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This short paragraph from a Wall Street Journal profile of one of the world’s worst financial criminals allows UD to say to you once again (she says it all the time, most recently in this discussion of Amy Bishop) that being highly intelligent and getting a great university education has little – sometimes nothing – to do with morality.

Clifford Orwin, a professor of political philosophy, makes the point:

[G]ive me Mr. Madoff for one, two or three courses of ethics instruction and he would still be Bernie Madoff. Would he have learned anything from the experience? Yes, he’d talk a much better game of ethics. Thanks to my teaching, he’d be an even greater menace to society.

This year, I’m teaching 500 students about justice, and I’m not making a single one of them a better person. Those who already aspire to justice may refine their understanding of what it is. (They may also come to see that everything has its problems, even justice.) Those already minded to be good citizens may become more thoughtful ones. I believe strongly in what I do – I just don’t think that what I do is to improve the moral character of my students.

Students indifferent to justice just aren’t going to be won over to it by anything that I could say. Or that anyone else could say. A university course is not a revival meeting. I don’t cure palsies and I don’t plead with students to come forward to declare themselves for ethics. And if I did – and if they did – it wouldn’t mean a thing. Talk is cheap. Talk consisting of high-minded oaths and declarations of one’s moral seriousness is even cheaper.

By the time a student arrives at university, and a fortiori several years later when he ambles on to his MBA, his ethical character is already firmly set. Whether virtue can ever be taught was already a thorny question for Plato. Whether it can be taught to adults, in a classroom, shouldn’t be a thorny question for anyone.

Stanley Fish overstates the case, but he gets at it too:

Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. [Humane] texts [are] concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

One of the corollaries of these truths is that business schools waste all sorts of money and generate all sorts of cynicism among their students by adding ethics courses to their curricula.

Business school catalogues should title these courses what they are: sops.

SOP 101

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6 Responses to ““Mr. Quinn was an A-student at his Catholic school and an altar boy. He was known around the neighborhood as the local ‘genius,’ says [a childhood friend]. As an undergraduate at St. John’s University in New York, Mr. Quinn studied philosophy and from memory ‘would quote passages from Thomas Aquinas on ethics,’ his friend adds.””

  1. david foster Says:

    You’re not a C S Lewis fan, IIRC, but he observed that he “would rather play cards with a man who was skeptical about ethics but who was taught from childhood that ‘gentlemen do not cheat’ than a moral philosopher raised around sharpers.”

  2. cm Says:

    Aristotle already knew this. In his Nicomachean Ethics he states that his audience are those people who already live a moral life in an unreflective way. Ethics provides us the means to reflect on our moral habits and beliefs, but it can’t make us moral if we aren’t already.

  3. Mark Says:

    Ethics classes may not do it, but thoughtfully-run courses on current and past events (economics, political sci, anthropology, sociology, history) can and should engage with students’ moral and political positions. I know my sense of global justice was changed substantially for the better during my undergrad years.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Mark: Absolutely. That’s the way to do it if it’s going to be done — obliquely.

  5. University Diaries » Brooks and Krugman, in today’s New York Times… Says:

    [...] not believe the non-religious university has – or should have – a moral mission. See Clifford Orwin for a nice expression of her [...]

  6. University Diaries » I have tried to tell you. Clifford Orwin has tried to tell you. Stanley Fish has tried to tell you. Says:

    [...] you won’t believe us that ethics courses in business school are a total waste of time and money. As Orwin says: By the time a student arrives at university, and a fortiori several years later when [...]

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