There are four reasons why teaching ethics to business students is an exercise in futility.
1. The profit motive trumps everything. As long as this is the case, there’s no point in teaching students the intricacies of determining right and wrong. Whether something is morally acceptable or not is simply irrelevant to them. It might come into play when two options yield the same profit, but how often does that happen? And even so, other concerns are likely to be tie-breakers.
And is this the case? Does the profit motive trump everything? Yes, according to their economics, marketing, and even human resources professors: profit is the bottom line. It’s primary. It’s the raison d’être of business. Good thing. Because business students enrol in business because they want to make a lot of money. I have yet to meet someone who’s enrolled in business to make the world a better place. (Wait a minute. Don’t shareholders matter? Doesn’t what they want trump everything? In theory, yes. In practice, no. Most don’t cast their vote. And anyway most also want to make a lot of money. As much as possible, in fact. I have yet to meet someone who becomes a shareholder, who invests, to make the world a better place.)
2. Ethics is a grey area. It’s complicated. There are often no clear-cut answers. Ironically, there’s seldom a right and wrong answer to questions of right and wrong. Men prefer black and white. They gravitate toward the quantitative, the ill-(but sexually aptly-)named ‘hard sciences’ of engineering and chemistry, rather than the ‘soft sciences’ of psychology and sociology. They say such fields are not as legitimate, but really they’re just harder to navigate because the reasoning and the evidence are ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ rather than ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. (Which is why, when men do get involved with ethics, they prefer moral legalism, the approach that equates right and wrong with legal and illegal, which is black and white.)
3. Ethics is for girls. (Apparently.) And business is dominated by boys. It’s mom who teaches us right from wrong; she’s the moral compass. And anything mom does is to be held in contempt as soon as a boy hits twelve. In order to become a man, it’s necessary. To hold in contempt all things female. Ethics presumes caring, and real men don’t care. (Qualification: they don’t care about others. They care about profit, their own place in the scheme of things, and because their sons are extensions of themselves, they care about them, their place in the scheme of things, but caring about strangers? Strangers are other; the other is the competition.) Ethics is something for priests to worry about and we all know priests aren’t real men. They’re celibate for god’s sake. So, men avoid ethics – it’s effeminate to be concerned about right and wrong.
So actually, there’s just one reason why teaching business ethics to business students is an exercise in futility: business is dominated by men (point 3), and the masculist mode is quantitative (points 1 and 2). This explains, or is supported by, their obsession with size. Girth which in a woman would be considered obese and disgusting is carried by men as if it increases their legitimacy, their authority: they thrust out their gut just as they thrust out their chest. It brings to mind animals that inflate themselves to achieve greater size (the balloonfish can actually double its size). Men are concerned not only with physical size – in general and in particular – but also with the size of their cars, their houses, their corporations. Their profit. The bigger, the better. I think this is because the male mind is more primitive, and at a very primitive level, the contest for survival is won by the bigger animal. (Actually, that’s not true even at a basic level – small creatures with toxic stings and the capacity to remain hidden often survive. But unfortunately, they’ve evolved enough to create a system in which it is true.) (And anyway, even as they don’t win, they’ll take the rest of us down.)