Ethics in Organizations: the Unconscious at Work

Part One
By Annabel Beerel, MBA, PhD

Acting Chair, Sabbatical Replacement
Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Ethics
Southern New Hampshire University

This above all, - to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

--Shakespeare’s Hamlet


Ethics education is “in!” The much publicized corporate scandals and the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation of 2002 (SOX) has placed ethics education at the center stage of life in corporate America. New (or renewed) interest in teaching ethics has spawned a host of new academic endeavors and a rapidly growing ethics industry. This rapidly developing industry includes a nationwide array of ethics centers, an army of newly trained ethics officers, legions of ethics consultants, an ever-expanding menu of ethics seminars, and a vast array of ethics literature.

Judging by the growing literature on the topic of Business Ethics in particular, forests are being decimated in order to bring to print discussions on whether ethics can be taught, the goals of ethics courses, what should be taught, how ethics should be taught and the assessment of the efficacy of ethics courses. Over the past decade, Business Schools have also been busy adding ethics courses to their curricula.

One prevailing question is whether all this attention to ethics is having any constructive impact on business leaders. Is there any way we might evaluate whether heightened attention to ethics through ethics education, ethics centers and so on, actually generates any practical results? Ethics researchers (another fairly new breed), in attempts to answer this question, continue to fill all kinds of journals with research findings on the impact of ethics education in organizations, teaching ethics in the classroom or the difference between the ethics of men and women. As yet, no research study exists (that I am aware of) that can convincingly demonstrate that all this ethics education, both in the classroom or in the organization, is making people more ethically sensitive or more morally astute.

Judging by the daily news, ethical misdemeanors both in business and government sectors continue unabated denying the fact that ethics is a topic currently under the political, social and economic microscope. Despite Sarbanes-Oxley, the unveiling of corruption in both corporate America and in government has hardly paused for breath.

Wearing the lens of an ethics educator, my concern lies in the efficacy of the ethics education we provide for future leaders and business executives. What kind of ethics courses do we need that make a radical and definitive difference to people’s moral behavior? My response to this question, which is the main purpose of this article, is to propose both a shift in content and pedagogy from that used in most ethics curricula. I advocate that ethics education, both in the classroom and the organization, cannot be effective without incorporating both a psychological lens and an experiential pedagogy.
1 The psychological aspects I am referring to fall under the description of “depth psychology.” Depth psychology is a Jungian approach to behavior that pays attention to a person’s shadow or unconscious side. The experiential pedagogy I propose, while including case studies and role plays, employs predominantly what is known as “in the moment” processing. “In the moment” processing is a form of “reflection in action” where a person is challenged to reflect on his or her behavior at the same time he or she is behaving. In this situation the role of the “teacher” is to help mirror back to the person the impact of his or her action both on others and on herself.

Before I describe my particular “brand” of ethics education I present a critique of the general type of ethics education currently practiced. This will pave the way for explaining the type of ethics education I advocate which seeks to redress the issues I raise in this critique.


My critique of ethics education centers on three points. The first is that ethics is taught as a rational, intellectual discipline to be learned through cognition. I argue that this approach while necessary is far from sufficient.

The second concerns the dualistic approach to ethics that sets ethics up as defining what is good and bad without recognition that ethics is far more than this. Ethics and morality challenge the interiority of a person and the way he or she responds to the question: Who am I? How do I engage with others in the world? Ethics does not provide answers and it certainly does not categorically define good and bad nor provide simple guidelines of right and wrong. Instead, ethics poses questions. The ethical quest is the ongoing search and examination of how we might improve the choices we make in the face of the vicissitudes of life.

The drawback of the dualistic approach to ethics is that it not only sets up the idea that people can simply learn right or wrong through reasoning or rules, but that it encourages the fantasy that we can become perfect by learning about and identifying with the “good” or the “right,” and disclaim or deny our natural tendencies to be “bad” or “wrong.”

The third critique I offer is the tendency by many to treat the concepts of ethics and morality inter-changeably. This approach, I believe profoundly shortchanges discussions about ethics and morality, a fact I shall illustrate.

Critique 1: The Rational-Intellectual Approach to Ethics

In most institutions of higher education the study of ethics sits within the department of philosophy. In Business Schools, a very high percentage of those who teach ethics hold doctorates in philosophy and/or religion. In some way this is not surprising. Afterall, it was the fathers of philosophy, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who ushered in new ideas that introduced moral responsibilities to human beings. These radically influential philosophers, each with a different emphasis, inspired us with their ethical theories based on the then growing self-appreciation that humans differ from other animals in that they can exercise reason. This ability to reason, they argued, enables humans to think, reflect, evaluate, analyze, and develop logical arguments. Through the use of reason humans can make reasoned choices, and if they develop and refine this ability they can make good choices. Based on this thinking a good choice came to be referred to as “the choice of a reasonable man.” Similarly, this thinking led to the notion that “reasonable men make good choices.”

Based on the “reasonable man” theory these early Greek philosophers began to place a new moral emphasis on what it meant to live the good life and how our powers of reason could assist us in discerning how we should live. Since that time we continue to be confronted with Socrates’ immortal phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
4 This phrase challenges us to keep questioning how we ought to live our lives compared to how we actually do live it.

A journey through the history of the development of ethical theory reveals that the ability to be ethical and moral (see the distinction below) is associated with our reasoning capabilities. The Reformation followed by the Enlightenment reinforced the power of the reasoning ability of man. Having discarded the Catholic Church, reason became our new divinity and man certainly was the measure of all things. During these movements women remained ignored for their moral capacities and their moral contribution despite the fact, as Gertrude Himmelfarb writes in The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1994), they remained as always responsible for household virtue and the moral upbringing of children.

It would appear that not much has altered since the days of Socrates or those of virtuous Victorian England. Ethics remains an intellectual discipline taught in the mode of philosophical rational and intellectual debate. The emphasis of ethics teaching still rests on honing people’s intellectual faculty. A review of courses, seminars and texts for ethics education reveals a strong bias toward philosophical discussions intended to develop some form of ethical awareness that in turn will cultivate certain critical attitudes or dispositions. Some education focuses on moral reasoning and building analytical skills while others emphasize knowledge of theories and democratic values. Other, more business oriented ethics education claims to focus on providing a practical understanding of potential real world conflicts and how these might be handled (Sims 2002, 17-22). Whatever the student mix, context or goal of ethics education, the main emphasis of ethics education still rests on reading huge amounts of philosophical texts and then somehow rationally applying their moral principles to current day moral dilemmas. Ethics education remains essentially an abstract rational discipline aimed at teaching us how to reason and be reasonable. While I agree there is an important role for this type of learning, I argue that by ignoring the psychological and emotional aspects of our behavior, especially in the context of group pressure, we do not really learn the true challenge of our moral dilemmas.

Critique 2: The Dualistic Approach to Ethics

Another drawback of much of ethics education is the dualistic idea of ethics. This idea divides ethics between what is good and what is bad. Ethics education is supposed to promote what is good and therefore humans should be taught to be good, kind, brave, dedicated and rational. Discussions, games, case studies and other teaching vehicles are slanted to highlight the difference between good and bad and then have the student or participant identify with the good. Under this pressure the individual is expected to split herself between a world of external and social values with which she is required to identify and a world of anti-values which she is supposed to suppress even though they might be part of her human nature. (See my discussion on the dangers of splitting later.) In this vein all too often ethics education is seen as a path to creating moral heroes where light always overcomes darkness or good always prevails. As we know, this is a far cry from reality.

More recently ethics educators who claim to include an experiential component as part of their pedagogy toolbox speak of case studies, games, role plays, and structured exercises in order to practice new behaviors or skills. Even in these situations students, seminar participants or faculty are presumed to be able to critique and guide one another in rationally “improving” their responses or behaviors. So, even with different learning approaches the bias toward setting up the duality between good and bad and right and wrong remains.

The type of ethics education I wish to promote redresses the prevailing bias on the rational and intellectual and the idea that ethics is simply a matter of identifying good versus bad and then assimilating only the good. I advocate that ethics education requires working with the intellect and the emotions, and that good and bad both need to be assimilated as both good and evil will always exist.

Before we continue the discussion of what my assertions imply for ethics education I need to clarify the distinction between ethics and morality and highlight the extreme importance of this distinction.5 The distinction as we shall see reveals the tension between ethics as theory about people’s behavior, and morality as the lived practice of that behavior. This tension between theory and practice is highly relevant to the ethical challenges we face in daily life and ethics education.

Critique 3: Untangling Ethics and Morality

Since the days of Socrates many philosophers and theologians have taken up the task of developing and defining ethics and morals consonant with the ethical and moral challenges of their day. Here I propose some workable definitions that speak to our day and that clearly highlight the distinction in meaning between the two terms.

We begin with morality: “Morality refers to commonly accepted rules of conduct, patterns of behavior approved by a social group, and values and standards shared by the group. It consists of beliefs about what is good and right held by a community with a shared history” (McCollough 1991, 6,7).

Taking this definition we see that morality refers to the choices we make with regard to our behavior. Our choices are deemed either moral or immoral depending upon whether they do or do not coincide with moral norms. Moral norms are behaviors approved by a particular social group as being values and standards perceived to be good and right for that group. An example of a moral norm is monogamy. Anyone who chooses to have more than one spouse in a monogamous culture would be considered immoral.

Now let us look at ethics. Here are two definitions that I believe capture the heart of ethics: “Ethics is the critical analysis of morality. It is a reflection on morality with the purpose of analysis, criticism, interpretation, and justification of the rules, roles, and relations of a society. Ethics is concerned with the meaning of moral terms, the conditions in which moral decision making takes place, and the justification of the principles brought to bear in resolving conflicts of value and of moral rules” (Pojman 1993, xi). Ethics undertakes to analyze such concepts as “right,” ”wrong,” “permissible,” “ought,” “good,” and “evil” in their moral contexts (xi). Ethical thinking incorporates reflection on why things are the way they are and how value conflicts (honesty, loyalty, compassion) should be understood and mediated.

What we observe from these definitions is that ethics is a more complex term than morality. To understand the concept completely requires looking carefully at the different elements subsumed in the term ethics. First, ethics prescribes principles that guide our moral choices. Examples of ethical principles include “you should do your duty” or “every person should be treated equally.” There are many ethical principles available to us. These principles have developed over the last, give or take, 3000 years. New ethical principles evolve in every age in response to the moral dilemmas of the times. Ethics, as a discipline, therefore, is continuously evolving. Contrary to say 500 years ago, we now have business ethics, bioethics, and environmental ethics. These “new ethics” propose new principles aimed at prescribing how we should respond to business, biological and environmental moral dilemmas.

Given that there are several ethical principles from which we might choose, the second element of ethics is concerned with how we justify our choice of a particular principle. For example on what basis would we justify choosing “do your duty” as a moral guide as opposed to say “care for the relationship.” How do we justify the fact that sometimes we care about our duty, sometimes we put relationships first, and sometimes anticipated consequences of our actions drive our decisions? Why do we not use one ethical principle to inform all our moral choices? How can we, or do we, justify these different approaches or different prioritization of values?

The third element of ethics is the moral reasoning behind our choice of ethical principle. Moral reasoning includes the factors we took into account in selecting our guiding principle. It includes those factors we excluded and our reasons for the exclusion. It includes how we prioritized our concerns. Moral reasoning asks in what way this particular moral dilemma was different, or the same, than other moral dilemmas? How did we decide what was “good” or “right” or “fair” or “bad” in this circumstance? How does the thinking here compare with universal (where they exist) ideas about “good, bad, right, wrong and reasonable?”

A fourth element of ethics is the reflection on why things are the way they are and how value conflicts (honesty, loyalty, compassion) should be understood and mediated. Reflection includes asking questions as to whether known and used ethical principles are relevant or irrelevant to the times in which people are living. Do the principles require alteration or revision? The issue of slavery provides a good example. The idea that people should be treated equally goes back 2500 years. The problem with this principle was that it only applied to “equal” people, i.e., only equal people were to be treated equally. In other words those not considered “equal,” women, children, and slaves did not fall within the ambit of this principle. It has taken thousands of years for ethics to catch up with the idea that all people by virtue of their humanity are equal and therefore, all people without exception should be treated equally. The task of ethics is to continuously reflect on the validity and appropriateness of the principles it espouses.

In summary:

  • Morality is about choices of behavior given societal norms.
  • Ethics is about prescribing broad principles that guide behavior; analyzing the choice of principle/s that people make; looking at the justifications put forward for the choice; evaluating the process of moral reasoning that went into the choice, and reflecting on how effective or appropriate given ethical principles are in light of the times.
  • Moral reasoning is the intellectual effort that goes into choosing a guiding ethical principle appropriate for the context and circumstance.

Ethics and morality are clearly different concepts. Ethics is complex, continually questioning and analyzing, and forever evolving. We also note that ethics is about theory that holds up an ideal, while morality is about the messy, real world of choices. Ethics is the discipline, while morality is the subject under study. Ethics is therefore the critical analysis of morality. Ethics searches for the foundational principles that transcend the relative historical particularities of the specific situations that moral choices deal with. Ethics is an intellectual engagement at a higher level of abstraction than morality. Morality by contrast is about actual behavior. Human behavior, as we know, is not only intellectual, but emotional, affective, and embodied.

By comparing the meaning of the terms ethics and morality in detail it is obvious that they cannot really be used inter-changeably. Their distinctions bring home to us the tension between these two concepts. Theory and practice test and challenge one another.

If one claims that someone is unethical one is stating that this person appears not to have any principle guided framework that guides her actions. For example, CEOs who lie, steal, and cheat are unethical. No validating principle can be found that could rationally justify this kind of behavior from someone appointed to a position of stewardship over those very assets that she is lying, stealing, and cheating about. So when we are talking about ethics we are referring to the cognitive, intellectual facility to rationalize and justify the standards of behavior by which we hope to, or in actuality we do live.

If one claims that someone has been immoral, one means this person has acted counter to the current folklore and the community expectations regarding local, communal moral behavior. In the case cited above, our lying, stealing, and cheating CEO acted immorally since our society does not condone this behavior. (Judging by the minimal fines levied on these lying, stealing, cheating, CEOs I am not so sure!) When we talk about morality we are talking about actual behavior within a particular time and context. So in our example we have an unethical CEO who has behaved immorally. Now, let us go back to the slavery example. Prior to the civil war in the United States, slave owners were held in the Northern States to be both unethical and immoral. In the Southern States, however, owning slaves was considered a completely moral endeavor and the abolitionists were those seen as immoral.

The Ethics-Morality Gap – That Inner War

Let us work with this latter example a little further. We have an ethical principle that prescribes that one should treat all people equally. This principle is a rational, justifiable principle intended to guide moral choices. Moral custom on the other hand may condone slavery, racism, or any other form of bias or prejudice. In circumstances where this moral custom is practiced or chosen as a form of behavior, the lived reality diverges from the ethical ideal. So in this instance we have ethical principles that are in tension with moral customs. This I refer to as the ethics-morality gap.

The evolution of our ethical and moral awareness over the centuries has been driven by reflection and questioning regarding the ethics-morality gap. Philosophers and theologians, like Socrates, mentioned earlier, have challenged us with questions about how we ought (the principle) to live as opposed to how we do in fact live (the behavior). The agenda of great thinkers over the ages has been stimulated by the ethics-morality gap. Their recognition of the dynamic tension between ethics and morality has served to inspire us to seek ever higher ethical ideals in the face of new moral challenges. Thanks to their unrelenting probing how we ought to live remains an ongoing question as our evolution of consciousness regarding our planet, our world, our nations, our states, and our communities invites us to new understandings of our inter-relatedness. The results of this continuous reflection and questioning have led to the abolishment of slavery, the recognition that women have the same capacities as men, and respect for difference. From this perspective we can say the existence of the ethics-morality gap is a positive one in that it encourages us to strive for higher ethical principles followed by refined moral ideals.

At the more personal level, however, where we are not engaged in the loftier ideals of developing new ethical theories to meet the times, the ethics-morality gap remains a frustrating psychological, emotional and professional conundrum. St. Paul summed this up aptly in his immortal phrase: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”6 In this profound statement St. Paul was referring to the ethics-morality gap inherent in our daily lives. He was referring to “the good that I want” as the ethical principles or framework which he desired to live by. “The evil that I do not want” he saw as his response to the daily moral challenges of life. What he recognized is that the life he lived consisted of a host of moral compromises. What distressed him most is that in the heel of the hunt “the evil that I do not want” guided or influenced his actions rather than the rational and justifiable ethical principles to which he believed he was committed.

Without delving into a detailed biblical exegesis, Paul is saying that rather than allowing his actions to be guided by his highest ethical principles, namely the law of God, his moral responses stem from his dark side. He describes the inner tussle between his rationality (his mind) and his emotions and desires (his members meaning his body or his flesh) as an inner war. Here we are reminded of the common reference to the mind being willing but the body or the flesh weak, i.e., the mind represents our (en)light(ened) side and our bodies our shadow side. Of course most of us no longer believe in this adage but the analogy does remind us that we are a combination of both light and dark.

St Paul’s ruminations are highly relevant to the ethics education discussion. There are people who claim to have high ethical ideals. They say they believe in honesty, in doing-unto others as they would have it done to them, and in being generous and fair. However the lived reality is another ball of wax. They are not always honest, they cheat when they can, they do not share fairly and squarely and they put their own interest first. So here we have (supposedly) ethical people who live immoral lives and who do not appear to be reflective enough to experience the inner war that Paul describes.

On the other hand most of us are well-intentioned people who deeply aspire to making our chosen ethical value system a practical, lived reality. Yet like Paul we find ourselves being caught up in dynamics that result in our responding out of our dark side rather than our enlightened side. We are somewhat in touch with the inner war that takes place. This inner war that I have termed the ethics-morality gap needs to be part of the “what is taught” or rather “what is learned” in our ethics curriculum. If ethics education remains a purely intellectual endeavor that focuses on externally imposed ethical principles we deny the reality of the inner war we all face. It is this inner war that presents our greatest moral challenge.

(Reprinted with permission of author)

Go to Part Two

For more information about Professor Beerel, please see the brief biography of her at the URL

HCS readers are invited to view other articles about SNHU or business ethics at our extensive, permanent archives under the Business Ethics section at the URL or the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Southern New Hampshire University at

The purpose of the distinguished chair in ethics is to promote and enhance students’ and community members’ awareness of ethics in personal and professional settings through teaching, community lectures and conferences. These events will foster understanding and assist in the application of lessons taught by current and classical ethicists to 21st-century settings.The chair serves as the cornerstone for an integrated university program in business ethics that encompasses the undergraduate and graduate levels. For more information about these events or about the ethics chair, contact Jane Yerrington at SNHU (603-668-2211 x2488) or visit the webpages of the ethics chair at

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