Turning to Teaching–Business Ethics

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We are heading into the final weeks of summer, the weeks before the semester begins.  Teachers and professors everywhere are beginning to have dreams, literally, about the academic year.  Some of these are nightmares, and some are pleasant.  They are part of the rethinking process.  What will I do differently this semester?  What worked and what didn’t?  How did students respond to a particular discussion or project?  What new information needs to be incorporated?  What new resources are available? This is really why we are here doing this thing called education.

Soon we will see more faculty members around campus (there are already some) working in their offices. (We used to head to the library, but now we can get current journals online at our desks, as can students–this has set a new standard for currency of information in both student projects, and in teaching.) We will be working on syllabi, lecture and discussion outlines, setting up discussion boards for student use, taping and cliping videos or use in class, or simply rereading and rethinking. 

I am doing the same for my business ethics class which I will teach twice this year–a required course for business majors. This is a tricky course to teach.  In many places and among many students, the current wisdom is that all morals and ethics are based on subjective “values,” the free, unconstrained, choices of individuals, about which we cannot judge whether one or another is better.  Judgment would imply the existence of an objective standard beyond the subjective choice of the individual. This notion is so prevalent that it shows up in the reasoning of supreme court opinions.

Another prevalent opinion, which also shows up in Christian instituions like Fresno Pacific, is that our values can only be received as a divine command through revelation–for example the ten commndments, or the explicit commands of Jesus.  All other values are merely subjective choices.  Or people are generally so corrupt, in theological language so sinful that they, or we, cannot know or choose values that are in some measure good.

Sometimes I find that these two claims go together.  A student might say that they realize that all values are subjective, they would not want t impose their’s on anyone, but they have chosen to follow Christian values simply as a personal choice.  In both cases this imposes a particular burden on the teaching of ethics for business.  We can, I suppose, turn to conseqences.  For example people who do not trust a business will not become or remain customers.  And so a business person should want to adopt the value of truthfulness even if there is no deeper, truer reason why one might want to become truthful, that is, even if truth is not good itself. But then we are all capable of finding our way around values that we choose.  We are especially adept at this when we endorse them not in-and-of themselves because we know they are good, but instrumentally for another purpose.

I will present students with another bit of evidence this year.  The Institute for Global Ethics (http://www.globalethics.org/mission-and-values.php)  has identified five core values that are found in every culture.  They have adopted these as their core organizational values and committed themselves to be (the following is a direct quotation):

  • Honest and truthful in all our dealings
  • Responsible and accountable in every transaction
  • Fair and equitable in each relationship
  • Respectful and mindful of the dignity of every individual
  • Compassionate and caring in each situation

Some ethicists might call these “hyper” or “meta” values.  They touch a deeper level than say, I value having a new car, or even I value education. It would seem that something that is found everywhere, in all cultures, might indeed be something more than merely subjective.  A couple of writers, Lennick and Kiel in Moral Intelligence use a similar set of “universal” values (integrity, responsibility, compassion and forgiveness–it seems to me they leave out the meta-value of justice or fairness, but still there is a basic similarity) to form the basis for their moral intelligence test and counsel for organizational leaders. 

I will couple the discussion with a reading of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Lewis makes a philosophical case for the existence of universal values, what he calls the Tao, and offers a list from a variety of cultures throughout history. Some see The Abolition as his most profound piece of writing. It can be difficult for some, but is well worth the reading. The anthropoligist Donald Brown in Human Universals offers another slant on the topic, as does James Q. Wilson in The Moral Sense

In answer to the Christian student who understands the scriptures to point to a divine command theory of basic values, I think I will point to the classic passage theologians used throughout the early and medieval church (and later) from St. Paul in the letter to the Romans(see 1: 18-2:16, here quoting 2:14-15 from the NRSV): “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requries, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness…” Lewis as a Christian writer will help make the case as well.

It seems to me that without this recognition of basic, hyper-, or meta-values we won’t get very far in teaching ethics. And when presented with a basic list like the one quoted above, no one whom I have met wants to deny that they are truly good values that we all ought to embrace. At least this is my experience from the classroom. Today we have to make strong case for the existence of these universal values. If what I intend to outline and argue for with my students is correct, we should be able to get some kind of rough and ready agreement.  I hope it will be a good discussion. If not, I will be re-thinking again for the spring semester. 

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