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It's an age-old question: Can business ethics be taught?

Rochester Business Journal
October 2, 2009

The Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation, assisted by the Institute for Priority Thinking, will conduct a one-day business ethics training program this month for local businesspeople. The program, "Finding the Ethical Edge," is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 29, at St. John Fisher College.




This first-of-its-kind ethics education program for the Rochester business community will focus on delivering practical advice to help participants gain a competitive advantage by managing fundamental compliance and ethics risks better. In addition, participants will receive continuing free access to Web-based tools that help them implement the best practices outlined in the training.


Peter DeMarco will facilitate the program. He is the leader and founder of the Institute for Priority Thinking, an executive coaching, organizational development and ethics education firm in Fairport with a nationwide practice that has an innovative and engaging approach to teaching business ethics. In a 28-year career, he has had extensive leadership experience in general management and senior executive assignments in the United States and Mexico. He has held leadership positions as a chief operating officer, division president and managing director, as well as hands-on roles in operations, information technology and quality engineering.


When I asked DeMarco about the ethics program, he said, "We will be engaging in a highly interactive set of activities that will provide community business leaders who attend with greater ethical awareness, a practical framework for making sound, ethical business judgments and knowledge of best practices that will help them run their businesses better. During the training program, we will be providing participants with the ideas and the tools they need to use business ethics both defensively-to reduce downside risks-as well as offensively-to make decisions that increase effectiveness (think "make more money") and embed ethical power into the decision itself."


Given its objectives, the program raises an issue that has been debated for nearly 2,500 years: "Can ethics be taught?" Socrates argued about this question with his fellow Athenians more than 2,000 years ago, and the controversy is far from over.


Modern commentators like the recently deceased Irving Kristol and professor Michael Levin of the City University of New York have maintained that business ethics education is a waste of time. In a 1989 New York Times op-ed piece titled "Ethics Courses are Useless," Levin asserted that ethics can't be taught in school because (1) people already know right from wrong and ethics courses are superfluous; (2) moral behavior is the result of training and cannot be taught in the classroom; and 3) no one can "know" right from wrong, so there's no ethical knowledge to be taught.


But such skeptics are a distinct minority, and they ignore the many practical benefits of such education programs in helping business professionals to achieve excellence at work.


Let me begin making the case for business ethics education by stipulating that a person's moral behavior is greatly influenced by upbringing, religious convictions and social norms. At best, a business ethics course is likely only to supplement rather than supplant the effect of these powerful guiding forces. Let me further stipulate that even the best ethics education cannot reach people who do not want to learn and who have no interest in an ethical business model.


However, for the vast majority of business professionals who come to work every day with a genuine desire to conduct themselves and lead their businesses in an honorable way, there is much that business ethics education has to offer. It can, for example:


  • Raise awareness and understanding of fundamental ethical obligations that the marketplace imposes on businesses.
  • Give businesspeople practical tools to assist them in systematically analyzing and effectively managing legal and ethical risks.
  • Provide an opportunity to apply ethical principles in the classroom-using case studies modeled on situations likely to arise on the job-before trying them at work.
  • Help business professionals learn from others' mistakes and thus avoid catastrophic failures.
  • Teach techniques for making principled decisions even when ethical obligations are in conflict with one another.
  • Provide practical tips for creating and sustaining a strong ethical corporate culture.
  • Assist in developing ethical leadership skills.

Although no educational program, on business ethics or any other subject, can guarantee that participants will successfully put the principles they learn into practice, that does not mean that they cannot be taught or that the exercise is a waste of time. To the contrary, those who invest the time and energy to master the fundamentals of business ethics will gain an "ethical edge," earning and retaining the trust of their key stakeholders and thus maximizing their chances of achieving these business objectives:

  •  Recruiting, retaining and motivating the most talented employees in the industry.
  •  Gaining consistent access to capital markets.
  •  Becoming their customers' supplier of choice.
  •  Maintaining the supplies of goods and services required to operate.
  •  Living in harmony with local communities.

If you are interested in honing your skills in this critical area, register now for "Finding the Ethical Edge" on the RABEF Web site at The 50 seats available are going fast, and with an entrance fee of only $140 per registrant, this is a program you won't want to miss.


Jim Nortz is compliance director at Bausch & Lomb Inc. and is a member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are Nortz's alone and may not reflect those of Bausch & Lomb or the RABEF. Nortz can be reached at (585) 260-8960 or


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