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Can Business Ethics Be Taught?

Dr. William L. Sparks, Director of Leadership Initiatives

Here at the McColl School we spend considerable time considering the "3 Cs of Leadership," namely competence, character and commitment to community. Developing leaders is at the core of what we do.

Recently Dr. Norris Frederick, professor of philosophy and religion at Queens, spent a day with McColl School faculty, staff and students discussing business ethics. For a program that prides itself on its leadership focus, the discussion was especially relevant. 

In light of the corporate scandals of the last 10 years, as well as the growing sense of public disapproval of many business leaders, the question of whether business ethics should be taught is a no-brainer. We all agree that business ethics is one of the most important topics for future business leaders to be discussing in classrooms today.

The subtler, more difficult question is can business ethics be taught? 

Dr. Frederick facilitated a frank discussion with an engaged and eager group ready to tackle this issue. While he spoke of what it means to lead a "good life," we didn't spend a lot of time discussing theoretical principles or philosophical positions. Rather, he challenged us to think in terms of fostering the "practical wisdom" of our students.

It's one thing to have lofty mission statements and corporate credos, but it's our day-to-day, moment-to-moment interactions with others that shape, refine and reinforce our own individual codes of ethics. That's where the rubber meets the road.

While laws are a critical part of this discussion, Dr. Frederick reminded us that laws only provide an "ethical minimalism" - the things we cannot do. This is a far cry from what business leaders should do. And it's in this arena that difficult issues, often referred to as "right vs. right" decisions, emerge.

So, can ethics be taught?  It's not a new question nor is it unique to the McColl School. Socrates asked it more than 2,400 years ago, and we are still struggling to answer it today. 

At the end of the day the answer is probably no - ethics can't be taught. At least not in the same way one can teach finance or management. However, learning experiences can be created in classrooms that challenge students and faculty to discuss the complex ethical issues that impact us and our community. 

While Dr. Frederick did not try to show us how to teach ethics, he did encourage us to develop the moral imaginations of our students so that they are better prepared for the ethical dilemmas they are sure to face. And in doing so, he helped develop the moral imagination of a faculty and staff dedicated to the "character" component of our 3 Cs of Leadership.   

--Dr. William L. Sparks, Director of Leadership Initiatives

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