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The Cardus Daily

Can Ethics be Taught?

Last week, Cardus sponsored a conversation involving Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, Rotman School of Business Dean Roger Martin and Convivium Editor Father Raymond de Souza on the subject of “Banking, Trust, and the Culture of Capitalism.” All three speakers explored how it takes more than the existence and enforcement of the right rules to create an economic system that earns the trust of the populace. In fact, numerous examples were cited of self-evident silliness within the financial system that stemmed from the desire to implement rules of fairness.

But if trust in our economic system cannot be created by legislation and regulation, then how is it created? As the conversation continued, the role of other institutions came into focus. The role of business schools in teaching ethics was especially highlighted. But again, the contradiction quickly became evident. What good can it do to offer one or two required courses in which various ethical models of decision-making are outlined and good behaviours is enjoined, when the rest of the curriculum works with the assumption that profit maximization within the law is the only imperative?

If trust in our economic institutions is to be achieved, our panelists suggested, self-regulation is necessary, a moral compass from within. Recent history abounds with examples where the creation of new rules to close the loophole that someone exploited yesterday only creates an incentive for someone more creative to even more skillfully game the system. The consequence of this is economic reward for them and a new loophole that needs to be covered. The result ends up being more rules, not more ethics.

Implicit in the conversation was a recognition that the problems that contribute to our fraying social fabric and the trust that is so necessary for a civilized life together can’t be achieved by moralisms. Ethics courses that leave students with a bunch of “you shoulds” or “you should nots” are not effective. There are deeper questions that proceed from our understanding of what human nature is about and what we see as the purpose of our life together.  To use a grammatical metaphor, the indicative precedes the imperative. Who we are determines what we think we should do.

To be sure, in the context of a post-modern pluralistic society, consensus on these matters is not easily achieved. But as last week’s conversation highlighted, avoiding discussion of these matters due to the inevitability of disagreement is a self-destructive path. Having pursued that path for too long, it is to be feared that even a public vocabulary in which we can understand each other and have reasoned conversations on these fundamental issues is lacking. Talking about these matters alone doesn’t solve anything, but it is a necessary start.

Last week’s conversation took place as part of Cardus’s Hill Family Lecture Series. This series features Canadians of prominence discussing these sorts of issues with an aim of stimulating that debate and broadening our literacy and understanding of these issues.  Last Friday’s conversation (which will be more fully featured in the next issue of Convivium and also received coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Canada Press and CTV National News) demonstrated the relevance of “faith in our common life.” The reverbs of these conversations have direct implications for our social and economic life.



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