Consciousness Raising or Ethical Training?

At a time when our society has been rocked by a series of business and financial scandals, what's the most effective way to teach ethics at an Ivy League business school? One Columbia University professor believes that the answer is to provide "a forum for self-exploration." His students discuss their personal problems in class, study Hindu philosophy, form social networks, and learn that although "there are terrible jerks" in the business world, "there is absolutely no need for you to give them power over your happiness." According to the New York Times, their professor inspires them with sayings like "When the flower blossoms, the bee will come," and "Good thing, bad thing, who knows?" I'm sorry to say I'm not making this up. As the Times recently reported, Dr. Srikumar S. Rao has been teaching this course, "Creativity and Personal Mastery," for five years now. Some of his students told the Times that the course has helped them feel "happy" and "fulfilled," provided "direction," and "raised [their] consciousness." But none of them mentioned whether it had done anything to help them develop their ethical sense. Rao sums up the course very well when he writes in his syllabus: "The ONLY reason this course works is because it is about YOU. What do YOU want to create? What kind of life do YOU want to lead? What do happiness and success mean to YOU?" Basically, the idea is to find within your own consciousness the answers that make you comfortable. But isn't that exactly what Jeffrey Skillings, Martha Stewart, Bernie Ebbers, and the rest of the rogues' gallery have done? They found their inner consciousness and left their stockholders in the lurch. This story struck a raw nerve with me. For well over a decade, I've been talking about why we need ethics courses in business schools -- and why it's impossible to teach them in a relativistic environment. I first lectured on this at Harvard Business School in 1991, and I was stunned that nobody challenged my assertions. The students had no understanding of classical moral philosophy -- they were learning pure pragmatism. And after that, Harvard discontinued its ethics course for a while. The basic problem is that the secular university today is committed to philosophical relativism and pragmatism. I've read the curricula from various business schools, and I've seen the same pattern over and over: Since there is no absolute truth, no clear right and wrong, you do whatever works best. But ethics, by definition, rests not on what is but on what ought to be, on clear moral standards and principles. Take them away, and you're left with "feel-good" philosophies and Eastern mysticism, providing nothing in the way of moral guidance. What's happening at Columbia is what happens when you abandon the commitment to moral truth. Essentially, Rao is teaching religion, but it's not a religion that can help you solve the ethical problems. In fact, it's a religion that's very dangerous for impressionable students -- a religion built on self-love and that has nothing to do with the Creator and His transcendent moral law. If that's the best we can do in ethics, you can expect more Enrons and WorldComs to come. We Christians need to keep pressing this point home, because it exposes the utter bankruptcy of today's secular culture. For further reading and information: Amy Wu, "Emotional Striptease, and Other Paths to Ethics," New York Times, 7 March 2004. (Archived article; costs $2.95 to retrieve.) Srikumar S. Rao, course outline for "Creativity and Personal Mastery," Columbia University, 2003. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required.) Charles Colson, "A Time to Learn about Ethics," recording of a lecture delivered at Harvard Business School. "Christians in the Marketplace," a Christian Mind in the New Millennium III conference, took place April 4-6, 2003, at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort and Conference Center in Colorado Springs, CO. At this BreakPoint worldview conference, speakers-including Charles Colson, Mark Earley, Michael Novak, and others-discussed the role of Christian worldview in today's business sector and marketplace, how businesses should apply ethical standards to their practices, and how our work should be viewed as a calling, an opportunity to serve God in our business. (Audiocassette and CDsets are available.) Michael Novak, "The Creative, Ethical Vocation of Business," Capitol Hill Lecture, 4 March 2004. Kelley Reep, "It's Not Whether You Win or Lose," BreakPoint Online, 3 June 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030717, "Taking Care of Business: Virtue in the Boardroom." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030203, "Same Old, Same Old: The Demise of Business Ethics." Scott Rae, "Character, Conscience, and Business," BreakPoint WorldView, October 2002. Dr. Rae's 2004 Capitol Hill Lecture, "Swindles, Lies, and a Healthy Economy," will soon be available on CD.
  1. M. Moore, "A Faculty of Fools," BreakPoint WorldView, October 2002.
Scott Rae, Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics (Zondervan, 1996). Michael Novak, Business as a Calling (Free Press, 1996). Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003).


Chuck Colson


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