New ways to ‘teach’ ethics

The American Accounting Association invited us to organise a multi-disciplinary panel to explore new ideas that overcome the limits of traditional approaches to teaching ethics. We shared insights and provided practical examples for academics and practitioners who want to engage students and foster ethical behaviour in organisations. Through research and insights from leading experts, our aim was to bring different perspectives by emphasizing the interdependencies and complexity of factors that form the overall professional ethos and culture within organisations.

While the topic of ethics within business school has grown in importance, the discussion around teaching ethics and regulating for ethics has also become exhausted. With this session our goal was to defeat the ethics fatigue and reinvigorate the topic by looking at it more systemically and through the perspective of design and learning sciences.

The ultimate question that we addressed through the discussion:

 How do we educate for the development of behaviour and moral reasoning, beyond compliance and box ticking?

A few major issues ground our discussion and make the case for thinking about new ways to teaching ethics, which focus on the conditions that foster capacities for judgment and moral compass.

  • Research claims that accounting students are less ethically aware and capable of moral reasoning compared to other professional groups of students (Rest, 1998)
  • Meta-analysis shows that business ethics education does not necessarily result in internalized ethical values and does not guarantee ethical behaviour (Waples et al., 2009).
  • 80 % of MBAs (US study) state they feel less prepared to face ethical dilemmas the longer they are in school (Aspen Institute, 2008)
  • Although codes of ethics can help raise moral awareness in firms (and through education) (Weaver and Trevino 1999), they do not guarantee impact on professional’s moral judgment
  • “Studies of medical education show that students can and do change, unfortunately in the wrong direction.” (Sulmasy D. Should Medical Schools be Schools for Virtue? JGIM, 2000: 15 (7) 514-516)
  • Students from different ethnicities perceive ethics differently based on the values shared by their socio-cultural environment.

Our panel addressed how to think about ethics and how to foster ethical culture in organisations and learning institutions.

The role and purpose of the professional body

Robert Hodgkinson, ICAEW

A professional body, such as ICAEW, is an invention to help foster ethical behaviour. The institution embodies the very notion that a profession has responsibility to the community and to its members. The regulatory and legal approach is rather different, as it doesn’t have this notion of community and inclusion. In exchange we require our community to share the obligation to be accountable to society and public good, which is exhibited in the royal charter.

We cannot continue to have a conversation only about what has gone wrong with accounting, but need professional bodies to proactively think and develop ideas about what a strong economy and what good accounting means.

The qualification programme is key to the development of the professional, not just at the stage of passing the examination, but supporting the individual in developing sensitivity to issues and critical capacities of judgment.

Most important support that we provide for members takes a softer approach. For example, our technical help-lines indicate the need for support that is not about how to solve a particular issue, but how to take action and ensure institutional support. This support develops very practical life skills – such as, how do to get a CEO to realise the importance of demonstrating integrity?

A very good example of experiential learning put into practice by the ICAEW, is the film “False Assurance”. The film is a simulation of a complex situation in real firm, which requires individuals to perceive and become sensitive to issues in a life form. It brings to life the fact that ethical behaviour is interpersonal, and in this way it shows the complexity of situations in which professionals require courage and judgment to act in the best way.

The importance of ethical systems and positive approaches to teaching ethics

Robert Bloomfield, Cornell University

Ethical philosophy and normative theories could arm people with the tools to rationalise their premeditated actions. So, philosophical theories are not enough to guide genuine ethical behaviour…instead we need to focus on designing ethical systems or ethics by design that consider fostering ethical behaviour more systemically.

One way to look at ethics afresh is to start thinking through positive narratives that defeat the overwhelmingly negative problems that exist within accounting, and present accounting as a solution of many ethical problems that we face in life.

Teaching ethics through positive approach stemming from empirical research in psychology gives people the tools to think about their behaviour in more productive and reflective way.


Teaching through experiences develops the person holistically

Michael Douma, Georgetown University

At Georgetown’s McDonugh School of Business, we teach ethics through an experiential learning method that differs from the prominent Harvard style business case method and the normative approach to teaching ethics. The case study method, while widely used and with some merit, often provides solutions that are remote from the person. On the other hand, the normative or philosophical approach, which introduces students to Kant, Mills, Rawls, and concepts like stakeholder theory confuses students in its inability to provide relevance to particular situations and seem too general.

There is a common debate about whether such approaches have an actual impact on human behaviour. While there is a proliferation of pedagogical techniques that aim to fix human failure and unethical decision-making, education cannot predict or guarantee future behaviour.However, an education in ethics can make you aware of ethical problems so that you can predict oncoming dilemmas and be aware of these.

Introducing Rawls and Friedman through simulation of business practices engages students in experiencing concrete problems and generating solutions, which then enables them to internalise and act on theoretical perspectives.

We need to bring ethics back and early – not at the end of education! We need to bring in philosophers and ethicists to the classroom.

Reviving the notion of telos (purpose) in teaching ethics in accounting

Plamena Pehlivanova, UCL Institute of Education

The growing interest in the behavioural sciences research focuses on the incentives and punishment of unethical behaviour, by simplifying the nature of reasoning and obscuring normative theories by making them irrelevant to practice.

While behavioural science (simply said) measures what is observed, it is not capable of providing for a more complex understanding of the underlying motivations, reasons, capacities, and history that yields certain behaviour. Because it is harder to control or predict how culture and context, and the capacities of judgment could impact behaviour, the process of reasoning is dismissed and replaced by controlling and incentivising for observable behaviour.

Instead of dismissing the role of reasoning, I here question the context and the reasons that enable an individual to engage with ethics and moral reasoning? I argue for the emphasis on critical capacities of judgment rather than compliance and learned behaviour. What needs to happen in order to be able to engage individuals in moral reasoning? And finally, what are the implications of normative theories on the objectives that guide ethical courses and pedagogical techniques which foster capacities of judgment?

Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality is based not purely on irrational passions but on desires that are justified by reason connecting the desire to its function/essence/purpose. As such, morality is a response to human’s sociability and to reasons provided by their socio-cultural milieu. Moral motivation then comes from being able to understand what is a better reason that leads to the highest good/purpose.

Therefore, there is a need to revive the importance of philosophical perspectives and a deeper understanding of human rationality, as intrapersonal and responsive to reasons. This gives prominence to the neo-Aristotelian approach to teaching ethics, which resonates with the concept of ethical systems (as advanced by Jonathan Haidt) in which culture, narratives and environment are key to developing virtues and habits of mind.

The key problem at hand is not only that bad narratives dominate accounting as a discipline, but also that there is an impoverished understanding of its purpose from students, academics and practitioners as a whole.

  • many things about professionalism we don’t understand…different meanings, how is it different to other occupations?” (undergraduate accounting student who responds to the purpose of accounting as a profession)

Such impoverished understanding has a direct impact on society, with implications on the following:

  1. Emphasis on rationality and technical aspects of work that create moral distance, ambivalence and ethical fading
  2. Such ambivalence drives the dehumanisation and instrumental rationalisation of practice, which…
  3. ultimately affects negative perceptions, decline of trust and overall ethos

Currently, we observe a disjointed discussion about the nature of public interest/common good and professionalism, both within practice and academia. We see tensions that are direct result of different normative theories, giving voice to particular values, such as:

  • teaching about public good and social purpose is propaganda!” (a response from academic in discussion about the purpose of accounting)

A philosophical myth that has been shared across many business circles is the neo-Hobbesian view that “it’s every man for himself” and the new Darwinian view that “it’s a jungle out there”, which stands as direct denial of the Aristotelian view that our individuality as humans is socially defined and situated.

The complete summary of the discussion will be shared in our upcoming ‘Ethics by Design’ report.

Here are a few ideas that we have been shared and developed as part of the “Future Professional” publication:

  • Ethics content should be seen as integrated in the curriculum and mission, communicated through the culture, language, narratives and role models of the faculty; and through the shared experiences that extracurricular activities and group research projects foster.
  • The concept of ‘professionalism’ should be taught intentionally and discussed critically (through integrating narratives, experience and philosophy) with the objective of humanising the technical content and helping shape perceptions, responsiveness, emotions and intuitions as part of the professional identity.
  • Individual and group identity should be leveraged as part of the education experience. A course that changes how an individual thinks of herself, and of her classmates/co-workers, has a greater chance of success than one that simply tries to educate the learner/practitioner and impart knowledge and skills. As such, problem-based learning has been shown to improve group cohesion and learning triggered by solving problems, which is of particular importance to developing socio-emotional intelligence, communication, management, and motivation in professionals.