Even granting that business ethics is important, many seem to believe that there is no point in studying the subject. Ethics is something you feel, not something you think. Finance, marketing, operations, and even business law lend themselves to intellectual treatment, but ethics does not. The idea that ethics has no intellectual content is odd indeed, considering that some of the most famous intellectuals in world history have given it a central place in their thought (Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, etc.).
Ethics is in fact a highly developed field that demands close reasoning. The Western tradition in particular has given rise to sophisticated deontological, teleological and consequentialist theories of right and wrong. No one theory explains everything satisfactorily, but the same is true, after all, in the natural sciences. Even when they grant that ethics has intellectual content, people often say that studying the field will not change behavior. Character is formed in early childhood, not during a professor’s lecture. If the suggestion here is that college-level study does not change behavior, we should shut down the entire business school, not only the ethics course. Presumably the claim, then, is that studying finance and marketing can influence one’s conduct, but studying ethics cannot. This is again a curious view, since ethics is the one field that deals explicitly with conduct. Where is the evidence for this view? The early origins of character do not prevent finance and marketing courses from influencing behavior. Why cannot ethics courses also have an effect?