afresh. The large scale disaster could be attributed in part to the way that B-schools had been focusing exclusively on skills and producing not leaders but merely skilled technicians. With such irrational narrowing down of skills, people failed to ask the bigger and relevant questions.

As to the need of the hour, what B-schools need to do is to teach through examples and offer a model that is a blend of discipline and creativity. Most importantly, leaders today should learn to ask the right questions rather than being preoccupied with providing answers.