Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I'm not ashamed to admit that philosophers can be quite persnickety in our insistence upon precision in language. Much of what we do, after all, involves precisely defining things, concepts, meanings, values, processes, systems, states of being and the like. That's not to say that we are actually settled on precise definitions for everything; in fact, most of the definitions we trade in are perennially, and often hotly, contested. Some strains of philosophical inquiry-- like deconstruction, for example-- even focus the lion's share of their energies on bringing to light the many imprecisions in our concepts and vocabularies. But still, any philosopher worth his or her salt would certainly agree that we are not at liberty to make up any old meaning for the words we use. Not if we want to make sense, anyway.

I recently found myself in a conversation with a PhD in Accounting about the nature and value of "Business Ethics" courses. Now, I'm very skeptical of the value of "applied" ethics courses in general, especially when they are offered/taken independent of ethical theory courses, as they often are. Most applied ethics courses (not all, but most) end up being little more than a survey of case studies, in which students consider various ethical dilemmas and are expected to make some judgment about "right conduct" in those cases. The problem here is that, absent some familiarity with ethical theory, students' judgments end up being merely intuitive at best, grossly arbitrary at worst. It's like trying to teach the game of baseball to students by watching a bunch of baseball games. They probably will be able to intuit some of the rules of baseball that way, but they'll miss many more than they get, and the ones they get won't be formulated in their minds as general principles. So, they might be able to identify the exact same infraction in a different baseball game, but since they're unable to provide the reasoning behind the rules that proscribe certain infractions, any variation in the transgression will appear like an entirely new case to judge. Not that big of a deal, I suppose, if we're only talking about baseball... but a pretty big deal when we're purporting to teach future businessmen and -woman about how to conduct themselves ethically in business.

Anyway, back to my conversation with Dr. Accounting. I basically relayed my skepticism (above) to her and said something like "ergo, business students should be required to take 'ethical theory' classes before they take 'business ethics' classes." I gave her the same baseball analogy and said: "you see, the problem is that you can't really learn the game of baseball by watching a bunch of baseball games. The rules of the game are independent of their application or misapplication in any particular game. 'Ethics' is the same way. There are rules, and a reasoning behind those rules, and it's the rules that need to be learned, which can't be done with any number of case studies." To which Dr. Accounting replied: "Yeah, but each person decides their own ethical 'rules,' right?"


I replied: "But if each person makes up his or her own rules, then it's not really 'ethics.' It's just preference." And before I could get those three beautifully satisfying letters past my lips-- Q. E. D. -- I was slapped in the face with a stare as blank as business is morally vacant.

It won't come as a surprise, I guess, that we never reached a reconciliation in our conversation. But what surprised and frustrated me the most was not only that what we meant we we said "ethics" was so dramatically different, but also that my effort at clarifying my meaning (by making a distinction between "ethics" and "preference") was completely lost on my interlocutor. I remarked later to my (philosopher) colleague, also present for the conversation, that this was one of those cases in which I was painfully reminded that there is sometimes a vast abyss in meaning between the use of certain words that we philosophers employ and that same (otherwise shared) vocabulary as non-philosophers employ it. That realization, all by itself, is not all that disheartening, as every discipline has specialized vocabularies or specialized uses of common vocabularies. What was truly disheartening, though, was the utter disappointment I felt upon realizing that my interlocutor simply could not see the difference between a rule-based system for judgment and the utterly non-systematic application of arbitrary preferences in judgment. And worse, that she described the latter as "ethics."

Ethics. Dr. Accounting, as Inigo Montoya once said, I do not think that word means what you think it means.


anotherpanacea said...

Ugh. That's just really disturbing, but probably routine outside of the humanities.

That said, I think applied ethics courses can be designed to include the requisite theory component. In fact, the reflective equilibrium that moves between cases and rules is how I like to teach all my ethics courses....

Anonymous said...

When I teach such courses, I am always dismayed by the textbooks. It isn't the cases which I actually find useful, it is the presentation of ethical theories (which usually comes in the first chapter). There is something in the way the theories are summarized that encourages the sense that they are preferences. I believe it goes beyond the shortness of the summary, although that is obviously part of it. But, still, the books also make me wonder about the applied ethics problem from the other side. It isn't just that business isn't good at philosophy, it is that philosophy is ignorant about corporate structures.

Indeed when one addresses a good case--where the complexity of professional practice is exposed--that the theories are weak to addresses the variety of players, decisions, and structural elements that go into a business. I am not sure a traditional metaethics course would be of any use to working between the reality of professional practice and theory in most cases. This is the crucial problem to me of business ethics--while a student might more from doxa to episteme if she takes more theory-based courses, the structure of business is so complex and diverse and so rarely are decisions made by single individuals, traditional ethics seems useless regardless of its presentation.

steventhomas said...

I like the baseball analogy a lot. I'm going to steal that, and it's hard to believe that your interlocutor didn't "get it."

But then again, isn't real ethics an impediment to business practice?

Allen said...

Great post! I hate when this kind of thing happens to me. One thing I've noticed with our college's business department is that its curriculum is not always taught "academically", as our humanities classes, and even Business' office-mate, economics, are. There is a certain "trade school" aspect to the Business program that emphasizes learning the rules or "tricks of the trade" above independent, academic inquiry.
I think that your business ethics anecdote frames this issue quite well. It sounds as though part of your interlocutor's problem was that she had never thought of ethics as any more than a curriculum to be taught, or case studies to review. Like any other business class, students are expected to complete the material and take what they can from it. The class becomes little more than a feather in the cap of (or, to be more literal, a point of note on the CV of) future businessmen and women.

John said...

"as blank as business is morally vacant", a beautiful line.

And yet this "vacant" place, this "almighty dollar" used as absolute justification, this point that could not get any darker, in which morality as well as the religious have been forgotten and have become completely discredited, is (permit me to make a huge leap) the very point at which God speaks.

Business and ethics alike appear to have forgotten their origins, business ethics doubly so. Mark C. Taylor's About Religion argues that both ethics and business have as a kind of ground speculative theology, existing barely and almost invisibly behind all the historical inversions and "marks of erasure".

I wonder whether there is not an experience of having forgotten something completely, which then returns to our memory and begins to "speak" to us as though of its own accord (whether by reaching an "ending" such as death, or a beginning). Taylor writes at the beginning of a chapter "Denegating God" (after "Discrediting God") "I thought I was done with God-- or that God was done with me. I suppose I am not, at least not yet. And I am beginning to fear not ever. Erring was to have ended it all but it has not. To the contrary, from the beginning messages arrived-- some written, some telephonic, some electronic-- telling me what I was doing and what I was not doing. I did not really need to be told that something else, something other was stirring between the words of the text..."