Hands-On Ethics Education

Georgetown offers courses to students—and training to teachers.
Hands-On Ethics Education
GOOD PEOPLE, PLACED IN DIFFICULT SITUATIONS, can act unethically. That’s why a grounding in ethics is so important for today’s business students. At Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C., we not only have developed an ethics program that helps students work through difficult dilemmas, we have designed a workshop where we teach the basics of our program to professors at other schools who want to revamp their own courses.

Our approach includes traditional business case studies, which can be easy to understand but light on theory, and supports them with philosophical and theoretical under­pinning. We use experiential learning—such as interactive exercises, role-play­ing scenarios, and semester-long group projects—to make business ethics personal, memorable, and easy to understand.

For instance, in one course proj­ect, students form groups and create a hypothetical company, a product, an ad campaign, and a statement of corporate social responsibility. The group then has to persuade the rest of the class to invest in the company and support its ethical mission. Students discover that ideas that at first seem to be both profitable and ethical may turn out to be neither. This experience gives them real prepa­ration for becoming ethical leaders.

For another interactive classroom, we use an exercise that is a staple in economics courses, but we add an eth­ical twist. In the standard economics class exercise, every student receives a paper bag with a random selection of candy and prizes inside, and all students measure their happiness on a scale of one to ten. After a round of trading, students report their happi­ness for a second time. They learn that mutually agreed-upon trade leads to higher satisfaction all around.

In our version, we ask students to first compare their candy collections with everyone else’s before the round of trading. When students consider what they have compared to what others have, they report lower happiness; but again, after a round of trade, their happiness increases. This exercise in­spires discussions of how to maximize well-being while considering justice and the welfare of others. It also raises the ethical question of whether trade is the best way to lead to higher satisfac­tion. Perhaps instead we should create a bureaucratic office that measures happiness and redistributes candy.

In another course, we offer real financial support to fund student group projects. Students who take institution­al money must explain how the costs of the project, including their own labor, justify the benefits. These projects naturally teach students about bureau­cratic roadblocks, tax laws, and institu­tional restrictions. Many students have gone on to make a real difference. For instance, one group created a business that allows teenage girls in Gambia to support themselves and their families.

Because values and experiences are diverse, no two courses are ever the same, and the subject remains fresh and interesting for both students and faculty.


We think our ethics approach works so well that we have begun to share it with others. In May 2016, the school’s Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics (GISME) hosted 16 assistant professors from colleges and universities across the country for a two-day workshop in teaching business ethics. Participants incurred no cost for attending the workshop, as GISME covered travel and lodging and provided participants a $500 honorarium.

Teaching ethics isn't about identifying 'good guys' or 'bad guys.' It's about preparing graduates to make tough decisions when they encounter ethical dilemmas.

Most of the professors hailed from business schools, and many were prepar­ing to teach business ethics for the first time. Those new to ethics said they understood the philosophy, but were lack­ing real-world examples to share with their students. Participants who already had taught ethics courses were looking for ways to revitalize their curricula.

During the workshop, three McDonough faculty presented six sessions. Topics included how to use interactive exercises and role-playing in the classroom, how to structure a semester-long group project that teaches students to resolve business dilemmas, how to give courses real-world relevance by taking students outside of the class­room, and how to incorporate moral psychology into an ethics course.

The workshop draws on work from philosophers, moral psychologists, law professors, and business faculty. This multidisciplinary mix indicates how critical it is that ethics be integrated into the curriculum.

Apparently, many other educators agree, because we’ve had an excellent response to the workshop. We were expecting only a handful of partici­pants for the first one, but we received 25 applications. We plan to bring in 15 new professors for a second workshop in spring 2017. We also plan to build an online toolkit so instructors anywhere in the world can access our information.

At the end of the day, teaching ethics isn’t about identifying “good guys” or “bad guys,” and it’s not about telling people “do this” or “don’t do that.” It’s about preparing our graduates to make tough everyday decisions when they en­counter ethical dilemmas in their careers. In the end, teaching ethics is not about making better people; it’s about increasing awareness so all of us, whatever our motivations, can make ethical choices.

Michael Douma is director of the George­town Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics, part of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C