Thursday, July 19, 2007

Business and ethics: a disconnect ; Part Two: Ways to eliminate hostility; day one

Because of length, I have decided to break this into 2 posts. The first deals with exercises that I do on the first day of class.

As I indicated in part one, three factors that lead to student hostility are, 1) fear, 2) disconnect between philosophy and the ‘real’ world, and 3) the perception that colleges and universities exist as training grounds for people to enter into the market as employees. In this post I am going to outline some approaches that I have found helpful in dealing with this hostility. (They are also helpful in dealing with lack of motivation.) Putting any hostilities, or other issues, on the table, in the open, makes them something we can deal with. People can start to let go of these hostilities through discussing why they exist and whether or not they have merit. Often they do and it is my responsibility to openly and objectively deal with those that do have merit. These exercises are designed to get the students actively involved in doing ethics and to start to look at their own conceptual schemas and moral perspectives. There is nothing particularly earth shattering or original in what I am doing, but they do work and provide a foundation that can be built upon. I am sure that many of you already practice some of these approaches. I welcome additional suggestions.

My overall course objectives are:
1) To get students to begin to understand their own moral perspectives and analyzing moral issues from these perspectives, modifying their perspectives as required by arguments or inability to reach a reasoned conclusion.
2) To start getting them to realize the importance of explaining and justifying their actions. By focusing on #2 we begin to introduce philosophical concepts into the discussion and applying them to their individual schemas.
3) To start to get students to understand the importance of defending their positions in the face of criticism and to construct sound arguments which explain and justify their positions.
4) To provide students with a basic understanding of the major moral perspectives of utilitarianism (act and rule), deontology (Kantianism), ethics of care, and virtue ethics.

My immediate objective in the first class meeting is to get students actively involved in discussing ethics. I have found that this is a good way to bring out any hostilities and other issues that might be present that, if left unattended, could result in students not performing as well as they could. It also establishes that the main learning/teaching strategy is going to be dialogical in nature. I do not rely on lecture. I find that when I lecture many students lose interest, but if we are actively engaged that they stay attentive.

On the first day of class I do 1-2 of the following exercises:
1) I have students take a short survey of questions dealing with practical ethics and have them answer them True, False, or Undecided. I then have students break into small groups and discuss why they answered as they did. We then discuss some of the responses in the larger group setting. The goals of this exercise are to 1) start to make students aware of their conceptual schemas and moral perspectives and 2) start the process of learning how to make a sound philosophical argument.
2) I have them write a one-sentence reaction to the question, “What is the purpose of a college education?” Again I have them break into small groups and discuss their answers. Then we discuss the answers in the larger group. This will bring out the distinction between ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ goods. Each response is discussed from the perspective of it denoting an instrumental or intrinsic good.
3) I discuss the famous ‘trolley problem’ (simplified; a choice between killing one person to save five people who would otherwise die, or letting the five people die) in four different variations and place them at the switch. The first scenario has them deciding to throw the switch and putting the trolley on an empty unused siding thereby saving the five lives. I then survey the class to see how many would throw the switch. Almost universally they will respond that they would throw the switch because we should save lives if we can. We treat this as a moral principle; we ought to saves lives if possible. I then modify the scenario and place a sleeping bum on the unused siding. The bum will be killed if the switch is thrown. Again, almost everyone will throw the switch even if it means killing the bum. I then ask students to explain why they would do so. Most answer in the time-honored fashion that numbers matter and that if we can save five lives by only killing one person then we should do so (besides it is only a bum, some will say). I ask those who would not throw the switch “why.” The response most often given is that killing is wrong. (We can here introduce the distinction between consequentialism and non-consequentialism.) We discuss both of these positions and try to develop reasons that support each position. I then modify the scenario and have their baby playing on the siding who will be killed if the switch is thrown. Not surprisingly, but not easily defensible from what has been said earlier if they would have thrown the switch, most will not throw the switch. I ask them to account for these different and contradictory responses. The fourth scenario is there is one of their children in the group of five and one of the children playing on the unused siding. Most students now groan! We discuss why there is frustration with these examples. I also explain that many problems we face in our lives resemble the trolley problem is structure. I then end with an assignment to find a real life example that resembles the trolley problem. I will use this paper as the focal point to start off the next class discussion.
4) As I take role I have them tell me why they are taking this course, what their expectations re for this course, and/or what they think ethics is. This is another way to introduce the concepts of ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ goods, but it will also uncover some of the hostilities that might exist.
5) As I take role I will ask each student a question on ethics pertaining to their major and ask them to give a reason that they think supports their positions. For example if they are majoring in advertising I will ask if they think it is permissible to use sex or violence to sell a product. If they are in marketing, I will ask if it is morally permissible for a drug company to price a product at such a level that it results in many people not being able to purchase the drug.

By establishing a dialogical approach to learning, I get most of my students to be willing to understand the importance of studying ethics as a means of arriving at an understanding of their own individual conceptual schemas and how these schemas influence how they understand, and act in, the world we live in.

In my next post I will present personal experiences with ethical implications that occurred while I was a manager that I discuss in business and professional ethics courses as ways of getting students to understand and examine the underlying ethical dimensions of their actions in professional life.


  1. I apologize for the formating of this post. I am a complete neophyte when it comes to this.

  2. John the formatting is fine, no need to apologise. I find blogger a bit frustrating myself, since it doesn't recognise tabs or multiple spaces between words or any other techniques to make things look more tidy.

    I engaged in the beginning class with the why care about business ethics question, and got them to suggest counter examples against the local equivalent of Friedman. I think your schema is a fairly transferable first class for a bunch of applied ethics courses though.

  3. John--

    It sounds like you've got some great active learning exercises for your students to get them interested in ethics. I think those are good ways to introduce not just business ethics but really any ethics class.

    Just a quick note about theory and professional ethics. When I first taught business ethics I thought for a long time about whether or not I should save a portion of the first week to introduce students to the ethical theories we're all familiar with. After all, my survey of syllabi on the web showed that almost all business ethics classes do this and many or most of the business ethics texts out there start with such an introduction. But as I started to imagine how I would teach it in business ethics, I could foresee students who had been excited on the first day with glazed eyes by the end of the week and a long slog of a semester ahead of us.

    So I took out the theory and instead just did an emphasis on various reasons that something could be unethical or ethical. Instead of talking about utilitarianism vs. Kantianism, I just explained that both bad consequences and violations of rights were good reasons to think something was wrong but I left out the part about some ethicists thinking that consequences were all there was to ethics, etc. (I introduced similar reasons corresponding to care ethics, virtue ethics, and contractarianism.)

    I found it worked like a charm. It gives them some basic ethical reasoning skills with which to assess almost any situation but it doesn't bog them down into having to decide what theory really speaks the truth about ethics. We have much more rich discussions about problems when they're not locked into being proto-utilitarians or proto-Kantians, and it sets up a really nice way to say "Hey, if at all possible, make sure your business doesn't score badly on any of these measures (consequences, rights, etc)." in my discussion of solutions to ethical problems in business.

    Usually by the end of the semester we've collectively discovered some dilemmas that seem irresolvable if all these reasons are on the same level (it's almost always during the unit on globalization and sweatshops), and by then they're almost eager to hear about the theories. Talking about them tends to then refuel the course and get them thinking that business ethics is just the tip of a bigger ethics-iceberg, and many return for other courses in future semesters. (I did say usually -- I have had semesters where theory just doesn't come up.)

  4. An additional question for you, John. I find that when I try to do early ethics discussions with the students, I usually have at least one hard-core libertarian and at least one hard-core socialist (people who probably have cut their teeth on some internet messageboard somewhere) who tend to dominate and get way in front of everyone else's argumentative pace -- even so much so that you can either engage with them and turn the rest of the class off or engage the rest of the class and lose precious credibility points with them. Do you notice this phenomenon much?

    I've been thinking this is another thing that makes some brighter students hostile to business ethics: they don't want to have their inner-Friedman or inner-Chomsky disturbed by having to reason through the details of individual situations.

  5. If you could post your "short survey of questions dealing with practical ethics" that you "have them answer them True, False, or Undecided" mentioned above, that'd be much appreciated!

  6. I've done something similar to John, giving students 10 agree/disagree questions that I have them answer and discuss on day one. I usually tweak the list each semester, but the most recent version included the following questions:

    Do you have a moral obligation to help those in need?

    Does morality depend on the existence of God?

    Could a parent ever be morally justified in letting her child starve to death?

    Is the following sentence ever true?: “Bush is president and Bush
    is not president.”

    Is it rational to believe something when all the evidence is to the

    Are there universal moral standards that apply to all human beings,
    no matter where they live?

    Is the best life for a person one in which all of his or her desires are satisfied?

    Is it possible to be truly happy if you are immoral?

    Is the life of a young child more valuable than the life of a 22 year
    old college student?

    Should we legalize marijuana?

  7. Adam: As to proper role opf theory in an ethics course, I like your approach. I think that theory has a way of naturally introducing itself in the type of exercises that I use. Someone will always view things as a consequentialist/utilitarian; others will take a more dontological of virtue stand. When this happens we then discuss the main elements of these theories. This most often happens when we discuss the 'trolley problem' (which we will do, 1st day or 2-3rd day.) Regardless, I try to wait until the disucssion brings the need (opportunity)to discuss theory into the open. This way I do not disrupt the flow of the discussion.

    I should point out that I always give a homework assignment so that the students know where we will pick up at the next session. One of the assignmetns may be to look up 'utilitarianism' and be prepsred to discuss it.

    Regarding those students who try to control the discussion I have found a couple of things that work.
    1) Break into smaller groups so that more people can discuss the issue among themselves.
    2) Ask them to put forth the premises that they think support their position. More often then not they will not be able to do so. When this happens I will reinforce the importance of being able to construct arguemnts utilzing premises that if true and if the conclusion follows from them makes the conclusion true. I will be blunt and them students tht it is one thing to make an ascertion, it is another to make an argument.
    3) I will ask other students what they think of the positions that others are presenting. If they agree, why; if they disagree, why?

    I should point out that on the 1st day of class I tell students that I think opart of my job is to 'piss them off.' I tell them I stay up late at night devising ways to accomplish this. Most laugh at this, but when it happens to them, I ask them to remember why I do this, "I will upset you to force you to think! If you cannot defend your position then you have no right to hold it."

    Nathan; Mike's questions are very similar to the ones I ask. In fact, 5 of them are exactly the same or so close as to be almost identical. I will find the ones I use (they are 'lost' in some file) and post them.

  8. For more on using the list of True-False statements, an article in Teaching Philosophy that is helpful is Renée Smith and Dennis Earl, "Getting Started: A First-Day Activity in Philosophical Thinking," Teaching Philosophy 28:3 (Sept. 2005).


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