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Ethics education should run like a thread through curriculum


I've always been very proud of the profession I chose, but that pride has been tested several times in the past few years since the Enron scandal with Andersen's complicity. After the Enron debacle, I received cartoon clippings from my friends and colleagues for what seemed like an eternity poking fun at the integrity, or lack thereof, of those in the accounting profession.

One of the cartoons depicted a company CEO interviewing three job candidates for an accounting position. He asked each of the candidates, in turn, this question, "How much is two plus two?" The first accountant answered, "Four." The second accountant also said, "Four." The third accountant replied, "How much would you like it to be?" Don't get me wrong, my sense of humor is as good as the next person's, but I have to admit that it sort of hiccups when the joke (even an old one like the accountant interviews) is aimed directly, or indirectly, at me. There's no doubt that the accounting profession's reputation took a big hit as a result of the high-profile scandals. Ultimately, the actions of a few gave the entire profession a "black eye" from which we're still trying to recover.

This crisis was a challenge for business organizations, but it also presented an opportunity for educators to revamp their curricula and reinforce the importance of ethics education. When people say, "you can't teach ethics," what they really mean is you can't teach values. Values are internalized through many different influences, such as family, social status, peer groups and ethnic culture, and education; they may provide only limited influence on our values.

Many of us have studied Immanuel Kant's Imperative Principle, which advocates following the rules regardless of the consequences. Then there is John Stuart Mills' Utilitarian Principle, which places primary emphasis on the consequences of an action rather than on simply following the rules. But studying these very different moral philosophies seems to confuse us even further. How do we determine the right choice? And then, how do we teach our students to identify the right choice? Some say all it takes is knowing the difference between right and wrong. But the right choice isn't always clear and knowing that difference is sometimes the hardest part. Are there any circumstances that would justify breaking the rules to achieve a goal to serve the "greater good?" Can the end justify the means?

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