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Future Bernie Madoff, Meet Immanuel Kant

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Roughly every decade, a fresh wave of scandals reignites a spotlight on ethics in business. Typically, we lament a recent decline of ethics in our corporate leaders as if somehow new, and criticize those business schools that educated them. Business schools then mobilize to demonstrate that they do, indeed, care about the character of those they graduate and promise to make a difference for the next generation of business leaders and managers.

Unfortunately, those efforts ultimately fail to produce lasting effect, and the cycle sadly continues. Perhaps too much is expected of academic drop-in-the-bucket interventions that apply a relatively few hours of symbolism towards a lifetime of ethical temptations and challenges. Perhaps we have yet to connect education to future behavior in ways both effective and preventative.

Ethics tends to be studied and taught from three different perspectives. The first is philosophical -- to apply the wisdom of past thinkers to contemporary quandaries. This credits business leaders with the will to do the right thing, were they simply to have the intellectual tools at their disposal to do so. Ethics becomes a matter of reasoning -- the smarter we are, the more righteous we can become. Exposure to great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill can help preempt the next Enron from occurring by equipping leaders with the ability to thoroughly analyze their situation and make sound ethical choices.

These leaders need to first appreciate when they are mired in an ethical dilemma, and then to apply unbiased and sometimes even courageous reasoning towards its resolution. Humans, instead, seem all too prone to analyze situations selectively, to rationalize and often conceal self-interest, and to underestimate the outcome. We pick and choose those facts that best bolster our positions and preconceived notions -- just savvy enough to bundle our reasons cleverly but not smart enough to comprehend the full breadth or complexity of the situation. In a litigious society we learn to think like lawyers -- to construct reality that best serves our cause or ourselves -- and then exhibit genuine surprise, shame, and remorse when confronted after-the-fact with the consequences of our actions.

If making us smarter doesn't necessarily make us more ethical, is moral judgment more a matter of character than rationality? Is the strength of our conscience more important than that of our intellect? Are we pre-sorted on a continuum of good and evil that dictates how to handle life's issues? This raises the second thread in how to understand ethical lapses in leadership.

Ethics perhaps is hardwired in our make-up -- through upbringing, exposure to good parenting, cultural traditions, and noble religions. In this view, strong moral character produces future laudable behavior. The platitudes, role models, and lessons of our youth become our guiding principles as adults. It would then be simply too late to mold young adults into responsible leaders -- a conclusion many educators and scholars are loath to accept.

There is yet an emerging third perspective -- more cynical than the philosophical but far less fatalistic than a focus on fundamental character. This view spotlights the behavioral -- not what we proclaim about our upbringing or values, but what we do in real here-and-now situations.

All too often, the pressure of our environment trumps our ethical self-image. A character in a Bernard Shaw play once uttered in exasperation: "Everything I do contradicts everything I say!"

Ethics is about actions -- not what we say, but what we do -- often in the heat of the moment, in opportunities that can further our cause even at the expense of others, and vulnerable to the pressures around us. Not what we espouse abstractly as beliefs, but in our willingness to act, even at the expense of others.

"No one," claimed Socrates, "commits evil voluntarily." We routinely take action inconsistent with our self-concept and expressed principles -- and casually lie, deceive, harm, and steal -- often in increments so minute and mundane so as not shatter our loftier self-portrait. The teaching challenge comes in creating a lasting self-awareness that can recognize and redress this hypocrisy before it is too late.

If this third perspective prevails, then perhaps there is some role for higher education to play in altering this cycle where corporate leaders and public figures perpetually let us down. Eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers, millennial-old religions, and the culture both in the household and beyond all help model and mold admirable behavior that perhaps help equip us with some tools to navigator complex contemporary challenges. But, sadly, these are neither sufficient nor ultimately effective.

The university classroom is our best hope for preparing students to become self-conscious of identifying and managing an ethical quagmire -- and most importantly to be honest about their own potential for dishonesty, so they can foresee and forestall consequences that conflict with the person they think they are and want to be.

Jay A. Halfond is the former dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College, currently transitioning to the full-time faculty. He is a Research Fellow at Bentley University's Center for Business Ethics.