Friday, August 03, 2007

Do Business Ethics Courses Do Any Good?

... and by "doing any good" I mean do they actually cause students to behave more ethically?

A hard issue to study, but surely there's some research on it, even with some mickey-mouse measure of ethical behavior? Or maybe there's an epidemiological study or two of people convicted of white-collar crimes -- are they any more or less likely to have been exposed to business ethics courses than an appropriately matched group of non-criminals?

Well, shoot. I can't find a single study. As far as I can see from the journals, no one has ever studied the effects of taking a business ethics course on real-world behavior. Hm!

A number of studies have looked at whether taking a business ethics course is related to self-reported attitudes about business ethics or sophistication of reasoning about moral dilemmas. The results are mixed, with some studies finding that students completing business ethics courses show more ethical or more mature responses (Boyd, 1981; Glenn, 1992; Hiltebeitel & Jones, 1992; Murphy & Boatright, 1994; Loe & Weeks, 2000; Luthar & Karri, 2005) and others finding a very limited relationship (Duizend & McCann, 1998; Conroy & Emerson, 2004) or none at all (Wynd & Mager, 1989; Borkowski & Ugras, 1992; Smith & Oakley, 1996; Martin, 2007).

Many of these studies are flawed in not having control groups or control questions. Without control questions, students can be rated as "more ethical" by means of simple strategies. For example, a number of studies simply measure the degree of students' self-reported condemnatory attitudes about hypothetical violations of ethical standards. Students may then appear more ethical simply by showing a bias toward regarding any presented scenario or behavior as ethically problematic -- a response strategy that ethical training courses may tend to encourage but which needn't show any real improvement in moral understanding, much less in moral behavior. The literature is, if anything, even worse than the literature on the relationship between religion and moral behavior.

Let me hazard a guess as to why there are no published studies on the real-world effects of business ethics courses: There is no effect. Not overall (again, perhaps, like religion). But studies with a null effect have to be pretty good (or pretty large) to be published, and given the difficulty of the assessment no such good or large studies yet exist.


Anonymous said...


Would like to raise the issue of circularity with you, which I believe may have some relevance to your interest in ethical behavior.

The more I focus on my internal speech and emotions the more I find myself in agreement with a statement by Stuart Hampshire:

"Gradually ...I have come to weigh and appreciate the full force of Hume's dictum--"Reason both is and ought to be, the slave of the passions." Translated into the linguistic action of contemporary philosophy, this dictum becomes--"In moral and political philosophy, one is looking for adequate premises from which to confer conclusions already and independently accepted because of one's feelings and sympathies." It is difficult to acknowledge the bare contingency of personal feeling as the final stopping point when one is arguing with oneself, or with others, about the ultimate requirements of social justice. But I am now fairly-sure that this is the true stopping point."

A political philosopher, Areyh Botwinick, from Temple, adds to this perspective when he states "...the passions that both Hobbes and Hume envisage is evocative of the circular motion of human life, where the reasons generated by reason are largely concerned with clarifying the ends to which our passions are driving us and figuring out the most expeditious means for getting there, rather than in any objectcive sense validating the ends."

If there is, indeed, a certain arbitrariness to epistemology then perhaps all we are left with empirically is the imperative to deepen our understandig of the human passions.

Anonymous said...

I have no data to offer, just an anecdote. In a former (less happy) life, I taught ethics to serving police officers; part of a mandatory course in policing introduced by the state government as a response to widespread perception of police corruption in that state. Two former students in the course (though not of mine), detectives at big inner-city station, were arrested on charges of drug trafficking. I looked at their student records: both had failed the ethics component of the course. Maybe professional ethics is a better diagnostic tool than a pedagogic tool! Or maybe these two were too stupid to pass or to get away with corrupt activities.

BTW, I think it might be interesting to study the relationship between other areas of study and behavior. I think that studying heuristics and biases, and social psychology more generally, affected my behavior: I am less impressed by anecdotal evidence like the story I just recounted than I was. And I think that's a good thing: it makes me less dogmatic in some ways. I even think there is a (weak) relationship between distrust of individual experience and breaking the hold of a certain right wing individualism.

Anonymous said...

The idea of ethical content has always baffled me. Isn’t it true that the common ethics class (the one taught during the first stages of the paideia of our young and tender college children) goes over very abstract philosophical comparisons between competing theories, such as deontology, utilitarianism, etc.? And yet, a business class in ethics might look very different; there are often many complexities in a given craft that relate to pre-existing moral commitments that practitioners might not be able to locate without instruction. The field of nursing might be an example.

But back to content: In a group discussion with Harry Frankfurt last year, the question was posed: ‘ok, so bullshit surrounds us, and we are not instilling immunity to it in our college education. So what can instructors do differently’? Frankfurt said something along the following from what I recall: logic classes and the like seem to have little value; what seems crucial is having an instructor who embodies a zeal for truth.

Given how anemic the content of our philosophy often is, it is a good thing that philosophy professors will often give a truth-seeking role model to follow. But simply not putting up with bullshit is a pretty narrow part of the moral spectrum. It is not hard for a philosopher to be a courageous and honest narcissist.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Jim, I am tempted toward something like the view you describe, in my more pessimistic (and empirical) moods. Haidt puts a similar view nicely when he says that in morality, emotion is the dog and reason in the tail; and the dog wags the tail, not the other way around!

Yet I do think it is something of a despairing conclusion, on the face of it. All our moral reasoning, all our moral thinking is not -- as we generally assume -- in the service of getting at something more objective or closer to right, but rather simply to rationalize foregone conclusions determined by our emotions?

Neil: Thanks for the story -- though I agree with you about the potentially misleading nature of anecdotes! There has been some research on other sorts of relationship between study and real life, though I haven't looked at it closely. On heuristics and statistical fallacies specifically, my recollection is that one only sees substantial improvement with very advanced students.

Micheal: That's a nice story about Frankfurt. I certainly think its possible that there's a null effect because some methods of instruction are actually morally harmful, counterbalancing the ones that are useful. I don't relish being a pessimist, and I hope my classes, at least, aren't morally useless. But how do I know?

Anonymous said...


A less despairing outlook might argue that if indeed we tend to be driven by our emotions/passions then it becomes imperative to engage in practices or "reflections" which may tend to reveal that emotions and feeling inevitably arise but don't necessarily need to be acted on.

In addition, there is a further benefit which might flow from the acknowledgment of the primarcy of emotions/passions in our lives. Botwinick sums it up nicely when he states "Reason, which is an active set of capacities that is differentially distributed among human beings divides us from one another. The passions, which refer to a common set of susceptibilites or vulnerabilities such as pleasure and pain, are broadly distributed among human beings and therefore unite us."

The recognition of that kind of potential connection with others seems to move one quite far from the zone of despair.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You have a point! Maybe it's only because I'm a philosophically-oriented reasoner that I find it distressing that philosophically-oriented reasoning doesn't seem to have the effects one would like on one's moral behavior!

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