Nov 10, 2010

Crossing The Tracks: Ethics in Business Education

Or, why I enjoy working with the FSU Business faculty on Ethics education.

Today, over in the School of Business and Economics, we held a second workshop emerging from a fairly new, needed, and exciting partnership, the Ethics in Business Education Project (EBEP).  Since I provide the history and initial purposes of  the project on our website (which is still under construction), I'll skip over it here, other than to mention three things:

First, EBEP is a collaborative partnership between philosophers and businesspeople.  Second, the model of collaboration EBEP relies on and embodies involves philosophers, as subject matter experts in Ethics, assisting business faculty to develop high levels of competence and confidence in teaching Ethics and in assessing student learning and development in Ethics. Third, the project arose symbiotically both from needs perceived on the side of the businesspeople and from opportunities grasped on the side of the philosophers.

The first and most pressing specific project we saw the need to tackle was reviewing, then developing a better version of, a scoring rubric used for grading student essays responding to typical ethically problematic cases in Business. Again, the history of that process, including the developmental stages of the rubric, is summarized on the EBEP website, so rather than cover that same ground, I'd rather think and write about why this particular exercise took on importance for a philosopher and for business professors, and what took place between us in today's grading workshop.

There is a stock joking response to any mention of Business Ethics:  "Isn't that an oxymoron?" It reveals a common, longstanding, and doubtless not entirely unmerited perception of businesspeople, even Business faculty, as not knowledgeable about, as uninterested in, and as unmotivated by ethical principles, concerns, values, let alone theories, figures, and texts. 

The reality is that those involved in business have always had some sort of  interest in ethics.  Admittedly, this may well have often taken the form of explicitly worked out ethical stances which academics (particularly in the humanities) and the intelligentsia have found less than congenial.  There certainly have been many cases of businesspeople clearly and deliberately acting unethically.  Plenty have used moral language and concepts as window-dressing for what they wanted and aimed to do anyway.  It may well be that due to the nature of business and business education, there are some environments particularly corrosive to ethical standards and reasoning, more seductive in their temptations. . . .

Sure.  But in actuality, many business professionals and professors are very concerned about ethics, and their worries are not simply about keeping up appearances.  In the case of the FSU Business faculty, one key motive for engaging in this collaborative project was that their specialized accreditation (with AACSB International) mandated that they develop some way to assess student's understanding and ability to apply ethical concepts and principles in a business setting.  But there are broader concerns, and you can hear it in the worries whether or not students are graduating from college and entering the workforce with any coherent, articulate understanding of right and wrong.

As our Hackley Endowed Chair for Capitalism and Free Enterprise Studies remarked during his inaugural lecture last Spring, scandals and moral failures on the part of business (particularly corporate as opposed to small-business) have taken a great toll on public trust in businesspeople.  His argument was that if the business community does not want to see the public demand more regulation (which almost always brings unintended negative consequences), a case has to be successfully made that it is not business itself that is rotten, that the demands of business and morality are not inevitably in conflict;  rather,  lack of ethical development or bad ethical decisions on the part of businesspeople is to blame, and needs to be addressed, not least through business education.  I -- and, I suspect, all the members of EBEP -- would add that effective and well-integrated teaching of ethics throughout the business curriculum is needed.  Assessment is an essential component of that.

What I have found when I deal with business educators in EBEP is refreshing to me as a philosophy professor and as a specialist in Ethics.  Unsurprisingly, for the most part, business professors adopt a pragmatic, problem-solving attitude towards the tasks at hand for that day.  Even if they do launch into thinking about more ambitious future ideas about business ethics, or the demands later components of the assessment will entail, they quickly come back to the matter on the table for that day. When handicapped by the clearly inadequate, inconsistent, and often misleading treatments and terminology of ethics content in business textbooks, as well as by their own lack of specialization in the area, they admit this, ask for and accept help or clarification, and then strive to assimilate the more accurate and better-structured information.  When areas for further study, reminders, even outright mistakes and criticisms are pointed out, they consider them without rancor, and incorporate them quickly, keeping an eye on the present goal.

Today, after handing out a worksheet I developed to assist graders in applying the new rubric to specific cases, we reread the case which had been used for this semester's assessment, and worked through each of the scoring areas, determining, for instance, what the salient ethical features of the situation were (since a student's response should pick these out and discuss some of them).  Without going into that specific case in detail, what I can say I enjoyed the most was hearing some features of the situation, previously unnoticed by myself, highlighted by the business participants.  As our discussion unfolded, and as we considered some sample student responses, more facets of the problematic situation came to light.

The one matter in which my contribution was definitely needed was in bringing a conversation back onto track, a conversation that had not so much stalled as it had begun turning round the same axis, whether or not in selecting the various alternatives, the person in the situation would be acting ethically.

I intervened in order to remind the other participants that as far as the exercise went, what we were looking for the student to do was to answer that question from multiple perspectives, each one provided by applying the key concepts from one of the ethical theories studied.  So, the key question while we worked on this task was not simply whether or not the agent's actions were ethical, but whether or not they were ethical considered from this perspective (e.g. Egoism), and then from that perspective (e.g. Utilitarianism), and then from yet another perspective (e.g. Deontological or Duty-Based Ethics), and then. . . .

It was like seeing blocks click into place, or witnessing from inside the teeth on a key fit a lock's tumblers. All of them paused, and then the discussion started again, and immediately one of them brought up Virtue Ethics and which states of character might be exhibited by some of the possible actions (not using that language precisely, mind you -- but that's not really the most fundamental goal). It is difficulty to describe the characteristics of the mode of pleasure I experience  in those collective "Aha moments," but it is something that is at the core of the philosophical life, I think, the joy in thinking things through -- always better when it can be done together.

The governing idea behind EBEP's model of collaboration is that Ethics teaching, assessment, or even research is something that should not be relegated to the philosophers or to the odd person in the department who gets assigned  that class.  Ethical theory, reasoning, and practice is something in which philosophers, other professionals, and just plain people can (and should) make progress, can go from lower to higher levels, can share with and impart to others.  The specific task of EBEP is for philosophers to help raise levels of both competence and confidence for Business professors (and, if we expand, professionals), so that they can do a solid job in their turn leading the neophytes, the next generation of worked and managers, marketers and financiers into a fuller understanding of ethics before we send them into the workplace.

I've found, as a philosopher, that it's not so much specialized knowledge that we possess and have to offer to others.  After all, the texts and thinkers we teach, anyone who wants can buy and study on their own. It's not even the fact that we apply ideas, distinctions, arguments, inferences, categories, that we point out problems, paradoxes, contradictions.  Instead, I think the most important thing we have to offer is experience, and not just any kind of experience:  experience reflected upon, ruminated over, mulled over to flush out the insights they can provide but only with time and attention.

Anyone can take the powerpoint of the first workshop I provided (going over and applying 5 common Ethical theories for the FSU Business Faculty), learn the terms, present the material, perhaps even start to apply it.  It is when the conversation gets off track, or when the student starts asking the tough but answerable questions, that the philosopher as the subject-matter expert is needed, less for the knowledge and more for his or her understanding of what to do with it in the determinate situation.

And with that I'll end, after promising two other, later, related blog posts.  One will have to wait until next semester when I start providing workshops on Ethics pedagogy, and I'll blog about those common thorny but answerable questions students can ask, derailing an entire class if not well-handled .  The other, which I hope to get to sooner, will talk about how the reflective experience philosophy involves can help with understanding one's own life, choices, and emotions.