Ethics is the order of the hour at SMU where soon all students will be required to choose among various courses that illustrate right and wrong, some based on religion and philosophy, others on how to live. Rita Kirk, director of the Cary Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility will run the effort. She says that it flows from the conviction that ethics should be a major pillar of a university.

The idea of ethical inspiration also will be worked into as many classes as possible, including those on business. That’s good because we have arrived at a shocking moment where the private sector no longer can be relied upon as an antidote to the sloppiness of government. Everybody knows that management by agencies of the state is riddled with fat and foolish actions based on politics, not economics. What we are just now realizing is that privatizing an enterprise is no guarantee that it will acquire the shape up of an honorable company. The trouble, in too many cases, is executives who pare away not just fat but flesh, sometimes to pay off enormous debt, then lavish whatever is left on themselves, leaving the organization too depleted to serve its customers at the level they deserve.

Is there an ethical issue here? I believe there is. While Rita Kirk of SMU feels encouraged by the public service now required at many high schools and by the commitment to social responsibility made by more and more corporations, still essential aspects, all too often, are missing. For company leaders to plant a few trees and send out checks to worthy causes, even serving on those boards themselves, does not atone for the vast carelessness of some at the core of their operations. Students at SMU would do well to consider these questions:

Is it ethical to loan money to people you know cannot repay it, then sell the paper to someone else, along with the problem you have created?

Is it ethical to set up one group of clients for financial losses, with no warning, so that another client can benefit from their misfortune — all for a hefty fee from the winning investor? This has been done, and the justification was, “Our clients are very sophisticated.” The question, then, is this: Is it OK to cheat people as long as you think they are sophisticated?

Is it ethical to suppress evidence that a product you make may be unsafe?

Is it ethical to scrimp on safety equipment in a fever of cost-cutting?

The St. James Ethics Centre in Australia has proposed an entirely different approach with Sunday-School-like questions such as these:  Would I be happy if what I’m doing were on the public record? What would happen if everybody did this? How would I like it if someone did this to me? Will the proposed course of action bring about a good result?

These are insufficient because too many in business today consider a good result anything that improves profits, no matter how, and that good result is intended to be public, along with the clever means of achieving it. If tough measures are required, and other people are hurt, then the golden rule is irrelevant, because strong business decisions, they insist, cannot be diluted by such soft considerations.

So the work of rehabilitation is more difficult than some might suppose, not because everybody in business is lost — far, far from it– but because the commanding heights of the economy, especially in finance, have been captured, in important instances, by a dangerous form of  narcissism.  A good place to look for solid businesspeople is among those whose name is over their doors. Their integrity, I frequently have found, is palpable. To study them would be the best way to save a brilliant business culture badly in need of ethical moorings.