At the end of my business ethics final, I asked students to reflect on what they had learned through the semester about how to be ethical. We cover various ethical theories, how ethics can become part of the culture of a business, and why it should, along with a large number of case studies. But there is also the personal side of it. Students are confronted with themselves as moral persons.
Here is what a few said in answer to my question. They all gave me permission to post their responses.
“The most important one was that it is harder than we think to be an ethical person…it takes time and practice…we need good role modes.”
“Its the small choices made early on which show who you are and how to change if needed.”
“In order to be an ethical person, I must practice ethical behaviors. By making an effort to practice generosity, you are less tempted by greed…”
“It won’t happen [being ethical] if you do it just some of the time.”
“Being an ethical person is a challenge because it not only challenges your values, but it also questions who you claim to be.”
“An unethical decision can mess up so many lives!”
“…as Christians we are called to be ethical.”
Not bad for a semester’s worth of reading and discussion. These statements get to the bedrock of understanding ourselves as ethical beings. They avoid the simplistic approach in which all we have to do is make good decisions when faced with particular choices. And none of them avoided the issue by claiming that ethical imperatives do not apply in business, or that it doesn’t matter because people will do whatever they want.
They showed also that they knew that it is the small things, and the habitual behaviors that we practice everyday in business, the basic policies we follow (telling the truth to customers and partners, preparing honest expense accounts, standing by our promises even when it hurts financially, treating people fairly) that shape the ethical character of our organizations. There are no grand theories here, but neither ethics nor business is about grand theories. This kind of good practical sense, or practical wisdom, as Aristotle calls it, or perhaps plain wisdom, as the writer of Proverbs says, will, it seems to me, help guide them in their future professional lives.