Why Ethics Training Doesn’t Work

Michael Zigarelli

Copyright 2010, Christianity9to5.org. All rights reserved.

The problem with ethics as it’s typically taught””in schools, in companies, in professional associations, in the family””is that the person teaching these lessons offers no absolute basis for being ethical, for being good, for doing the right thing. Instead, the twenty-first century professor or trainer or parent tends to default to a pragmatic, relativistic basis for ethical behavior, most commonly: “we should be good because it pays to be good.” It’s to our advantage, they say, to be honest, to have integrity, to keep our promises, and to treat others the way we want to be treated.

That’s sometimes true, of course, but this approach creates at least two problems – problems that make contemporary ethics training unlikely to actually change behavior.

First, “be ethical because it pays” allows self-interest to be the touchstone. Since I am the judge of what “pays,” I am therefore the judge of what’s ethical. Inadvertently, perhaps, those doing the training have invited their audience to be their own arbiters of right and wrong, rather than to look to a standard beyond themselves. In light of our unbounded ability to rationalize and excuse our behavior, that seldom ends well.

A second and perhaps more pernicious problem with teaching that “it pays to be ethical” is this: The audience knows better. In fact, they’ve known since childhood that something like honesty can be quite expensive. It costs us something to tell dad what we’ve really been up to, or to admit to the teacher that the paper is plagiarized, or to nark on our playground friends when the principal asks who started the fight. Later in life we learn that telling the truth can be even more expensive. In the workplace, for example, it doesn’t always “pay” to be honest about our background in an interview, to be honest about the numbers with the boss or the shareholders, or to be honest about the product with the customers. Then, when we get home, same story: There may be an exacting price when we tell our spouse what we’re really thinking, what’s really on our minds, what we really want.

By contrast, we’ve seen since childhood the value of shading the truth, or of outright lying. Here’s one simple example: Entering a beach recently, I overheard a man advise his thirteen year old daughter to tell the beach tag guy that she’s only eleven. That way they wouldn’t have to pay for her to get on the beach (a beach that charges a daily fee for people age twelve and up). The girl followed dad’s directive and learned an indelible life lesson in the process: it pays to lie. In this case, it saved them ten bucks. Years from now, the same principle could no doubt save her thousands more when she cheats a client or cheats on her taxes or misrepresents even more consequential matters. Dad might beware as well, as his teenage daughter begins to find it expedient to lie about her whereabouts.


Why Should I Be Good When I Can Be Happy?

Now imagine that girl in an ethics training seminar at age twenty-five. After years of indoctrination, not just from her dad but potentially from television shows and friends and music lyrics and maybe even her business education, the seminar is impotent to modify her pragmatic worldview or the behavior that inexorably flows from it. She hears the trainer say that it’s better for our reputation and our relationships and our financials in the long run if we have integrity and if people can trust us. Having often experienced the opposite, though, that may be laughable to her. Why should I pay the price today to be what this guy calls “ethical?” she thinks (often subconsciously). Why should I accept short-term pain for some merely theoretical long-term benefit? It’s more practical to do whatever it takes to minimize today’s downside. Besides, everybody does that. So don’t be a fool, man! Why should I be good when I can be happy?

Of course, she doesn’t articulate anything like that. She may not even realize that she thinks that, since we’re often blind to our actual beliefs. Instead, she responds as the rest of her peers in the seminar do: Honesty good, lying bad. And they all leave the class with an A. But this woman also leaves the class with her latent objection fully intact: Why be good when I can be happy?

There is simply no penetrating answer for that kind of objection, except for the “absolute basis” answer””that is, except for the response that there’s a divine, superior being who loves us, who knows more than we do, who gives us guidelines for living, and who, because he created us, has a claim on our life. He is the arbiter of right and wrong and he asks us to comply. Any other bases for ethics, including the standard philosophical frameworks so pervasive in today’s ethics classes, are powerless against pragmatism and personal experience, not to mention our insistence on freedom of choice and self-determination.

Immanuel Kant, regarded as perhaps the greatest thinker since Isaac Newton, knew this well. Recognizing that some moral choices are likely to make us unhappy, he concludes that we have a dilemma. Our problem is not so much in knowing the moral course of action; our problem comes in the practical, daily use of ethical reasoning. When there’s a tension between the ethical choice and the choice that makes us happier or richer or more well off, why would we choose the former? (note 1)

Only if we accept the existence of God and our subordination to God, according to Kant. In his terms, recognition of God is a fundamental “postulate of morality”; in other words, a prerequisite for living a genuinely moral life (note 2). That’s another way of saying what’s been said above: If there’s no absolute basis for moral behavior””a basis that applies to everyone regardless of position or circumstances””then we’re at liberty to make it up on our own and do whatever pays, whatever makes us happy. Tell the beach tag guy you’re eleven. Okay daddy.


How Ethics Should Be (But Often Can’t Be) Taught

But we no longer teach ethics from the vantage point of absolute right and wrong (except in churches and some faith-based schools). A claim that “we should be good because God says so” is out of bounds these days. In fact, citing “God” or “God’s will” is grounds for suppressing speech in our culture. Those stalwarts who boldly take this approach are considered impolite at best, but more likely they’re labeled superstitious, anti-intellectual, arrogant and maybe even oppressive. Whatever adjective the intelligentsia uses, the result is essentially the same: the person advocating an absolute basis for ethics””a “God-knows-best” perspective””tends to lose credibility, influence and eventually, his or her platform.

Why? Basically because this mutineer is advocating something beyond what’s “knowable.” You see, the predominant worldview in Western society is agnosticism. The average person believes in God but also thinks, after marinating for years in this culture, that we can’t know much about God or God’s will or anything outside of the natural, observable realm. Then along comes the occasional teacher or trainer who tries to build an ethics argument on God’s will! How is it heard? Not as a truth claim or as imparting any kind of real knowledge. Since God is not knowable, the claim is more likely to be heard as a power play. Consequently the argument gets quashed and the teacher gets squashed.

This is a topmost reason why ethics teachers cower from the “absolute basis” (God says so) rationale for being ethical, for being good, for doing the right thing. Instead, if they offer any opinion at all, they encourage ethical behavior on pragmatic grounds (“Do this because it will work. It will pay. There’s long term good in it.”), or maybe on secular humanistic grounds (“It will make you happier”) or maybe on utilitarian grounds (“It’s better for the whole society if everyone is honest with one another”) or maybe on some other safe, sterile grounds. And people walk out of the room just as they walked in.

Please understand, there’s nothing inherently incorrect about these sorts of reasons for being ethical. Many are in fact accurate and verifiable. But my point is that they are essentially ineffective. Against the gusty winds of popular culture and personal experience, they tend not to help people make progress. Most have grown up in a world where the reality is, as the title of one Harvard Business Review article puts it, “Why Be Honest When Honesty Doesn’t Pay?” As a result, the teacher or trainer, sometimes even the parent, is merely shouting at the wind.

If we’re serious about training people to become ethical””to be morally good, to consistently do the right thing””then we must go back to the only reliable basis, an absolute basis, for effecting that change. Knowledge of God transforms hearts, today’s ethics courses do not, especially ethics courses that limit the leader and sequester the Spirit. It’s time to invite God back in to our classroom, our training room, and our family room.



1. The illustration that Kant offers in his classic Critique of Practical Reason invites us to consider this choice: Do you perjure yourself so that the state can convict and execute an innocent person whom the ruler considers an enemy of the state, or do you refuse to commit perjury and as a result, be subject to execution yourself. An extreme example, but it illustrates well the broader point. Kant says that we would judge that the honest or “morally right” course of action is not to commit perjury and therefore to face execution. But in practical application, we then have to choose between what is moral and what will make us happy (or in this case, safe). When facing this sort of dilemma, the “rightness” of an action is often powerless to influence behavior.

2. Some readers will recall that Kant presented the idea of a “categorical imperative” as a filter for moral living. Without requiring a belief in God, Kant’s imperative says we should not take any action that ought not become a universal law. It’s a profound and path-breaking conceptualization, but in a postmodern world where the average person would see Kant as just another guy with some ideas, the categorical imperative may not be very compelling, particularly when following it involves any kind of pain or sacrifice. To this person, though, God is less likely to be “just another guy with some ideas” and as a result, a “divine command” approach may be more authoritative and influential with him or her.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the founder and editor of Christianity9to5.org.