Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Does Teaching Ethics Do Any Good?

Editor's Note: The Public Interest Section of the American Accounting Association is pleased to publish the following blog post by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Please contact lawrence.chui@stthomas.edu with questions, comments, or suggestions about our blog, or to express interest in our organization. Disclaimer: When you read the comments of our columnists, please keep in mind that they only speak for themselves. They are not expressing the positions of the AAA or of any other party.

[This blog first appeared on Steve's blog site, “Ethics Sage.”] 

Does teaching ethics work? If teaching ethics does no good, then why are we doing it? The answer may lie in knowing what are (or should be) the goals of teaching ethics.

First, let’s discuss what ethics education is not and should not be expected to do. One thing I’ve learned from over thirty years of teaching ethics is it should not be expected to make students more ethical. Yes, we can teach ethics. Most of us do so all the time because positions we advocate reflect our values and values are the foundation of ethical behavior.

We need to realize that our focus on teaching students the particulars of various ethical reasoning methods may not be sufficient to get students to act ethically. Why? Most students typically enter ethics classes as moral relativists and don’t feel comfortable advocating for the truth of one moral position over another. Moreover, students may lack the confidence to discuss moral issues, especially if they have not taken a course or two on philosophy.

So, what can ethics do to make students appreciate that moral issues arise in our personal lives and in the workplace that must be dealt? We need to focus our education on more than moral thinking. We need to pay attention to moral action.

How do we do this? We should start by inculcating values in students. This is extremely important because our society has morphed into one that is based on self-interest, not the interests of the broader community. In accounting, this is antithetical to the public interest dimension of the work of an accountant and auditor.

Perhaps we don’t spend enough time understanding what values mean. Values are things that have an inherent worth in usefulness or importance to the possessor. Moral values then means the standards of behavior determined through principles of right and wrong with regards to proper conduct. It is related to a virtuous, ethically upright, principled way of doing things.

But let’s be clear. It’s not just any values we should teach. To do so just adds strength to the notion that it is alright to promote any values—the moral relativists view.

One of the reasons I like to use virtues in my discussions about values is the terms are similar, at least with respect to characteristic traits of behavior that make for a morally good person. There are certain virtues that are commonly accepted as the right way to behave including honesty, kindness, compassion, fairness, civility, diligence, responsibility, and, most important for accountants, integrity.

Beyond values education, there are reasons why teaching ethics is important. On a practical level, we live in a time where financial scandals abound—witness the subprime mortgage mess of 2008-2009 that triggered a major financial recession. It seems financial scams are increasing as well, and a good example is the fraud in the government’s PPE program during the coronavirus and the paycheck protection program. We need to address these real life issues in our ethics classes because students can relate to them. Using specific events to teach values makes ethics education real.

Another reason to teach ethics is to give students the tools to counteract the possibility that faulty rationalization and external pressures will lead to unethical decisions. We’ve heard it before. Rationalizations given include to be a team player, it’s standard operating practice, the item in question is not material, and just go along this one time and you won’t be asked to do it again.

Perhaps the most important reason to teach ethics is to help students develop the critical thinking skills that will enable them to give voice to their values formed by character-based education. The ethical reasoning methods have a role to play here but we should realize that just because a student can figure out what to do and why, that doesn’t mean they will act that way when push comes to shove.

The role of ethics education is not to make students more ethical, but rather expose them to ethical dilemmas that will allow them to develop their own ethical decision-making process. We want them to be more confident in engaging in ethical dialogue. By doing so, we provide students with the skills and knowledge needed for them to make ethical decisions throughout their lives.