By Don Bolding
Killeen Daily Herald
What is ethics?
If we don't practice it, so what?
Dr. John Frith and the Students in Free Enterprise team he sponsors at Central Texas College often and systematically address these questions.
Frith is chairman and Sam M. Walton Free Enterprise Fellow of the Business Administration and Paralegal Department. Teaching ethics is one of several areas SIFE teams have to address in state and national competition, and the federation puts enough emphasis on it to make it a category separate from the rest.
CTC SIFE team members won honors for their program in it last year. But the subject is a particular passion of Frith, who tries to track the attitudes of elementary, middle school, high school and college students over time.
Members of the SIFE team gave their interactive PowerPoint presentation 20 times last year, reaching 599 students. So far this year, they have presented it 11 times, reaching 391 youth.
In an interview this week, he and several students agreed that a sense of morals and ethics has been declining in the young the past few years, but they present survey results that show the problem may not be as bad as cynics would think. One question on one survey of college students yielded the following results:
Cheating on an assignment is:
OK if other students are doing it: 2 percent.
OK, but only to prevent failure: 6 percent.
OK once in a while, if it does not become a habit: 34 percent.
Never OK: 57 percent.
Habitual behavior, suggesting addiction, seemed to be the worst sin.
Frith says results seem to be holding steady the past three or four years.
He dislikes the term "business ethics," and the SIFE presentation says the proper concern is about ethics in all facets of life because conditions in each area of life influence all the others.
He sharply criticizes the media for demonizing business and giving the impression that business is an innately unethical field, driven by greed.
"They hold up cases like Enron as typical," he said, "and they attack big companies like Wal-Mart for making billions of dollars in profits when what they're reporting is gross profits, not profit margins. Wal-Mart has a profit margin of 3 to 4 percent, when the national average of all businesses is 9 percent. Banks have a much higher profit margin than that."
Another test is based on a survey by Money Magazine with questions of whether a person would keep excess change in a retail transaction and whether the person would keep $1,000 found accidentally without making a reasonable effort to contact the owner.
The survey asked 1,000 adults in 1987 and 1,000 in 1994. In 1987 answers, 15 percent would keep the change; in 1994, 24 percent would. In 1987, 4 percent would keep the $1,000; in 1994, 9 percent would.
In a survey of 640 college students in each of the years spanning 2003 to 2006, 21 percent would keep the change, and 27 percent would keep the $1,000.
The SIFE presenters ask each class the same questions to compare the results. Frith was concerned that in some high school classes, 50 to 60 percent said they would keep the money and hoped the results reflected youthful impulses that would be outgrown. He hopes to develop a way to track the results of the SIFE presentation as students grow up.
One of the SIFE students, Adriana Olson, said one student from a poor background said she would keep the small change but make every effort to return the money because its loss might be devastating to the rightful owner.
All the students, plus Frith, blamed a breakdown in the family plus a decline in religious and spiritual influence. They said the fantasy world of video games and the thrill of hacking into computers tend to erode interpersonal values. Frith said that following a divorce, only one moral teacher is left, and the income drop after a divorce tends to erode values. Student Andrew Smith said he thinks family breakdowns destroy youths' sense of value in community.
"They think the boss has plenty of money, so it's OK to take from him," he said.
Olson blamed popular culture, particularly rap lyrics.
"It's always about money, money, money, more, more, more," she said.
But she also took the side of the entertainment industry in cases of Internet piracy: "They see all these rich stars who can easily afford to lose a couple of dollars, but they don't think about the technicians, clerks and others behind the scenes who suffer when profits are lost."
They find very often at the start of a presentation that students identify ethics with law and nothing else. But the presentation says ethical and legal questions are entirely different. Moral and ethical questions concern beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong.
The presentation, making the case that a decline in ethics is systemic with society, cites several cases of frivolous lawsuits, congressional and other political lying and money-juggling and fabrications by journalists. It doesn't deny a decay in ethics in business but says that ethical standards in all of society tend to rise or fall together. And Smith said that ethical failures usually stem from attempts to enrich the self, not the business.
Student Donna Phillips said, "Correction of these things has to start somewhere, and it has to start with you. Put yourself in the other fellow's shoes, and then act."
The presentation suggests these guidelines for any action:
Is it fair?
Is it legal?
Is it the truth?
How does it make you feel?
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Among teachers who have collaborated with SIFE on the project, Sara Sandifer of Clements-Parsons Middle School in Copperas Cove said, "There can't be enough of ethical instruction, and it needs to come from the churches, homes, everywhere. In this case, the students are really impressed by getting this from older students."
Another business professor, Dorothea Gaulden of North Carolina, who serves on the adjunct faculty of several universities after serving as controller and vice president of ITT Corp., does single out business students as among the most corrupt, although the situation may reflect the public reputation of business and the students may be mimicking how they think people in business are supposed to act.
In advance publicity for a book titled "Right Makes Might: Reviving Ethics to Improve Your Business," she points to a prevailing cutthroat business mentality combined with a "me first" mentality in the society at large.
"In just one semester, 14 offenses by seven students were observed. Primary reasons were the unwillingness of students to do the work and get a better grade," she said.
She said many individuals don't feel a connection with others on the job or in the classroom. They believe their actions will ultimately be harmless and that they're not apt to get caught breaking the rules.
"We live in a fanatically driven universe, characterized by rapid technology breakthroughs and fixated on self-gratification," she said. "Unfortunately, this law of 'me first' is not self-contained and spills over into all aspects of society, particularly the business community."
She blames the growth of technology for facilitating an increase in wrongdoing and offers prescriptions for restoring ethics in businesses, creating organizational solidarity among employees and creating upright leaders.
Her area of concern is business, not the entire society, but she does say the ethical condition of society contributes to the problem in business.
So if we single out business, what can we expect to happen in that dimension of life alone if everybody acted ethically?
"If everybody were ethical with each other, then fair competition would rule the economy. Government has to step in and take over when people keep doing the wrong things," she said.
Contact Don Bolding at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7557