Can ethics be taught?

Financial Mail - - YOU SAID... - Su­san Stos Jour­nal­ist/ethics lec­turer

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.

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