Sunday, June 7, 2009

An Ethical Ray Of Hope

For more years than I can remember, every fall and spring I taught a two-hour session in a semester-long ethics class conducted at a major university located in New York City. The students are seniors in the undergraduate business school, and the ethics offering is a graduation prerequisite.

The material I present is original; I researched and developed it specifically for this particular institution. I eschew speaking about Aristotle and Plato; I am trying to bring a more modern slant to the lessons. Ergo, I suggest that most people are born with the potential to become ethical, upstanding individuals, and other than lowlife sociopaths like Bernie Madoff (see my January 8, 2009 blog post) people throughout the world want to behave within the acceptable limits set by their society's mores. So what makes normally good people become ethically derelict, or worse? My short course suggests that there are five forces at work here. Without going into too much detail, these forces are: Pressure, Power, Advocacy, Habituation and Challenge. You can't allow too many driving factors into the equation or soon "the devil made me do it" becomes an admissible excuse. My exercise's didactic purpose is to get the students to debate the subject and I hope, to apply my lessons to the working careers that they are all initiating. If you would like to receive the class materials, please send me an email ( and I'll send you a WinZip file (but I'll wait about one week so that I can batch up the requests, if any.)

This past year, I stopped teaching my section because (1) Given all that's been going on in the world, I didn't feel all that pumped up about being pedagogical and (2) With all the thievery on Wall Street and such, I began to sense a systemic breakdown in ethical structures which might eventually capture my students, almost no matter what. I was starting to question ethics' relevance in society today.

When I read the NY Times article linked to below, my eyes nearly bugged out. It seems that at MBA schools like Harvard, Columbia and Wharton, they have seriously augmented their ethics teachings, and get this, business students are binding together to adopt oaths about ethical behavior, somewhat like what doctors do when they follow the Hippocratic tenets. Here's a quote from the article and it almost convinces me to resume my ethical-teaching assignment.

"In the post-Enron and post-Madoff era, the issue of ethics and corporate social responsibility has taken on greater urgency among students about to graduate."

My readers know that when things are bad, I am brutally candid about saying so. Well in this particular instance, a grass-roots movement by MBA students from the finest programs (can others be far behind?) to promote ethical (and legal) behavior is a wonderful consequence that, if it persists, has the power to markedly improve the business climate during the next decade or two. Are these kids really kissing off Gordon Gekko? I sure hope so and I pray that this is a lasting trend. Please read the article...I think it will be an uplifting experience for you.

By contrast, Lewis and Cohen (one of whom was convicted of stock manipulation in 1989) in a NY Times Op-Ed piece, provide scathing condemnation that implicates not only Wall Street and its compensation schemes, but also the government's complicity with the abhorrent practices. The article speaks for itself, and it more than amplifies the themes that I have been writing about in various, earlier blogs. Again, this is a must-read for those who want to know what really is going on with all this opaque government spending nonsense.

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