Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ethical Theory in Business Ethics Courses

It may seem like an oxymoron, but faculty administrators at even research universities can be hopelessly narrow-minded regarding knowledge and how it is to be conveyed. For example, how often are faculty members encouraged to give a lecture or two re-teaching material largely missed on exams (followed by another, shorter examination on that material)? Do faculty administrators work with faculty members in professional schools to see to it that the applied courses are not severed from their basic (i.e., more theoretical substratum) discipline? One of the secrets in the “sauce” at Yale’s professional schools (e.g., Law, Divinity, etc.) is this salience of the respective basic disciplines (e.g., political theory and theology, respectively). Synergy comes gushing through once the false dichotomy is recognized. Before I went to Yale, I was a masters and doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, where the dichotomy was alive and well in the university’s social reality; I had to “walk back” the dichotomy myself as I discovered philosophy (and religious studies) while I was still studying business.

Business ethics was one of my doctoral fields of study at Pitt. The philosophy department there was at the time one of the best in the U.S., so used an elective to take my first course in the discipline. I began with two intro courses; before I knew it, I was taking junior and senior courses, such logic and philosophy of mind. The latter course turned out to be the most intellectually intense course I took in my 18 years as a university student (had I discovered philosophy in college, I would have three rather than five degrees). It occurred to me at the time to start taking ethical theory courses, as business ethics was one of my doctoral fields. Within philosophy, I gravitated to practical philosophy—in particular, to ethics, political theory, and philosophy of religion. I treated these as foundations for the field of business, government, and society in business.
It dawned on me that none of the business doctoral students concentrating in business ethics had taken an ethical theory course in philosophy. That is to say, I was stunned to find a subfield of ethics reduced to management. Ethics proper is a subfield of philosophy, not business; ergo, business ethics is ultimately grounded in philosophy, with managerial implications. I think business schools have put the cart before the horse and letting go of the horse. A cart without a horse isn't going to go very far (though perhaps it can go in circles).

From my educational experience, I contend that ethics courses in business schools ought to emphasize ethical theory, with managerial implications/applications used as much to illustrate the theories as to understand the ethical dimension of business. Managers in the business world have told me that business schools should do what corporate training cannot, rather than being duplicative. I think deans miss this point, perhaps because they are so oriented to sucking up to corporate managers in order to get corporate donations. In my own thinking, theory enlivens rather than detracts from praxis. I think business school faculties are in the grips of the false dichotomy. Corporate managers would doubtless admit that they are ill-equipped to teach ethical theory. Moreover, training is a better fit with what corporate folks do. Business schools, or else philosophy departments, could offer regular as well as continuing education courses in business ethics with ethical theory readings, lectures, and discussions going beyond the superficial “rights, utility, and justice” hackneyed reductionism of business ethics courses in business schools.