The movie “Wall Street Never Sleeps” opens up at theatres on September 24th. Starring Michael Douglas, it calls attention to the issues of corporate greed and moral depravity. This film is timely, because over the past decade, CEO’s at many Fortune 500 corporations have committed unethical acts. To cite a few: After having been indicted on 35 counts of fraud, insider trading and other crimes related to the collapse of Enron, Jeffrey Skilling–the Harvard MBA and former Enron CEO–is currently serving time at a federal prison in Littleton, Colorado. Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International, is presently spending time in New York State’s Mid-State correctional Facility. He has been convicted of various corporate crimes, including his receipt of $81 million in purportedly unauthorized bonuses. (In the interest of full disclosure, I had a consulting engagement with a unit of Tyco during Kozlowski’s reign.)
And then there is the current economic crisis that we find ourselves in. CEO’s of financial companies involved in the subprime mortgage fiasco have avoided jail thus far. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that the behavior of some senior managers was unethical at best. Wall Street has put the business goal of profit maximization on steroids. At worst, the unbridled greed of top managers–at mortgage brokers, traditional banks, investment banks, insurance companies, and government agencies–almost caused the demise of our financial system.
In response to the moral lapses of our business leaders, many MBA programs are incorporating ethics into their curriculums. Some schools now offer courses titled “Business Ethics” whereas other schools are instead opting to integrate ethical issues into all of their courses. Newly minted graduates from these institutions will learn about various ethical theories such as utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, and virtue ethics. Regardless of the approach to teaching ethics, the fundamental question is this: Can ethics be taught? Let me relate a story that sheds light on the issue.
When I was 7 years-old riding in the back of my grandfather’s black Buick, I threw a gum wrapper out the window. My 77-year-old grandfather immediately chastised me, indicating that if everyone did what I did, then we would all be living in a trash-filled world.
Even today, when I take the wrapper off a piece of gum or candy, I sometimes entertain the thought of throwing it on the ground. But before I do so, I am immediately struck down by the words that I imagine emanating from my long-ago, deceased grandfather.
So, my behavior—insofar as littering is concerned—is ethical, because by not littering, I am helping to save the environment, which is a good thing. In the context of ethical theories, my grandfather’s admonitions would be termed Kantian. This German philosopher suggested that in examining whether to exhibit a behavior, ask what the effect would be if all of humankind did the same thing. If the behavior in question causes universally, harmful effects, then doing it is unethical.
Although I studied Kant in college, my tendency not to litter is based on the values that I internalized from significant adults in my growing-up years. In summary, I believe that our behaviors as adults are primarily based on the moral principles that we learn from our elders in our childhoods.
Had Jeffrey Skilling taken a business ethics course, would his subsequent behavior as Enron’s CEO been different? I think not. While at the Harvard Business School, Jeffrey Skilling actually took an ungraded course in business ethics. That course didn’t affect his subsequent behavior.
How do you weigh-in on this issue? Can business ethics be taught?