Socrates, Ethics Can be Taught
THE corporate and Wall Street communities are wrestling not only with the issue of profitability, but also with the more difficult and subtle issue of ethical behavior. A number of tools have been designed to bring ethics to the forefront of business development training.
But can business ethics be taught? Judging from current trends and from the amount of money now being thrown at the problem, some people must think so.
Prestigious academic institutions-starting with Harvard University, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Tech-have picked up the challenge. We are tired, these institutions seem to imply, of hearing about so many of our graduates going the wrong way.
As a result, the curriculums at these and other universities are brimming with topics related to ethical standards, ethical behavior and the difference between good and evil.
In order to bring ethical issues directly to people in business-and to teach moral choices-we, at the Center for International Leadership, designed a program composed of readings, discussions and periods of reflection on ethical questions that people have been dealing with from time immemorial. The program is not necessarily designed to bring the participants to a clear conclusion. Ancient and recent history serve as a background demonstrating a continuity of the ethical problems themselves. For example, some of the groups focus on the ethical conundrums of Abraham Lincoln, and then try to relate them to their own business lives. Specifically, we show how Lincoln was caught between the need to win the Civil War and save the Union, and his own strong conviction that slavery was basically immoral. But Lincoln, in a letter to the publisher, Horace Greeley, stated that saving the Union, not ending slavery, was his first priority. Does this mean he had a dual moral standard?
Lincoln is joined during the discussions by Plato, Aristotle, the Chinese philosophers and the voices of the Old and New Testaments. And modern thinkers are added who bring together the moral dilemmas of our generation: Martin Luther King's challenge to unjust laws; Milton Friedman's admonishment of the business community for limiting its social responsibilities to increasing profits; and an immediate post world War II play by Friedrich Durenmatt, "TheVisit," about an impoverished village that is ready to sell its soul for economic well-being.
In exposing hundreds of business executives to thoughts, reflections and inner doubts of the past, I have noticed something very interesting. It is that people working in business are searching for their own identities through history. And when they are suddenly brought face to face with the necessity of making their own moral choices, as they are in our program, they develop deep questions.
Would they have dropped an atomic bomb on Japan in order to end the war earlier, as Harry Truman did? Would they be willing to sacrifice 5,000 jobs in order to save the company? Are they ready to deal a mortal blow to a competitor knowing that thousands of people would suffer? Would they kill? Do they think the ends justify the means, as professed by Machiavelli?
Most business people, I have found, have a tendency to escape into gray areas-but these exercises force them back into the black and white. And the participants suffer, squirm and try to wiggle out of giving direct answers before we force them to make a moral choice.
But in the end, most go the right way-the majority are firmly convinced that there is nothing in life more precious than integrity. And they believe there are situations when economic security is not worth the inner torment that normally follows a wrong choice.
But many people in business admit that they have not really been tempted and never had to face the ultimate choice that Adam and Eve had of eating or not eating the forbidden fruit. And they are honest enough to state that they are not entirely sure how they would behave. And in that kind of an answer, their basic human integrity clearly shows,
Can you teach business ethics? Probably not in traditional ways. But if you expose businessmen-and students getting ready to go into business-to real ethical dilemmas, then you have a chance.
Modern business executives, living within the legal and moral restraints of our society do not have to face such life-and-death choices. Their challenges reflect much more the materialistic rather than spiritual and political circumstances. Thus their problems are much simpler: either to live by an imposed or self-developed value system or to step outside. Material rewards are swift and sometimes enormous in our society. Their dark side is not a potential social punishment. It is simply contending with an inner torment.