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Can Ethics Be Taught?

The corporate scandals of recent times indicate an ethical degradation. Is it that people are becoming  more unethical. The concern is how do we ensure more ethical behaviour among employees. This raises the question ‘Can ethics be taught’ Though academicians say that it is possible to teach ethics , general understanding is that it cannot be taught. It we go by the belief that it is useless to teach ethics we will need to prepare ourselves for more ethical failures around us. Hence this paper looks at increasing ethical awareness among adults through case study methods.


In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal announced that ethics courses are useless because ethics can't be taught. Although few people would turn to the Wall Street Journal as a learned expert on the teaching of ethics, the issue raised by the newspaper is a serious one: Can ethics be taught?

The issue is an old one. Almost 2500 years ago, the philosopher Socrates debated the question with his fellow Athenians. Socrates' position was clear: Ethics consists of knowing what we ought to do, and such knowledge can be taught.

Most psychologists today would agree with Socrates. In an overview of contemporary research in the field of moral development, psychologist James Rest summarized the major findings as follows:

Dramatic changes occur in young adults in their 20s and 30s in terms of the basic problem-solving strategies they use to deal with ethical issues.

These changes are linked to fundamental changes in how a person perceives society and his or her role in society.

The extent to which change occurs is associated with the number of years of formal education (college or professional school).

Deliberate educational attempts (formal curriculum) to influence awareness of moral problems and to influence the reasoning or judgement process have been demonstrated to be effective.

Studies indicate that a person's behaviour is influenced by his or her moral perception and moral judgements.

Much of the research that Rest alludes to was carried on by the late Harvard psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg was one of the first people to look seriously at whether a person's ability to deal with ethical issues can develop in later life and whether education can affect that development.

Kohlberg found that a person's ability to deal with moral issues is not formed all at once. Just as there are stages of growth in physical development, the ability to think morally also develops in stages.

The earliest level of moral development is that of the child, which Kohlberg called the pre conventional level. The person at the pre conventional level defines right and wrong in terms of what authority figures say is right or wrong or in terms of what results in rewards and punishments. Any parent can verify this. Ask the four or five year old why stealing is wrong, and chances are that they'll respond: "Because daddy or mommy says it's wrong" or "Because you get spanked if you steal." Some people stay at this level all of their lives, continuing to define right and wrong in terms of what authorities say or in terms of reaping rewards or avoiding unpleasant consequences.

The second level of moral development is the level most adolescents reach. Kohlberg called this the conventional level. The adolescent at the conventional level has internalized the norms of those groups among whom he or she lives. For the adolescent, right and wrong are based on group loyalties: loyalties to one's family, loyalties to one's friends, or loyalty to one's nation. If you ask adolescents at this level why something is wrong or why it is right, they will tend to answer in terms of what their families have taught her, what their friends think, or what Americans believe. Many people remain at this level, continuing to define right and wrong in terms of what society believes or what laws require.

But if a person continues to develop morally, he or she will reach what Kohlberg labelled the post conventional level. The person at the post conventional level stops defining right and wrong in terms of group loyalties or norms. Instead, the adult at this level develops moral principles that define right and wrong from a universal point of view. The moral principles of the post conventional person are principles that would appeal to any reasonable person because they take everyone's interest into account. If you ask a person at the post conventional level why something is right or wrong, she will appeal to what promotes or doesn't promote the universal ideals of justice or human rights or human welfare.

Many factors can stimulate a person's growth through the three levels of moral development. One of the most crucial factors, Kohlberg found, is education. Kohlberg discovered that when his subjects took courses in ethics and these courses challenged them to look at issues from a universal point of view, they tended to move upward through the levels. This finding, as Rest points out, has been repeatedly supported by other researchers.

A team of five researchers investigated programs at 50 top-ranked master of business administration (MBA) programs in the United States and abroad.

Among the findings:

• One in three programs requires course work in ethics, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility.

• The number of stand-alone ethics courses in MBA curricula has increased by 500 percent since 1988.

• Thirty-nine of the 50 schools have a center dedicated to ethics, corporate social responsibility, or sustainability.

These developments at top-tier schools reflect trends unfolding across the broader landscape of business education, says John Fernandes, president and CEO of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International), which counts 1,100 member schools in 71 countries. In his opinion, the focus on ethics is sure to pay future dividends in the corporate world in terms of fewer instances of lying, stealing, and other forms of malfeasance.

Role models, not courses, are needed


People who coach organizations and executives on ethics, however, say the academic approach doesn't work. Among them is John Bruhn, a Scottsdale, Ariz. management consultant with an ethics specialty and an academic résumé that includes service as provost of Penn State University at Harrisburg.

"No one is going to come out of those courses as a different person," Mr. Bruhn says. "The thing those courses are going to do is create awareness. They're not going to change behavior because ethics is learned by modeling, not by reading a bunch of books over a weekend."

To impact behavior, Bruhn says, organizational cultures need to lead the way. Too often, executives come to learn, he says, that "it's the end product – the results – that count.... Boards of directors don't want to know the details of how you got them." A better way, in his view, is for corporation boards to set higher expectations for conduct and for executives-in-training to spend more time in mentoring relationships. He also says healthy companies affirm that taking less profit is sometimes a necessary cost of maintaining high ethical standards.

Others believe patterns of moral behavior are formed long before students reach college. The key period for shaping a person's moral character falls between the ages of 2 and 10, says Alex Pollock, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former CEO of Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago.

"If you're 22, it's too late," Mr. Pollock says. He sees today's academic centers for ethics-related research as "luxury goods ... another example of the wealth of our society." In his view, companies looking for truly ethical leaders need to study individual behavior on the job and see who can be trusted to resist the smallest temptations.

"I'm looking for someone who has a fundamentally puritanical disposition, [who is] honest, even under extreme pressure," Pollock says. "I want someone for whom not taking someone else's money or anything else isn't a decision. It's just automatic."

For executive coach and psychologist Kevin Fleming of Jackson Hole, Wyo., managers can learn ethical behavior, but not from courses that teach "what you should do." Instead, they need to embrace feedback from colleagues and advisers in order to "understand the values inside you that would determine what you would do" in a sticky situation. Today's courses are having an impact, he says, although not the one he'd like to see.

Can ethics be taught? If you look at the hard evidence psychologists have amassed, the answer is yes. If you read the Wall Street Journal, you wouldn't have thought so.

On at least one central point, academics and consultants agree: Ethical behavior at the top requires better training.

Using a case as a method of building ethical awareness is one way of increasing ethical awareness and may lead to ethical action.

Buying books at traffic signals which are not original reprints, downloading music, buying copies of music albums, tickets in black, paying some amount or money to the policeman, ignoring someone else who has been committing a theft, all of this has been part of our daily life.

Sometimes it pricks our conscience and sometimes we are not even aware that it is an ethical violation.


Plagiarism, intellectual copyright, inspired movie making, inspired music, the list goes on. However, it is the point when the individual is not aware that it is an ethical issue which can be dealt with by making the individual aware that there is an ethical dilemma. So though we say we cannot teach ethics we can make people aware, think about it which increases the probability of taking an ethical decision.

Think through the following cases. There is no right or wrong answer.


Shyam , is an employee working with red battery. He is the trusted employee working with the organisation for the last 16 years. The organisation is doing very well. Its success is based on responding to customer needs fast. Delivery is on time.

One such instance of responding to an important delivery, he has been stopped at the check naka. Octroi has to be paid. However the officials there are asking for a bribe. Customer is king is the philosophy- What should he do?



Keshav, a fresh new designer is just out of fashion school. He is raring to go. He get gets picked up by a new female designer to start working with her as an assistant. He starts work with a lot of enthusiasm. Fashion shows etc. As he spends more time in the organisation he realises that the Fashion designer  , Manda Nathani is picking up garments from various sources and cutting  the tags and stitching her label on it. He does not think it is right. Also she seems to have a soft spot for him. He thinks it is best to play along and work with her for some more time, get experience and a foothold in the industry. What should he do?


Case 3


Alisha, is working in a small company. She is a new entrant. She was brought to the company by Neeta who is her boss. Alisha is a bright smart enthusiastic individual. During her work she has become close to Neets’s boss. Neeta’s boss shares with her information. He is planning on firing Neeta. Alisha is now in a fix. She is close to Neeta and know that Neeta has no idea something like this likely to happen since she has put in 20 years of hard work. Alisha want to share this information with Neeta. Though she feels  that it will not be right to share this information with Neeta. What should Alisha do?


Case 4


A trust working for the upliftment of poor students . It is working in the city. However they decided to work in the rural areas . They decided to build a school for the rural area students. A residential school with free education and teachers going from Mumbai to teach them. To purchase this land the trust contacted some local people. Land was identified and ready to be purchased. However , while working with the bureaucracy they was no movement of the file. There was no response for 6 months despite followup. Maybe bribe would work. The trust could pay a small amount to be able to achieve something good in the larger perspective.

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