Does Teaching Business Ethics Actually Make Business People More Ethical?

At the heart of business ethics education
are two daunting and sobering questions:

  • Does business ethics education actually influence positive
    ethical decision-making in business?
  • If not, what will be necessary to transform it so that it does?

Current scholarship on business ethics education has in general been unable to empirically establish any clear link between educational inputs and outcomes. As with all evaluations of educational efficacy, business ethics educators are constantly striving to understand how what they do helps students become more ethical leaders after graduation.

Photo: Melissa Kelly Edward R. Balotsky, Ph.D.

Melissa Kelly
Edward R. Balotsky, Ph.D.

Ed Balotsky, Ph.D., assistant professor of management and Arrupe Center Fellow, has undertaken a sustained research program to investigate this vital, yet elusive relationship between business ethics education and real-world business behavior. In a series of scholarly papers and presentations, Dr. Balotsky has produced some invaluable insights about this relationship. “To fill a void in the academic work to date, I realized there was a need for a testable theoretical framework that could illuminate student attitudes about business ethics. These attitudes would serve as a proxy for real-world business decision-making behavior—an attitudinal predictor of actual behavior. In short, students who understand and value business ethics during their education are more likely to act ethically in business, and vice-versa.”

Working with Dr. David Steingard (associate professor of Management and Associate Director of the Arrupe Center), they created such a testable model called The Ethical Learning Model. The model is comprised of 4 distinct ethical learning levels:

  • Level 1: Self-Justificatory Learning: This is the lowest degree of ethical development in which people espouse ethical behavior in terms of personal benefits with little regard for the results of their actions on a wider audience, and therefore is effectively devoid of a personal ethical code.
  • Level 2: Validational Ethical Learning: Here a person’s existing ethical code, regardless of its stage of development, is reinforced, but no additional reflection about or modification to the code occurs.
  • Level 3: Moderate Ethical Learning: Growth and sophistication about ethics starts here. People acquire an enhanced cognitive understanding and self-awareness about their personal ethical code so that their decision-making is influenced by it. As a result, the desire to become more ethical in their professional and personal lives is enhanced.
  • Level 4: Transformational Ethical Learning: In this highest level of ethical evolution, people exhibit transformative learning that reflects moral courage—transcending self-interest and serving a greater good in business and in the world. With this heightened sense of ethics in decision-making and lifelong development of personal ethical codes, Level 4 is least frequently achieved, but serves as a normative benchmark to which business ethics education should aspire. 

The model has been tested for several years in the required Saint Joseph’s University MBA course, Stakeholder Theory and Social Responsibility. Before the course starts and again at its conclusion, students participate in a validated survey assessment reflecting all four levels of ethical learning. Dr. Balotsky has been able to accurately measure the shift in students’ attitudes about business ethics. While not completely causally related, this shift is in large part attributable to student learning during the course. Amalgamated meta-data from the pre-test and post-test have revealed the findings depicted below:

Types of Ethical Learning Gained in the MBA Business Ethics Course


Dr. Balotsky is heartened by the value-added contribution of the Ethical Learning Model: “This work has advanced the quest to empirically evaluate the effectiveness of business ethics education. Employing the model and survey can assist business ethics educators in evaluating the impact of their pedagogical efforts.”

Still, he is cautious about the results to date: “We are seeing that changing deep seated, unconscious attitudes about business ethics is a considerable challenge. 80% of students at Levels 1 and 2 are not moving much during a semester of business ethics education, while 20% of students are indicating some meaningful learning about business ethics. I remain optimistic about the value of ethics education, however; because the course in which this research has been conducted typically occurs at the beginning of the MBA program, even better outcomes should result after the students are exposed to the infusion of ethical content found in other MBA courses.” Dr. Balotsky is also considering including students from non-Jesuit private and public universities in future research involving this ethical learning model. “My hypothesis is that the Saint Joseph’s University findings will exceed the outcomes generated from these others schools, thus supporting the value-added ethical training received from a Jesuit education”.

Additionally, Dr. Balotsky plans to take the model directly into the business world. In conjunction with Dr. John Newhouse, an associate professor in the Interdisciplinary Health Services department at Saint Joseph’s University, the survey has been modified for direct application to the hospital subset of the health care industry. Although still evolving, this new application of the research has generated two articles currently in press that are scheduled for publication later this year. “Ultimately, my hope is that we continue to evolve our approaches and techniques to educate students to become more effective business ethics leaders in the future.”

Comments are closed.