Ethics education when conducted as an in-depth group discussion (where the participants’ views are regarded as just as valuable as the facilitator’s)  requires people to think deeply about the affect of their actions on themselves and others in the long-term.

Many books and articles on business ethics are written as if business ethics is some abstract entity on its own. Of course, when we say “business ethics” we really should be saying “business people ethics” because it is only people who can behave ethically or unethically. In  addition, the focus in much ethical discussion is on the big unethical acts such as, for example,  bribing officials, deliberately manufacturing substandard products  and manipulating annual accounts to lie to tax officials and investors. I’m sure extensive work has been, and will continue to be, done on why people undertake such unethical acts and what needs to be done to reduce them.

However, there are many examples of unethical acts that seem to have low impact or are on the  borderline of being unethical and  ethics education could play a art in reducing them. Here are some examples of the low-level unethical acts.

  • Making products which are legal but have harmful effects on people’s  health and burden the taxpayer in later years, such as tobacco.
  • Dumping small amounts of waste in a drain or stream. This one act seems insignificant but eventually accumulates and harms people and animals.
  • Spreading rumours about competitors in order to damage their business.
  • Stealing from competitors in subtle ways. For example, some businesses pay Google to advertise on websites and they pay on a per-click basis. This means that Google gets paid every time someone clicks on the advertisement. Some people click on their competitor’s advertisements in order to exhaust their budget. Similarly, some website owners will click on advertisements on their web pages (or get others to do so) merely to get the commission Google gives them.
  • Sales people striving to sell people things they know the people don’t need.
  • Saying that things are free when they are not (you have to buy or do something to get the freebie) or hiding charges that are revealed only at the end of the transaction or telling people they can get something very cheaply but not mentioning that there are only three items at that low price.
  • Stealing from customers by passing on counterfeit coins, deliberately giving the wrong change or charging twice for the same item.

How can ethics education reduce these unethical acts?

I suppose we have to start with the question: why do people do these unethical acts? Superficially, the answer is clear – greed. But why does greed drive people? It’s the short-term gain of the pleasure of spending the additional money gained or of seeing ones’ competitor destroyed (which again goes back to monetary reward). Clearly, most of those who act unethically are not thinking of the pain they cause others or if they are, don’t care or regard the hurt as so small as not to matter.

It’s clear that lecturing won’t work to change unethical behaviours. People know they are doing wrong and they know there is the possibility of being disciplined, maybe imprisoned and even fired from a job. It seems there is little else one can do until you think of the power of ethics education.

Imagine if every employee in a business was required to do an ethics education workshop where issues like those already listed were discussed in detail. There would be extensive discussion about the rights and wrongs. For example, if a member of the public gives counterfeit coins to a shopkeeper, is not the shopkeeper justified in giving them to another member of the public?

Given enough time and detailed questioning by a skilled ethics educator, people’s empathy would be awakened – they would eventually realise the pain they’d cause others if they did unethical acts – even small ones. They would feel the pain because they would realise they would not like someone to do the same unethical act to them.

Not only that, people would be brought to a point where they can see that hurting others actually is hurting oneself. In the long-run hurting others will bring the unethical person pain in the form of loss of self-worth, loss of respect of others, dismissal from one’s job and even a jail sentence.

Much more research needs to be done on the effectiveness of ethics education as a way of getting people to think emotionally to such an extent that they do come to realise the ineffectiveness of being unethical for their own well-being. It would be a privilege to assist postgraduate students (with approval of their university or college) to formulate and conduct a study.