Teaching Business Ethics From A Philosophy Department
Richard J. McGowan
In the thirteenth century, St. Bonaventure wrote a marvelous
little treatise entitled De reductione artium ad theologiam
(The Reduction of the Arts to Theology) in order to resolve
the controversy over the place and, indeed, the very independence
of philosophy. It seems that the University of Paris was engaged in
an intemperate rhubarb of the sort not unknown today. The
Dominicans, Franciscans, and Latin-Averroists each believed that
the university should reflect their school of thought, and
curricular discussion had turned heated. Bonaventure argued that
the Dominicans allowed too much license to natural reason, but at
least they sided with the Franciscans regarding the
Latin-Averroists: throw those rascals out!
Bonaventure won the battle, and the arts were to serve theology.
However, Thomas Aquinas won the war, and, to that extent, natural
reason was accorded respect as a viable avenue to truth. Thus
Aquinas became a champion for the philosophic perspective.
Of course, curricular disagreements were not new in the time of
Bonaventure and Thomas, nor have they disappeared, from the
academy. Contemporary controversy over "the canon" demonstrates
that debate over what should be taught and how material should be
handled is still with us. My entry point into the discussion
involves the question of how best to handle the education of
business students with regard to ethics.
My position blends the thought of Bonaventure and Thomas: it is
less important that a business ethics course and its teacher be
housed in the philosophy department or the business school-though
there are practical matters to consider-than that the course be
taught from a philosophical perspective by a person with an
education, formal or informal, in philosophy, and especially in
ethics. I support this point, first, by delving into the writing of
Plato to show that the problem of who should teach ethics is
several millennia old. Second, relying on Aristotle, I explain
Plato's distinction between being good and knowing the good. I
suggest that the cognitive aspects of ethics typically are
underestimated by those outside the discipline. Then, relying on
recent psychological research, I show that the philosophic
perspective is the most adequate perspective, at least in terms of
human activity, for instruction in ethics. Finally, I offer caveats
with regard to philosophers teaching ethics in professional
schools. including business schools.
Plato and an Ethics Education
Plato's dialogue Meno concerns virtue and speaks not
only to the question of what virtue is but also to the possibility
of its being taught. At one point, Socrates asks Meno, "Since the
goodness does not come by nature, is it got by learning?" (89b).
After Meno agrees that people learn goodness, the two conclude that
teachers of goodness must exist (89d). Just as the two inquire into
where to find these teachers, Anytos, a "good citizen" of Athens ,
Socrates says to Anytos, "If we wanted Meno to become a good
doctor, shouldn't we send him to doctors to be taught? And if we
want him to become a shoemaker, to a shoemaker? And so on with the
other trades?" (90a ff.). Anytos and Meno assent to this line of
reasoning. The three then ask after "good men" and come to the
realization that the question is not whether or not there are good
men in Athens or whether there have been in times past, but whether
virtue can. be taught. It amounts to the same question whether the
good men of this and former times have known how to- hand on to
someone else the goodness that was in themselves or whether on the
contrary it is not something that can be handed over, or that one
man can receive it from another. (93a-b)
This passage suggests that people may be good but without
conceptual knowledge of the good and without the ability to "hand
over" knowledge of ethics. In other words, Plato is arguing that
there is a difference between having the right opinion about the
good, sufficient for action, and having knowledge of the good,
sufficient for teaching.
As far as Plato is concerned, knowledge is the key to being good
at a craft, and it is the same for the teacher of ethics. Plato
argues in the Republic that the key to piloting a ship
well is knowledge of piloting. It does not matter what other
knowledge an applicant for a position as ship's pilot may have
(488a ff.). After all, "no other tool if picked up will make anyone
a craftsman or contestant, nor will it even be of use to the man
who has not gained knowledge of it or undergone adequate training"
(374c). Relevant knowledge, not just any knowledge, enables a
person to do an activity well.
Anyone who takes Plato's reasoning seriously-and of course it
does not have to be taken seriously-might ask: who has knowledge of
ethics and has "undergone adequate training" with regard to ethics?
Have business professors `undergone adequate training' to teach
business ethics'? Have pharmacists and doctors "undergone adequate
training" to teach healthcare or biomedical ethics? Does it make
sense for professors in accounting, or marketing, or finance to
teach ethics? Does it make sense for philosophers to teach
accounting, or marketing, or finance? Plato answers these questions
at the conclusion of the Republic:
And there, dear Glaucon, it appears, is the supreme hazard for a
man. And this is the chief reason why it should be our main concern
that each of us, neglecting all other studies, should seek after
and study this thing-if in any way he may be able to learn of and
discover the man who will give him the ability and the knowledge to
distinguish the life that is good from that which is bad, and
always and everywhere to choose the best that the conditions allow,
and, taking into account all the things of which we have spoken and
estimating the effect on goodness of his life of their conjunction
or their severance, to know how beauty commingled with poverty or
wealth and combined with what habit of soul operates for the good
or for evil, and what are the effects of high and low birth and
private station and office and strength and weakness and quickness
of apprehension and dullness with one another, so that with
consideration of all these things he will be able to make a
reasoned choice between the better and the worse life. (618b-e)
There is no doubt in Plato's mind that students "should seek
after and study" philosophy and that the "man who will give him the
ability and knowledge to distinguish the life that is good from
that which is bad" is the philosopher. Plato would not be convinced
that an education in pharmacy, accounting, engineering, or
journalism prepares professors to teach the philosophical material
Plato and I agree that there are good people who are professors
in those disciplines but whose knowledge is of a different sort
than philosophical knowledge. It is not a question of whether an
accounting professor is virtuous or not, it is a question of the
kind of knowledge the accounting professor has to "hand over" to
students. A difference exists between doing an activity and knowing
the concepts that underlie it. In his own discussion, Aristotle
clarifies and embellishes the ideas of Plato.
Aristotle and the Cognitive Content of Ethics
Aristotle opens the Metaphysics with a discourse on
learning. His discussion draws a distinction between the "man of
experience," i.e., the practitioner, and the artist, i.e., the
person who knows theory. After observing that "animals other than
humans live by appearances and memories, and have but little of
connected experience" (98b25-6), Aristotle states that "the human
race lives also by art and reasoning" (980b227). He adds that "art
arises when from many notions gained by experience one universal
judgment about a class of objects is produced" (981a5-6). Aristotle
here is suggesting that "art" is a matter of conceptual
Yet it happens that the practitioner's "experience seems in no
respect inferior to art, and people of experience succeed even
better than those who have theory without experience" (981a14-15).
While the practitioner may not have the conceptual knowledge
underpinning certain actions, he or she may do good acts or do an
action well. For instance, a baseball player may become great
because of hitting prowess but may lack the conceptual
understanding of baseball or even of hitting. As such, great
players do not always make great coaches, for if they lack
knowledge of baseball or of hitting itself, or if they cannot
communicate, they cannot teach.
On the other hand, "if a person has the theory without
experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the
individual included in the universal, the person will often fail"
(981a20-22). The person with conceptual knowledge alone may not
recognize to whom or what the knowledge applies. Nonetheless, "we
think knowledge and understanding belong to art rather than
experience and we suppose artists to be wiser than people of
experience for men of experience know that the thing is so, but do
not know why, while the others know the why and the cause"
(981a29-30). Professors uneducated in ethics lack theory in a way
that philosophers do not.
Again, it is not a question of whether philosophy professors,
business professors, or pharmacy professors are good and virtuous.
They are usually very good role models for students to imitate. But
simply being a good role model does not mean an individual
possesses knowledge of the "why and the cause" of ethics. If
business ethics courses involve the transmission of knowledge, then
the practitioner will perform less capably than the artist, i.e.,
the one with "knowledge and understanding."
Aristotle's reasoning suggests that teaching involves more than
simply doing well in an area. The difference between a person who
knows something- and one who does not is that "the former can
teach, and therefore we think art more truly knowledge than
experience is; for artists can teach, and people of mere experience
Aristotle's observations and analysis notwithstanding, business
schools do not take the knowledge associated with ethics very
seriously. For instance, more than 60% of business schools require
no ethics course. Then, too, one current debate in business schools
concerns the desirability of teaching ethics using the stand-alone
course or using an "integrated" model, sometimes referred to as a
"diffusion model" or a "dispersion model." In the integrated model,
the teaching of ethics is incorporated into business classes by
business professors. These professors, with extensive education in
business fields such as marketing, accounting, and finance, teach
ethics as a secondary subject. It is likely under these
circumstances that ethics will be handled superficially by people
with limited knowledge and understanding of ethics. Further, while
schools sometimes have dedicated, stand-alone courses in ethics,
several schools of my acquaintance staff the course with people
whose experience is exclusively in business or business
Much like other institutions in our society, business schools
underestimate the cognitive aspects of ethics and choose the
practitioner over the artist. To their credit, business schools
stress the importance of ethics and of acting ethically. The
integration model's repetitive mentioning of ethics does indeed
teach students that ethics must count for something. The result,
however, is a curriculum in ethical business, not in business
ethics. The integrated model may do a very good job at teaching
students to want to behave ethically; it does a poor job of
teaching students how to reason to the sort of behavior that is
In other words, ethics, like accounting, depends not only on the
desire to do well but also on the knowledge to do well. A good
accountant not only wants to perform the tasks associated with
accounting well, but also has the "knowledge and understanding" of
accounting necessary to the task. An accountant ignorant of good
accounting procedures or indifferent to good accounting practices
will produce poor results. The discipline of ethics is no different
from other disciplines insofar as ethics is also a knowing related
to a doing. A person may perform a wrong act either through
cognitive failure or failure of the will. Sometimes people want to
do the right act but do not know what it is. Sometimes people
behave unethically knowing full well that they are doing so. The
ethics professor works on. the cognitive aspects of ethics in a way
that people trained in other disciplines cannot. The ethics
professor, like the accounting professor, offers "knowledge and
understanding" in his or her field of specialization.
That "knowledge and understanding" can grow. As the research of
Lawrence Kohlberg and of William Perry and colleagues shows, skills
associated with making ethical judgments change and develop over
the course of a lifetime. The "ail and reasoning" of a child is
different from the "art and reasoning" of the adult; the child's
"knowledge and understanding" is considerably less developed than
the adult's. Children need to learn what most adults already know,
namely, to be good. But adults can do more than be good; they can
take the time and trouble to grasp "the why and the cause" of
ethics and of being good.
Most adults, if Kohlberg is correct, do not undertake the last
step. Most people think that it is enough to do good and that it is
unnecessary to know the reason and the cause of doing good. Most
people fail to appreciate the cognitive aspects of ethics. This
observation can often be made of business schools and certainly of
the typical college student, including business students.
Kohlberg, Perry, and the Structure of Thought
Society underemphasizes the body of knowledge associated with
ethics, and students make the same error. For the last several
years, I have asked students in my business ethics classes and in
my team-taught, six credit-hour ethics, law, and business classes
to respond to the following questions:
- Can ethics be taught?
- If so, how?
- If not, why not?
- What is the relation of ethics to business?
My students say things such as, "Ethics are completely
subjective," "Everyone has their own personal ethics to abide by,"
"Each individual has a unique lifestyle," "Everyone has their own
definition and their own views on what is considered ethical
behavior and what is not," and "No two people have the exact same
ethical beliefs." Of course, if my students are correct, then I am
wasting my time and theirs in class. Further, if they are correct,
ethics are wholly relative to the individual, and ethical
subjectivism is the correct position to adopt with regard to moral
But Students also say that "our thinking is shaped by what we
are taught from the people around us and this varies from region to
region," point to "parameters of what our culture has bound our
ethics by," suggest that people "have different origins and are
accepted differently depending on the groups," and that "society
will often have an idea of what the norm should be for a certain
ethical standard." If these students are correct, I can only teach
societal expectation and norms, and cultural relativism is the
position to adopt with regard to moral judgment.
Some students see the logical conclusion of the responses
articulated above. They have told me that "moral knowledge cannot
be taught, it can be instilled," "ethics cannot be taught because I
believe that one's ethical values are a result of personal
experience and morals, which cannot be taught," "today students are
being taught in classes to reinforce their moral standard," and
"when faced with the question whether or not ethics can be taught I
am filled with mixed emotions." Other students are not sure if
ethics can be taught. One student commented that ethics "can be
taught if done tastefully and thoughtfully. Ethics should be taught
as a subject that has no final answer."
Would students dare make these sorts of remarks to an accounting
professor or a finance professor? They would never think to say,
"Accounting cannot be taught" or "Finance cannot be taught."
Students assume that there is a body of knowledge associated with
accounting and finance but do not seem to think the same about
ethics. Further, and more important, students understand their
ignorance when it comes to accounting and finance, so they see that
further development in those fields is possible. With regard to
finance or accounting, they accept the observation of Thomas
Aquinas that "it seems to be the nature of human reason to progress
by stages from the less perfect to the more perfect" (ST I-II, 97,
1). They are not as apt to see the possibility of further
development in ethics even if the psychological research of
Kohlberg and of Perry and colleagues shows that further development
Lawrence Kohlberg has shown that people "progress by stages from
the less perfect to the more perfect" level of moral development.
He also has found that people do not necessarily move to the "more
perfect" stages of moral development. Some people stop developing.
That is, when the skills of a certain stage of moral development
are challenged and shown to be wanting. some people, including some
students, disengage from the hard work of growth. They flinch from
the work of both maintaining integrity, or an intact sense of
identity, and accommodating challenges to their identity.
Yet challenges to the sense of self, called cognitive
conflict by Kohlberg (1981), can produce upward development.
For example, research by Kohlberg shows that moral dilemma, real or
imagined, can induce moral growth (27-8, 146-7). The move from one
stage of development to another is not, however, a function of
gathering more information-even if students constantly refer to
learning as a matter of "knowing more facts." Kohlberg writes,
"Presumably, then, movement to the next stage involves internal
cognitive reorganization rather than the mere addition of more
difficult content from outside" (146). If so, the advance to a
higher stage of thought is a matter of re-orienting the structure
Kohlberg's work charts those structures, noting the safe harbors
that shelter people from moral development. Of particular interest
to those teaching ethics, including business ethics, are the safe
harbors of stages 3 and 4, but especially the "society maintaining
orientation" of stage 4. Although the person in stage 3 or stage 4
has more capacity to resolve moral issues than the person in the
self-interested stages of youth, or stages I and 2, the
capabilities of the stage 3 or 4 thinker can improve. In the first
two stages, "maintaining the expectations of the individual's
family, group or nation is perceived as valuable in its own right,
regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is
not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social
order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting,
and justifying the order" (18). in the third level and the last two
stages, "there is a clear effort to define moral values and
principles that have validity and application apart from the
authority of the groups or people holding these principles and
apart from the individual's own identification with these groups"
(18). Growth to stages 5 and 6 frequently demands a restructuring
Perry's research is analogous to Kohlberg's. For instance, Perry
observed that when people, including students, face cognitive
dissonance -- Kohlberg's cognitive conflict -- they
often avoid adjusting their orientation to the world and altering
their identity. Such a student demonstrates "the wish to retain
earlier satisfactions or securities, the reluctance to admit one
has been in error and most importantly, the wish to maintain a self
one has felt oneself to be" (Perry, p. 52, 1999). In professorial
jargon, students do not get out of their comfort zone. Perry
suggests that they resist learning.
Perry even observes common techniques of resistance, or
negative defense mechanisms: escape (177), wherein a
person detaches himself or herself from the conflict, at least in
part; tempering (178), wherein a person does not engage
the problem and hopes it will go away; and retreat (182),
wherein a person regresses to a lower stage of thought instead of
growing toward the unknown. Perry notes that retreat is often
accompanied by anger and hatred directed towards other positions
and the people who manifest them (177). Other researchers (Hart and
Chmiel, 1992; Haan, 1963) offer similar observations.
Advance, notes Perry, "involves risk, subjective and objective"
(178) and forces a "reiterated choice between courage and despair"
(32). Perry remarks that movements from one position to another
"express the work of considerable psychic energy" (49). Both
Kohlberg and Perry suggest that the higher stages of thought
involve a restructuring of identity. At this point in the paper, it
is germane to ask: does teaching business ethics from a business
point of view involve restructuring? Does teaching healthcare
ethics from the perspective of a healthcare professional demand a
restructuring of thought? Can there be "a clear effort to define
moral values and principles that have validity and application
apart from the authority of the groups or people holding these
principles and apart from the individual's own identification with
these groups" when the individual lacks a structure of thought
apart from that of business, or healthcare, or journalism, or
whatever discipline is involved with applied ethics?
Academia houses different disciplines in various schools not
only because different substantive bodies of knowledge exist but
also because different disciplines provide different avenues of
thought. People educated in different disciplines think
differently. If moral development is a matter of "internal
cognitive reorganization," people in the same discipline as the
student, with a similar structural perspective, are less likely to
stimulate any sort of reorganization. People are needed therefore
who, formally or informally educated, can stand outside the
perspective of the discipline and teach ethics for those within the
discipline under ethical scrutiny.
Were Bonaventure alive today, he might countenance philosophy,
but he would not write De reductione artium ad negotium (On the
Reduction of' the Arts to Business). Business ethics can only
be taught from a philosophical perspective.
Caveats Regarding the Philosopher
If the preceding reasoning holds, then it is a necessary
condition for educating students that business ethics be taught
from a philosophical perspective by a person educated in
philosophy, especially ethics. But stating that a philosophical
perspective and a philosopher are needed is not the same thing as
saying that they suffice for teaching business ethics. It is not
enough that a philosopher teach business ethics, given the
rancorous treatment many philosophers give business and business
students. Far too often, no love is lost between philosophy and
business. I have observed over the years and at many schools that
the two disciplines, business and philosophy, have an uneasy
relationship and that their discomfort affects faculty
Anecdotes abound. At one school, two philosophers were hired to
teach the business ethics course. Within a week of the semester's
start, the dean of the business school was besieged by students
from the classes. It seems that the professors had told the
students they were wasting their time majoring in business
and that they should get a "real major." At one school where I
taught business ethics, a business professor said to me, somewhat
derisively, "You know what they are like in the liberal arts." I
said, "Yes, my office is in the liberal arts." At the same school,
my colleagues in the philosophy department would pat my shoulder
and ask sympathetically, "How can you teach so many business
I am not alone in my observation that there is a divide between
business schools and the liberal arts. A dean at Leeds School of
Business, Robert Kolb, noted that the situation is similar to that
described in The Two Cultures, C.P. Snow's treatment of
the divide between faculty in science and in the humanities.
Philosophers at times do not appreciate their own discipline's
history and are consequently hostile toward business enterprises.
As my philosophical colleague Richard Klonoski (2003) points out,
"Thinkers such as Aristotle, St. Thomas More, Adam Smith, even St.
Thomas Aquinas, either accept the fact that human beings are
`commercial beings' or indeed revel in this fact. For example, both
David Hume, in his essays, `Of Commerce' and `Of Refinement in the
Arts,' and Smith, iii The Wealth of Nations, argue that
human beings have a natural tendency or propensity to engage in the
commercial activities of exchange and barter" (27). As Aristotle
put the matter of property, "the amount of property which is needed
for a good life is not unlimited; there is a boundary fixed" (Pol.
1256b32-34), but, nonetheless, "there is a natural art of
acquisition which is practiced by managers of households and by
statesmen" (Pol. 1256b37-8).
Aristotle's thought seems especially appropriate for
philosophers to remember as they teach business ethics. On the one
hand, Aristotle says of "the theory of wealth-getting" that "the
discussion of such matters is not unworthy of philosophy but to be
engaged in them practically is illiberal and irksome" (Pol.
1258b9-12). Philosophers who are contemptuous of business activity
pay heed to only half their philosophical history. Such a matter as
teaching business ethics is not unworthy of philosophy or
I have argued that business ethics should be taught from a
philosophical perspective by a philosopher. The problem of who
should teach ethics dates back at least to Plato, as does the
distinction between knowing the good and doing the good. Modem
psychological research suggests that moral advance involves higher
thinking skills of the sort normally found in the discipline of
philosophy. But the philosopher teaching business ethics must
remember that business activity is a natural human activity.
These are the thoughts I try to keep in mind as I teach business
ethics. My affiliation is with the liberal arts, but my office is
in the business school. Sometimes I feel like a man without a
country, but I know that dual citizenship is possible.
Aristotle, Metaphysics and Politics.
Haan, Norma (1963), "Proposed Model of Ego Functioning: Coping
and Defense Mechanisms in Relationship to IQ Change,"
Psychological Monographs 77:571, noted in Boss. Judith
(2003), Ethics for Life. New York :
Hart, Daniel, and Susan Chmiel (1992), "Influence of Defense
Mechanisms on Moral Judgment Development: A Longitudinal Study,"
Klonoski, Richard (2003), "Unapplied Ethics: On the Need for
Classical Philosophy in Professional Ethics Education,"
Teaching Business Ethics 7:21-35.
Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981), The Philosophy of Moral
Development. San Francisco : Harper and Row.
McGowan, Richard J. "The Prescient Pedagogy of Plato."
Proceedings of The Institute for Liberal Studies-Science and
Culture. Kentucky State University, KY.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae.
Perry, William (1999), Forms of Intellectual and Ethical
Development in the College Years: A Scheme. New York : Holt,
Rinehart, and Winston.
Plato, Meno and The Republic.
Copyright © 2005 Kennesaw State University Press
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