A system for teaching ethical systems

A system for teaching ethical systems

Jeffrey M. Kaplan

When I used to teach a section of a Professional Responsibility business school class I wanted to get the students thinking more from a preventive organizational approach to ethics than what was contemplated by the course materials that the school provided. To that end, on the first day of class I put the following grid in the center of the blackboard, and left it there throughout the course. 





Responding appropriately to ethical/legal dilemmas

Heightened ethical awareness – to avoid having to face ethical/legal dilemmas in the first place


Crisis management and other aspects of responding to wrongdoing by/in an organization (e.g., continuous ethical improvement of the organization)

Preventing unethical and illegal conduct in organizations through attention to:

  • Organizational (and other) culture
  • Incentives
  • Compliance programs/internal controls


Then, as I went through each of the various modules in the syllabus, the readings for which mostly involved reactive contexts, I would also include a discussion of what might be done from a preventive (and particularly an organizational preventive) perspective regarding the issue at hand. For example, when teaching modules on insider trading or corruption, I would ask: How do you as a manager take effective steps to mitigate this risk in your organization?

The idea was to show that these issues are far better to deal with preventively rather than reactively.  Indeed, I would try to make the case that, whether for an individual or an organization, aggregate ethical success could be measured – at least in part – by how much time/effort one was spending on the right-hand side of the chart via a vis the left-hand side.

Some other notes about the chart:

  • Individual/preventive quadrant.  An example of what would be discussed here was developing and maintaining the ability to recognize signs of potential ethical/legal peril in determining whether to pursue a particular career or business opportunity.
  • Culture.  At the outset of the class I would provide a framework for identifying weak ethical corporate cultures, which the students would use and supplement based on their own experiences.  We would also consider the ethical cultures of countries and industries.
  • Incentives. This part of the framework embraced both “positive” and “negative” incentives, including intangible ones. Among other things, it included consideration of “moral hazard” on a business-entity level.
  • Compliance and ethics programs.  This part of the framework did not involve going deep into the weeds of C&E programs, but rather used a simplified approach – focusing on risk assessment,  standards, communications, program management and governance, auditing/monitoring and accountability. With each of these I would emphasize that C&E programs generally relied more on management skills than law-related knowledge.

Some final notes: Some aspects of what we discussed fell into more than one quadrant. For instance, ethical leadership would be relevant to all quadrants. Also, in drawing the chart I would generally include a space at the bottom for the societal dimension. E.g., how should one view the issue not only as an individual or manager but with respect to the larger interests of society? Once you bring in that higher level, and start talking about how laws and culture affect organizations, then you’re really talking about ethical systems design, whether you know it or not!



Jeffrey Kaplan is a partner in the Kaplan & Walker LLP law firm in Princeton, New Jersey, and a collaborator at EthicalSystems.org.

[Link to PDF version of this blog post.]