Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Do Business Ethics Classes Make Students More Ethical? Students and Instructors Agree: They Do!

I'm inclined to think that university ethics classes typically have little effect on students' real-world moral behavior.

I base this skepticism partly on Joshua Rust's and my finding, across a wide variety of measures, that ethics professors generally don't behave much differently than other professors -- and if they don't behave differently, why would students? And I base it partly on my (now somewhat dated) review of business ethics and medical ethics instruction specifically, which finds shoddy research methods and inconsistent results suggestive of an underlying non-effect.[1]

On the other hand, part of the administrative justification of ethics classes -- especially medical ethics and business ethics -- appears to be the hope that students will eventually act more ethically as a result of having taken these courses. Administrators and instructors who aim at this result presumably expect that the classes are at least sometimes effective.

The issue, perhaps surprisingly, isn't very well studied. I parody only slightly when I say that the typical study on this topic asks students at the end of class "are you more ethical now?", and when they respond "yes" at rates greater than chance, the researcher concludes that the instruction was effective.


Nina Strohminger and I thought we'd ask instructors and students what they thought about this. We wanted to know two things. First, do instructors and students think that business ethics instruction should aim at improving students morally? Second, do they think that business ethics classes do in fact tend to improve students morally?

Our respondents were 101 business ethics instructors at the 2018 Society for Business Ethics conference, plus students from three very different universities: 339 students from Penn (an Ivy League university with an elite business school), 173 students from UC Riverside (a large state university), and 81 students from Seattle University (a small-to-medium-sized Jesuit university, where Jessica Imanaka coordinated the distribution). Surveys were anonymous, pen and paper. Students completed their surveys on the spot near the beginning of the first day of instruction in business ethics courses.

Using a five-point scale from "not at all important" to "extremely important", Question 1 asked respondents to "rate the importance of the following goals that YOU PERSONALLY AIM to get [to have your students get] from your business ethics classes:

  • An intellectual appreciation of fundamental ethical principles
  • An understanding of what specific business practices are considered ethical and unethical, whether or not I [they] choose to comply with those practices
  • Tools for thinking in a more sophisticated way about ethical quandaries
  • Interesting readings and fun puzzle cases that feed my [their] intellectual curiosity
  • Practical knowledge that will help me be a more ethical business leader [them be more ethical business leaders] in the future
  • Satisfying my [their] degree requirements
  • Grades that will look good on my [their] transcripts
  • Brackets indicate changes for the instructors' version.

    The target prompt was the fifth: Practical knowledge that will help them be more ethical business leaders in the future.

    [students in a business ethics class]

    Responses were near ceiling. 58% of students rated practical knowledge that will help them be more ethical business leaders as "extremely important" to them, the highest possible choice. The mean response was 4.44 on the 1-5 scale. This was the highest mean response among the seven possible goals. 40% of students rated it more highly than they rated "satisfying my degree requirements" and 48% rated it more highly than "grades that will look good on my transcript". Responses were similar for all three schools. If we accept these self-reports, gaining practical knowledge that will help them actually become more ethical is one of students' most important personal aims in taking business ethics classes.

    Instructors' responses were similar: 58% said it was personally "extremely important" to them to have students gain practical knowledge that will help them be more ethical business leaders in the future. The mean response was 4.41 on the 1-5 scale.

    Question 2 asked students and instructors to guess each other's goals (with the same seven possible goals). Students tended to think that professors would also very highly rate (mean 4.71) "practical knowledge that will help students be more ethical business leaders in the future". Professors tended to think that students would regard such knowledge as important (mean 4.09) but not as important as satisfying degree requirements (mean 4.42).

    Question 3 asked respondents how likely they thought it was that "the average students gets the following things from their [your] business ethics classes". The same seven goals were presented, with a 1 - 5 response scale from "not at all likely" to "extremely likely".

    Overall, both students and instructors expressed optimism: Both groups' mean response to this question was 3.84 on the 1-5 scale.

    Based on this part of the questionnaire, it looks like students and instructors agree: It's important to them that their business ethics classes produce practical knowledge that helps students become more ethical business leaders, and they think that their business ethics classes do tend to have that effect.

    On the second page of the questionnaire, we asked these questions directly.

    Question 4: Do you think that, as a result of having taken [your] business ethics classes, [your] students on average will behave more ethically, less ethically, or about the same as if they had not taken a business ethics course?

    Among instructors, 64% said more ethical, 35% said about the same, and 1% said less ethical. Among students, 54% said more ethical, 45% said about the same, and again only 1% said less ethical.

    Question 5: To what extent do you agree that the central aim of business ethics instruction should be to make students more ethical? [1 - 5 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree"]

    Among instructors, 63% agreed or strongly agreed and only 19% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Among students, 67% agreed or strongly agreed and only 9% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

    The results of these direct questions thus broadly fit with the results in terms of specific goals. Either way you ask, both business ethics students and business ethics instructors say that business ethics classes should and do make students more ethical.


    Many cautions and caveats apply. The results might be influenced by "socially desirable responding" -- respondents' tendency to express attitudes that they think will be socially approved (maybe especially if they think their instructors might be watching). Also, instructors attending a business ethics conference might not be representative of business ethics instructors as a whole -- maybe more gung-ho. Students and instructors might not know their own goals and values. They might be excessively optimistic about the transformative power of university instruction. Etc. I confess to having some doubts.

    Nonetheless, I was struck by the apparent degree of consensus, among students and instructors, that business ethics classes should lead students to become more ethical, and by the majority opinion that they do indeed have that effect.



    [1] However, Peter Singer, Brad Cokelet, and I have also recently conducted a study that suggests that under certain conditions teaching the philosophical material on meat ethics can lead students to purchase less meat at campus dining locations.


    Philosopher Eric said...

    “I'm inclined to think that university ethics classes typically have little effect on students' real-world moral behavior.”

    Exactly professor. And surveys like this one do not in any way, shape, or form, test the moral impact of ethics classes. Instead standard experiments (with control groups and such) should be required to assess these matters.

    Such surveys do display something that I consider interesting though. They display the mentality of students and professors who are asked to engage with the rhetoric of standard moral notions. Here there is the choice of willingly “drinking the Kool-Aid”, and so hypothetically accepting what society expects as the behavior of “good people”, or instead playing along with the farce to potentially get ahead. This particular survey suggests that a low percentage of students and professors grasp that they’re essentially pawn’s of social pressure here. Otherwise the results probably wouldn’t have been quite this one sided.

    The problem with permitting social notions like this to influence us so strongly, I think, is that this should hinder scientists from exploring our nature amorally. While no discovery in physics will be considered “immoral” given the subject matter, this is a distinct possibility for a field like psychology. And perhaps this is one of the reasons that physics has become a “hard” science, while psychology has not? Perhaps there are certain elements of our nature which have been too “immoral” for us to accept? If so then we may need a respected group of professionals with accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, axiology, in order to help our soft sciences finally harden up, and so teach us a great deal more about ourselves.

    Winter Wallaby said...

    I see a difference between ethics instruction that aims to make students generally more ethical, versus instruction that aims to make students aware of practical, domain-specific, ethical problems that they might not have familiarity with.

    There are a large number of ethical situations in which almost everyone agrees on and knows what the right thing to do is: we all know that we should clean up after ourselved in public areas, not talk during someone else's presentation, and (if a professor) return students' e-mails. It makes sense to me that ethics professors perform no better on these tasks than anyone else (although I can understand why some might be surprised by these results), because they have no specialized knowledge that would help them behave ethically than anyone else. I would expect they have the same tradeoffs as anyone else: e.g. they know they should return the student's e-mail, but on the other hand, it would be better for their eventual tenure (and more fun) to work on their paper.

    On the other hand, there are some ethical situations where the correct decision is less obvious, either because they require specialized knowledge, or because they're unusual, so they require extended thought to see how general ethical principles apply. For example, a medical professional might need to think about the benefits of patients being able to rely on doctor-patient confidentiality, versus the possible harms to third parties from a patient's behavior. Someone without domain-specific knowledge might not have as good a handle on the benefits and harms, and someone who hadn't thought about the decision carefully before, might make a bad "snap" judgment. For these sort of situations, I can see that ethical instruction might make a person more likely to make the correct decision. (It's also possible the instruction just teaches them to blindly follow the tradeoffs professional organizations have set - I'm not sure which is the case.)

    I know little about the content of business ethics classes, but it seems to me it would be more like medical ethics than general philosophy of ethics.

    While I'm not surprised that ethics professors are no better at general ethics, they might be better than others at making snap decisions about runaway trolleys (or about eating meat, which strikes me as an interesting case in between general and domain-specific knowledge). However, the one example I have (Professor Anagonye) was not encouraging.

    Howie said...

    If the respondents are unethical might their answers be lies?

    Philosopher Eric said...

    I agree about the distinction that you’re making. One form of ethics class might be referred to as “Indoctrination”, or exactly what professor Schwitzgebel says is the reason stated for providing ethics courses for various professions. The other would be more psychological, or to help people grasp our nature itself. Of course university officials do not consider themselves in the business of propaganda, so best to slide the whole thing under the carpet under the title of “education”!

    Philosopher Eric said...

    It seems to me that what’s commonly considered “unethical” (or hurting someone else for personal gain) could exist in responses that concern either lies or truths.