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(Sept. 19, 2002, Gazette)

Ethics everywhere

Dr. Robert Sexty
Dr. Robert Sexty

Recently, a string of corporate scandals have seen some high-profile business people exchange their pinstripes for jailhouse stripes. But a professor of ethics at Memorial points out that ethics applies to all human pursuits, not just business.

“‘Business ethics. Isn’t that an oxymoron?’ This is the remark I receive from many acquaintances,” said Dr. Robert Sexty, Faculty of Business Administration. “Some mean it. Some are saying it to goad me. I think the remark is unfair and, most likely, reflects a lack of understanding of business – and ethics.”

“Ethics are a part of all aspects of human interaction,” he said. “There are ethical implications involved with the activities of other organizations including government, religious, sports, consumer and union organizations. Yet one seldom hears the terms government ethics, church ethics, sports ethics and so on.”

“There are several explanations for the popularity of business ethics. Business enterprises play a prominent role in our lives. Everyone has multiple transactions with business every day, virtually all of which are carried out in a completely honourable manner. Business is arguably held accountable for its actions more frequently than other institutions in society. Some question the legitimacy of the capitalist system and the role of the corporation in society.

“For these people, everything business does is most likely labeled as being unethical while, at the same time, they benefit from the standard of living provided by a capitalist system.”

Dr. Sexty believes the lack of understanding of ethics occurs because of the overuse of the phrase business ethics.

“Ethics are the same for every type of human interaction and endeavor.”

There are numerous ethical principles that are widely accepted but there is so much disagreement on their appropriateness and interpretation, that it makes understanding these principles very difficult. Furthermore, individuals who subscribe to one ethical principle may find the views of those who subscribe to another principle unethical. For example, if someone believes in the utilitarian benefits principle they believe in taking action that results in the greatest good for the greatest number in society. However, someone who believes in the distributive principle feels that moral decisions should not adversely affect the minority and that the poor, uneducated and unemployed should not be made worse off by any business action. Ethical principles are the same in all situations and rather than referring to “business ethics” it would be more appropriate to say “the ethics of business.”

There is no doubt that there must be more awareness of, and sensitivity to, ethics in all activities, business included. Recent scandals like Enron and Worldcom overshadow the efforts of corporations that are maintaining proper relationships with all stakeholders. Many business people and organizations are working hard to make sure that business corporations behave in a socially acceptable manner. This can be seen in the increase in the number of investors choosing ethical or “green” mutual funds. These fund managers ensure that the companies in their funds meet certain ethical criteria, for example, they will not hold companies that sell armaments or that exploit workers in third-world counties.

“The academic community also has a role in making all students aware of the ethical implications of their business, and individual, decisions,” said Dr. Sexty. “We can start by examining the ethical implications of our own behavior with students, colleagues, administrators, and others in society.

“In particular, the Faculty of Business Administration must strive to place more emphasis on the ethics of business. For over 25 years, the faculty has offered Business and Society as an elective at the undergraduate level and, in 1978, it was the first Canadian business school to require a course in business ethics. In light of recent events, all business schools will be paying more attention to this topic, but there are many issues relating to the incorporation of ethics into the business curriculum. Can ethics be taught to young adults? Should ethics be integrated with materials in all courses, or should ethics be taught as a separate topic in its own course? Most importantly, all of us must do some thinking about our own ethical behavior and increase our understanding of ethics in all settings.”

And while Dr. Sexty admits that there is room for increased ethics curriculum in his faculty, he points out that the same is true for other faculties and programs. “Ethics are ethics are ethics and do not separate ethics in business as being something different.”