Every wave of public scandal seems to bring in its wake calls for more ethics classes at our top schools. As a former philosophy professor who has taught “Moral Philosophy 101” to undergraduates, I’m actually rather dismissive about the whole idea.  I don’t mean to imply that ethics shouldn’t be a significant part of any professional curriculum (e.g. law, business, medicine, journalism).  I just doubt that it can have any genuine transformative effect on people’s behavior.

My doubts are rooted in my extensive study of ancient Greek philosophy, but they don’t require any familiarity with the Socratics to understand.  Here are the two premises grounding my skepticism:

First, people’s actions are determined by their character —that is, by the relatively stable set of psychological states that encompass their emotional and behavioral propensities, values, and overall outlook. 

Second, people’s characters are shaped by the totality of their environment, including everything from their upbringing to the culture and society in which they live.

From these two basic assumptions, we can see why ethics classes cannot have much of an influence on behavior.  Those attending such courses will already have well-developed character traits, which will continue to evolve long after the subject matter is forgotten.  An ethics class is only a proverbial drop in the flood of influences on one’s psychology and, by extension, one’s conduct.

This is why Plato thought that the perfection of human conduct required a totalitarian utopia.  Though we shudder at his ideological vision, its foundation is nevertheless sound: large-scale changes in public behavior require a transformation of culture and society.

This is also why Aristotle thought of ethics courses as only appropriate for those who had already achieved, thanks to proper upbringing, a sufficient perfection of their characters.  For Aristotle, the point of ethics is not simply to know the good but to do the good.  But the ability to do the good already presupposes the general propensity to care about and act rightly, and one only achieves that through proper upbringing—which presupposes, in turn, the right totality of environmental influences on that upbringing. Without that, lectures about just conduct aren’t going to help.  “It is hard, if not impossible,” Aristotle writes, “to remove by argument the traits that have long since been incorporated in the character.”

Psychologists might dismiss my appeal to ancient conceptions of virtue as outmoded.  But even if we grant that there is no such thing as “character,” as some good empirical data suggests, my general conclusion still holds.  Whatever it is that shapes our conduct has everything to do with our experience and environment outside the classroom and very little to do with what we learn within it.

Now consider the plethora of recent stories about the epidemic of greed and misconduct in the financial industry.  It covers everybody from poverty-stricken people so desperate for a home that they were willing to lie on their mortgage applications, to federal regulators who pooh-poohed clear signs of widespread fraud, to bank executives who peddled toxic waste to fatten their own bonuses. The corruption has even reached the highest levels of government.  Let me offer just two among countless examples.

First, the case of Stephen Friedman, from the Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2009:

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York shaped Washington’s response to the financial crisis late last year, which buoyed Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other Wall Street firms. Goldman received speedy approval to become a bank holding company in September and a $10 billion capital injection soon after.

During that time, the New York Fed’s chairman, Stephen Friedman, sat on Goldman’s board and had a large holding in Goldman stock, which because of Goldman’s new status as a bank holding company was a violation of Federal Reserve policy.

The New York Fed asked for a waiver, which, after about 2½ months, the Fed granted. While it was weighing the request, Mr. Friedman bought 37,300 more Goldman shares in December. They’ve since risen $1.7 million in value.

Mr. Friedman also was overseeing the search for a new president of the New York Fed, an officer who has a critical role in setting monetary policy at the Federal Reserve. The choice was a former Goldman executive.

According to U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns, head of the House Oversight Committee, senior officials at the Fed "had misgivings about granting the waiver but were ultimately overruled."

Second, the case of Robert Wolf, as discussed by journalist Russ Baker:

Last August, the presidential press corps followed Barack Obama and his family to Martha's Vineyard for their brief vacation. The coverage focused on summery fare—a visit to an ice cream parlor, the books the president had brought along. Nearly everyone mentioned his few rounds of golf, including his swing, and the enthusiasm of onlookers. What caught my eye, though, was the makeup of his foursome. The president was joined by an old friend from Chicago; a young aide; and Robert Wolf, Chairman and CEO, UBS Group Americas. In a decidedly incurious piece, a New York Times reporter made light of Wolf's presence:

"The president has told friends that to truly relax he prefers golfing with young aides...But he departed from that pattern Monday when he invited a top campaign contributor, Robert Wolf, president of UBS Investment Bank, to join him for 18 holes. Call it donor maintenance."

Wolf, however, is hardly—as the Times suggested— just another donor. For one thing, he is a leading figure in an industry that almost brought down the entire financial system—and then was the recipient of astonishing government largesse. UBS, along with other banks, benefited directly from the backdoor bailout of the insurance giant AIG.

But UBS stands alone in one rather formidable respect—it was the defendant in the largest offshore tax evasion case in U.S. history, accused of helping wealthy Americans hide their income in secret offshore accounts. To settle a massive investigation, UBS forked over $780 million to the US treasury. This settlement came shortly before Wolf rounded out Obama’s golfing party.  Given this rather problematical situation, why then would the President choose UBS’s Wolf of all people for this honor?

Wolf, by the way, is currently a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Do you honestly think that a society so corrupt as to allow these things to pass openly on the front pages of its newspapers could be cured simply by altering its post-graduate curriculums?

The calls for more ethics classes say more about the malaise of our culture and society than about how to improve it.  After all, who else but we Americans could believe that our recent wave of fraud and corruption could be corrected simply by making people listen to lectures and read “how-to” books?

About the Author

David Johnson PhD

David V. Johnson, Ph.D., is a writer and magazine editor in San Francisco and a former professor of philosophy.

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