Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tittle on non-philosophers teaching applied ethics

Peg Tittle has absolutely no patience for non-philosophers teaching applied ethics. Is she right? Here's her case:

  1. "As far as I can see, business ethics taught by business faculty, ethics programs run by managers, and so on – any applied ethics taught by non-philosophers – is superficial at best.  First, following a code is just an appeal to custom, an appeal to tradition, which philosophers consider a weak basis, an error in reasoning..."
  2. "legal moralism is prevalent: if it’s legal, it’s right, and if it’s not illegal, it’s not wrong.  Few philosophers (and I daresay few intelligent people) accept this equivalence of moral rightness and legality."
  3. "the so-called ‘media test’ and ‘gut test’ are essentially nothing but appeals to intuition, which is nothing more than childhood conditioning that makes us say X ‘feels wrong’"
  4. "ethics as done by non-philosophers is that what takes place is usually preaching not teaching.  That is, course material consists of ‘This is the right thing’ and ‘Do this in this situation’ – professors simply convey simply the current conventions and standard practices and legal obligations.  The underlying principles and values are unexamined, and likely to be inadequate or contradictory in any case. "
  5. "The human resources director or management executive is simply not equipped to examine the principles and values enshrined in the code she or he advocates nor to approach an ethical issue with any rigor (for example, to figure out whether affirmative action programs are really fair, to determine if a proposed advertising campaign is really coercive, or to decide if anticipated environmental destruction is ethically justifiable), let alone teach various ways of making decisions about right and wrong.  Philosophers are. "
In short, ethics as taught by non-philosophers is uncritical, unduly conservative, skin deep — and taught by incompetents at that. 

Tittle places part of the responsibility for this sad state of affirs on the business community's opportunistic exploitation of 'ethics':
I can’t help wondering if it hasn’t just been a case of blatant appropriation.  Business has hijacked ethics as a marketing tool, just as it did with environmentalism, and turned it into something superficial and useless. Managers aren’t really not interested in the substantial, fundamental matters.  They just want a new way to attract customers and clients and so increase profits.
But philosophers aren't spared blame either:
However, I don’t want to put the blame solely on business.  If philosophy faculty didn’t have such disdain for business, and if they took a little responsibility for their discipline, there would be more preparation for philosophy majors to be ethics practitioners.  Philosophy departments should advise their students of careers as ethics officers and consultants; they should encourage their students to, therefore, take courses in business (if they want to be come a business ethics officer) or science (if they want to become ethics consultants in bioethics or environmental ethics), because without a background in business or science, philosophers won’t know which questions to ask, what difficulties to anticipate (for example, ethical belief in intercultural business is a real thorny issue – philosophy students will have to grapple with moral relativism in a big way…).  Philosophy departments could even arrange to have their applied ethics courses team-taught; this would require business, similarly, to dampen their disdain for philosophy.
I don't have much firsthand knowledge of ethics instruction as done by non-philosophers. I have to say that knowing faculty in other departments at my institution, I wouldn't entrust them with the teaching of ethics. That's OK — I wouldn't want them to entrust me to teach history, accounting, or engineering. But is the state of affairs as Tittle describes? And should it bother philosophical ethicists if that's the case? 


  1. Yes, it is as bad or worse in business. Often ethics is taught by the HR department, or by someone who interprets the profession's or company's bizarre "code of conduct." What the APA needs to do is expand membership to people with a BA or higher in philosophy and who work outside the academy (such as many other professional organizations do, such as linguistics). Some sort of certification should be created, so that ethics is really taught.

  2. I think that Professor Tittle would be well-served to locate the problem where it actually is. Managers and non-philosophers teach ‘ethics’ within organizations because Philosophy Departments refuse to train majors/minors for service outside of academia. Philosophy Departments gave up the opportunity to develop applied ethics course/programs arguing that doing so what not doing ‘real’ philosophy and turned that responsibly over to business schools. Philosophers created the vacuum that others have filled and now they are complaining about the results as if they are blameless. Philosophy Departments remain out of touch to what is actually happening in the world where the actual decisions that affect peoples’ lives are being made and believe that from their privileged conceptual position that they can solve these problems with an argument. When a person trained in philosophy comes to me and tells that he or she has actually run a business, laid off people or moved companies in order to remain competitive then I will listen to him or her. It is easy to analyze what went wrong with the Enron’s, Arthur Anderson’s, housing crisis, Wall Street greed etc., but that is simply dealing with the low hanging fruit. Most business people that I know and have worked with are honorable people who honestly believe that they are trying to do the right thing. We are trying to create healthy organizations that can compete successfully and create wealth and benefits for everyone associated with our organizations. So, if philosophers want to help they can roll up their sleeves and come down from the ‘clouds’ and get involved. Don’t come to teach us. Come to engage in a dialogue, not a debate, and to learn and make changes with us. Then we will listen

  3. John, in fairness to Tittle, the last paragraph I quoted holds academic philosophy responsible for the situation too.

    1. Micahel
      Point noted. But she seems to be suggesting the problem is a resulf of business having a 'disdain for philosophy.' She seems to be putting ball squarely in business's court. How does that serve to bridge the gap? She might want to investigate as to why business has such disdain, if in fact it does. I have been on both sides simutaneously and I can tell you first hand that many philsophers doing applied ethics in business may know ethical theory but lack a basic understanding of business and econcomics and the nature and causes of the actual problems faced in business, markets, and competition. They come to lecture and teach, not to engage in dialogue and problem-solving. This is obviously not true of all, but it the perception that I have of most after dealing with them over the years. Anyway, she does make many good points regarding competency, but expertise is often context dependent in many cases and I am not sure she is aware of this fact.

  4. Yes, this is a huge problem at the universities I adjunct at...Non-philosophers are course leads for ethics courses, both theory and applied. Students are typically indoctrinated into legal moralism, relativism, and religious ethics of some flavor (which gets really confusing as all three are mixed up together into something like "anything goes as long as it maximizes profit and Jezus approves;" the business ethics modules/courses focus on Milton's "maximize profits" while conveniently forgetting "within the rules of the game;" and any attempt for the philosophers among the faculty to change the curriculum is harshly penalized.

  5. I just want to make a few points directly related to the claims she asserts.
    1) Not all appeals to tradition are fallacious. If the code of ethics is a clear and concise statement of the values that an organization wants its members to adhere too then Tittle needs to argue why appealing to a code of ethics is wrongheaded. Often times it is when an organzation does not adhere to its stated values that it gets into trouble.
    2) Business exists to create wealth and operates in an environment defined by law. If we want to change the behavior of organizations then take a systems approach to moral problem solving and change the law. Until then do not expect organizations to harm themselves by going beyond what the law requires as it is the law that sanctions business behavior. That is not to say that ethical critiques cannot have a limited affect on how business opeates (think of Nike and Apple on sweatshops), but overall they do have little effect as long as the law positively sanctions a behavior. After all,sweatshops still exist and companies still prosper.
    3) Ethics without intutions? Wow there goes most of what is being done in ethics in the last forty years. Intutions seem to be a good starting point and maybe necessarily so. There is a difference between a 'media test' and a 'gut check test.' The former is an appeal to transparency. How will this look and appearences do have an impact on performance. Think of AA or Enron here. The 'gut check' may be an appeal to intuition, but I think it is more - it is an appeal to how much we will like ourselves if we perform these actions. This may, in fact, be a virtue ethics approach.
    4) Addressed earlier
    5) Which standards/principle? Do we adopt a consequentialist pespective (and if so, which one?) or a Kantian one? How about a virtues ethics or an ethics of care. Let us not forget Social Conract Theory, etc. In a university setting these questions are important and need to be addressed. But in the actual business setting these need to be settled and those that come to work with us need to have a well worked prgamatic approach to understanding and implementing a comprehensive moral perspecitve. We do not have the time or luxury to engage in meta-ethical issues.

    Now, I do not know which arena, the university or the business setting, that Tittle is concerned about regarding teaching applied ethics. If the former then that segment needs to address the issues as to why non-philosophers are teachng those courses and that is not business's fault. If the latter, then philosophy departments need to train people to enter into the fray and get involved in actual problem solving.

  6. Hi, John.

    You seem fairly knowledgeable about both business and philosophy, so I'm hoping that you might help me out with a couple things. First, can you point me to some well-thought-out arguments for the claim that the purpose of business is to create [monetary] wealth? The only ones I've ever come across have been variations on the following: "If a company does not make money, it will soon go out of business (i.e., it will cease to exist). Therefore, the purpose of business is to make money." This type of argument strikes me as hopelessly bad. Consider a parallel: If a human ceases to breathe, she will soon die. Therefore, the purpose of human existence is to breathe air." If you could point me to some better ones, I'd appreciate it.

    Secondly, can you (or anyone else reading this) point me to a good introduction to what we might call the metaphysics of business? For example, should we think of a business as a fictional entity, a legal entity (assuming that legal entities are not also fictional entities), a collective action (cf. a construction crew building a house), an agreement or social contract of some sort, or something else? Why?


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