Skip to main content
LAS Background
College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Teaching Business Ethics From A Philosophy Department Perspective

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 , joins them.

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 in ethics.

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 knowledge.

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 cannot" (981b18-19).

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 education.

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 ethical.

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 judgment.

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 is possible.

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 of thought.

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 of identity.

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 relationships.

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 students?"

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 philosophers.


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 : McGraw-Hill.

Hart, Daniel, and Susan Chmiel (1992), "Influence of Defense Mechanisms on Moral Judgment Development: A Longitudinal Study," Developmental Psychology28(4):722-29.

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

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without prior written consent of the publisher.

Kennesaw State University Press
Department of English
Box 2701
Kennesaw State University
1000 Chastain Road
Kennesaw, GA 30144

Betty L. Siegel, President of the University
Lendley Black, Vice President for Academic Affairs
Laura Dabundo, Director of the Press
Anne R. Richards, Editor
Carole Mauge-Lewis, Designer

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Pending.
10 ISBN 1-933483-01-6 13
ISBN 978-1-933483-01-6
Printed in the United States of America