Can ethics be taught?
While I have no quibble with anything in your article, “For Goodness’ Sake” (Cover Story, July 26–August 1), there is so much more your readers should know about ethics.
I’ve written a programme about ethics and ethical decisionmaking that some schools are using. I believe ethical education needs to start early and be ongoing. I liken it to learning about nutrition: a two-day seminar in the middle of one’s life is not going to change behaviour, but if the subject has been inculcated for years there is a constant and growing awareness of it.
That may still not alter conduct, but knowing certain things about ethics may make people more informed. Our ethics are affected by such things as hunger, time and peer pressure, and emotions such as lust and disgust. We are more likely to help a stranger in a bakery than in a more neutral-smelling environment. In fact, our personal moral codes are often just rule of thumb, intuition or gut responses.
There is also a phenomenon called “ethical fading” and “ethical blindness”, where a group of people working closely on a project develop tunnel vision and cannot see the moral dimensions of what they are doing.
And while I agree with your author’s point about unethical firms having dominant leaders, the point is not taken far enough. According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in the US, [it’s about] authoritarian leadership coupled with unrealistic objectives, a one-dimensional incentive scheme, the language used in the boardroom, rule ambivalence and a disconnection from responsibility. Bad decisions are not just made by bad people. Good people also make unethical decisions, and that is the crux of ethics.
I recently wrote a paper that touches on the ascension of virtue ethics in business. Using virtue ethics in the boardroom may once have made a CEO a laughing stock, but there is definitely a shift towards social investment and upliftment, and environmental awareness.