There have been so many instances of unethical behavior by people in powerful business and government positions that business schools are being pressured to produce graduates who will behave ethically. And business professors—like me—are sincerely considering how to approach ethical issues in our classes.
There are ethical dilemmas in which the right course of action is debatable, and it is fashionable to make ethics a complex topic. But it seems that most of the unethical behavior by people in powerful positions is clearly unethical. There’s nothing mysterious about it. I think students–and all people–need principles that will help them know what is right.
Here’s my 10-second lecture on ethics: Obey the law, and treat other people kindly, honestly, and fairly–the way you would like to be treated. I think this simple advice covers most circumstances pretty well. It’s independent of any particular religion, and it doesn’t seem to conflict with most religions. When people behave according to the spirit of these ideas, ethical problems tend to disappear.
This approach doesn’t challenge students to determine what is right. Instead, it challenges students to do the right thing. And I think that is the bigger challenge for all of us. I think most of us know what is right most of the time; the question is whether or not we have the will to do it.
Most of my students do not seem confused about what is right or wrong. In most cases, they understand what is right. But they see the world as a place in which it’s normal for people to play to win, even if winning entails unethical behavior. And they may be tempted to do the wrong thing. I think we need to level with students. We need to tell them, “Yes, the world’s like that. You have to decide what kind of a human being you want to be and how important it is to you to do the right thing.” We need to confront them with the challenge of listening to their conscience.
This I believe.