Reviving the notion of telos in teaching ethics in accounting

(*This blog was initially published in the ICAEW academic community –


Recently, the AuditFutures programme launched the “Future Professional” report, which envisions the ‘professional’ as someone more than an excellent technician but an individual who is genuinely engaged and holds a moral compass. As a reflection on the publication, I will attempt to alleviate the existing ‘ethics fatigue’ by not providing another set of tools but by considering another point of view in relation to teaching ethics in accounting.

There has been a growing interest in the ‘practical insights’ emerging from behavioural sciences, which attend to incentives and the nudges that can be used to control and “ensure” ethical behaviour. Studies which show that ethics can’t be taught and that reasoning cannot ‘fix’ the fallibility of practice, have become powerful narratives in parallel with implicit assumptions about the corrupted human nature. Because it is harder to control or predict for how culture, meaning-making and capacities of judgment could impact behaviour, the process of reasoning is dismissed and replaced by controlling and incentivising for observable behaviour. This diagnosis calls for a refocus on rules and outward behaviour as a way to enforce and regulate for morality, which I will here argue, refuses to examine the things people do in terms of “intentions, purposes, and reasons for action”. This further obscure the place for agency and rationality, and makes normative theories appear irrelevant to practice, which is of particular concern for accounting education and the moral formation of young professionals. While behavioural sciences might provide useful insights for designing conditions within practice, I want to caution against the tendencies to ground ethics courses on mere behaviourism and experientialist learning. The perception that ethics is either an application of theories to practice and/or behavioural incentives, is driven by modern liberal individualism that separates moral from practical reasoning. A whole new point of view is required to see ethics holistically.

My contribution here builds on our AAA panel discussion that explored “New ways to teach ethics in accounting” and aims is to reform the importance of agency and enrich our understanding of rationality in relation to fostering ethical competency. I argue for the emphasis on critical capacities of judgment rather than compliance and ‘learned’ behaviour.

  • What needs to happen in order to be able to engage individuals in moral reasoning?
  • What are the implications of folk psychology and modern liberal individualism on the objectives that guide ethical courses and pedagogical techniques within business schools?


Rationality to be understood as responsive and situated

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality is based not purely on irrational passions but on desires that are justified by reason connecting the desire to its function/essence/purpose. As such, morality is a response to human’s sociability and to reasons provided by their socio-cultural milieu. Moral motivation then comes from being able to understand what is a better reason that leads to the highest good/purpose. Therefore, there is a need to revive the importance of philosophical perspectives and a deeper understanding of human rationality, as interpersonal and responsive to reasons. This gives prominence to a neo-Aristotelian approach to teaching ethics, which resonates with the concept of ethical systems (as advanced by the work of Jonathan Haidt) in which culture, narratives and environment are key to developing virtues and habits of mind.

The key problem at hand is not only that bad narratives dominate accounting as a discipline, but also that there is an impoverished understanding of its purpose from students, academics and practitioners as a whole.

“many things about professionalism we don’t understand…different meanings, how is it different to other occupations?” (undergraduate accounting student who responds to the purpose of accounting as a profession)

Such impoverished understanding has a direct impact on society, with implications on the following:

  1. Emphasis on rationality and technical aspects of work that create moral distance, ambivalence and ethical fading
  2. Such ambivalence drives the dehumanisation and instrumental rationalisation of practice, which…
  3. ultimately affects negative perceptions, decline of trust and overall ethos

Currently, we observe a disjointed discussion about the nature of public interest/common good and professionalism, both within practice and academia. We see tensions that are a direct result of different normative theories, giving voice to particular values, such as:

“teaching about public good and social purpose is propaganda!” (a response from academic in a discussion about the purpose of accounting)

A philosophical myth that has been shared across many business circles is the neo-Hobbesian view that “it’s every man for himself” and the new Darwinian view that “it’s a jungle out there”, which stands as direct denial of the Aristotelian view that our individuality, as humans, is socially defined and situated.


Finding ‘Purpose’ is key to teaching ethics

The main goal of ethics within accounting degrees is to give importance to understanding the professional purpose/intrinsic good of the accounting practice, which will create the foundations for moral motivation and embed ethics codes in a purposeful narrative.

ICAEW’s report on “Real Integrity” provides support for understanding and identifying with a larger purpose of job/profession:

At an organisational level, several interviewees expressed the view that an organisation with social aims was more likely to have integrity: ‘Because of the nature of the organisation…[cites example of team involved in community work]. And they’re not doing it for their personal gain, they’re doing it because it’s right and they feel they should contribute to society.’

‘[Integrity flourishes because of] the very nature of the business… It’s nice to know that you’re working for an organisation where, hopefully, you are making a difference to some people’s lives and improving some people’s prospects.’”

Responsiveness to reasons is uniquely human ability. To understand what drives commitment and motivation in practitioners requires much more than observing their behaviour. It requires an understanding of the beliefs and desires that they are responsive to and motivated by. Therefore, understanding of purpose (telos) of practice orients how one develops moral motivation and further provides reasons within community of practice that shape their nature and the nature of their work. This deeper conceptual understanding should go hand in hand with the pedagogical techniques used to develop it – which is best described by the inferentialist theory of learning, which provides a way of thinking about teacher development, pedagogy and knowledge as inseparable.


Refocusing on values, virtues and sensibilities in education:

Ethical education in accountancy and business has focused on rule-based and cognitive approaches to solving ethical dilemmas, and less on fostering beliefs, personalised commitment, moral sensibility or professional values. These are hard to teach because it is hard to measure their longterm impact beyond university, and they ultimately relate to the innateness of character and traits,… which then poses an appropriate question whether it is the role of universities to take such responsibility.

While the need for rule-based ethics and consequentialism is not here diminished, the ability to engage sensibly with these decision-making tools requires deeper foundation and capacities of judgment beyond technical and theoretical. The ability to engage in reasoning and solving dilemmas, requires foundational capacities such as perceptions, sensitivities and faculties of judgment that would enable practical reasoning and wise behaviour. While secondary education has its permanent mark on individual values, the formative power of university education should disrupt pre-conditioned values and engage learners in a purposeful discourse that engages in reflective and dialectic modes of thinking. These enable one to develop capacities of judgment that 1) consider complexity and multiple theoretical perspectives and 2) reflect on issues of meaning, value and commitment – which enable the development of autonomous moral agents.


The Fear of Automation Revives the Importance of Judgment

Recent hype and ‘doomsday scenarios’ have emphasized the threats of automating professions, as the most recent disruption, exemplified by the existence of AI machines, such as ROSS , powered by IBM’s Watson technology, and marketed as the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney. Using research by the University of Oxford, accountants face 95% chance of losing their jobs as machines take over the ‘number crunching’ and data analysis. The debates from the cognitive revolution about ‘how the mind works remain appropriate and relevant to our current prognosis about the role of AI in ‘overtaking’ professional functions. These show a largely impoverished understanding of the mind by focusing on its information processing functions rather than the meaning-making processes that facilitate judgment. The issue that I want to stress here is not that AI could replace humans in certain tasks, but that in our focus on AI, we have neglected the distinctiveness of human judgment and the importance of fostering rational agency which seeks meaning, purpose, and the nature of the good within our society. Thus, we have to be cautious of learners and professionals becoming robotized, by subtracting the need for judgment from the equations that define procedures in professional practice and codes of ethics.

Personal moral compass is responsive to the wider professional ethos

Behaviour and moral action do not happen in isolation, but have history, based on beliefs, response to reasons and context. An individual and his/her reasons for action should not be looked at in a vacuum, but made sense of by understanding the conditions and environment, which affect his/her self-perception, choice and actions. Normative theory is not irrelevant here, it is key to understand and be critical of how the political and economic system dictates the existing resources, conditions and opportunities to which individuals and organisations respond. “The culture provides a rebus for cognitive activity and cognitive growth” (Bruner, 1996).

The professional identity and moral compass is not learned but developed in a process dependent and responsive to:

  • the individuals and their culturally responsive values;
  • the ethos of the professional/institutional domain;
  • the economic and political pressures from the field of work; and
  • the signals from the wider society.

As such, when we speak of teaching ethicality, we need to contextualise the concept as responsive to the socio-cultural environment and encourage students to develop agency by challenging the existing ethos that shapes their values and perceptions.


What does this mean for pedagogy and professional education?

In the face of Artificial intelligence and against the threat of automation, professional education should focus on the cultivation of values, virtues and sensibilities in the service of autonomous, rational agency.

Research in the learning sciences that draws on social constructivist epistemology explains ethical judgment and motivation as learned and mediated through culture and language. Social constructivism – as the epistemological theory used within the community of inquiry approach opens up a space for personal reflection, dialogue and sensemaking, which are key for the development of practical wisdom in professionals – development of the understanding of one’s own self. Through requiring individual reflection, interpretation and input into the dialogic space, it challenges the currently simplistic view of ethical codes and behaviours as purely rational and objective technical skill, detached from context and reasons. By requiring individual’s interpretation, community of inquiry (as praxis) does not disregard objectivity, but aims to improve engagement and motivation in a subject matter that is misunderstood and dehumanized through ‘scientific’ and ‘technical’ terminology. It also enables individual judgments to be challenged and biases to be uncovered/unpacked in order to enrich ethical content and bring out the human dimension integral to it.

The proposition here is for the emphasis on virtue-ethics approaches, such as philosophical community of inquiry, that could provide a theoretical basis to understand how change in judgment is possible. This pedagogical approach attends to the advancement of conceptual capacities, introspection, perspective taking and demands personal engagement with the subject matter. It draws on inferentialist theory (sensitive to context and responsivity) in order to operationalise a social environment where the expectations for democratic and dialogic discourse commits individuals to engage reflectively and dialectically with meaning and the self, a deeper understanding of telos and the idea of excellence and success.

Narratives and meaning-making

Engaging individuals in a constructivist dialogue about the greater purpose and internal goods of the profession, could generate a unifying narrative of the profession and guide the moral motivation in individuals toward a shared purpose.

According to renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner, ‘narrative’ is the mode of thinking and feeling that helps individuals create a version of the world in which psychologically they can envisage a place for themselves – a personal world. The narrative mode leads to good stories and believable historical accounts as it puts locates experience in time and space, unlike the paradigmatic mode that seeks to reach abstraction. Engaging with narratives could be done through the active construction of vignettes, personas and design service mapping, which involves both dialogue and conversation, where the learners become active co-producers of a narrative that has impact on their decision making and judgment. It provides context-specific meaning and enriches understanding and response to a situation.

Here are a few ideas that we have been shared and developed as part of the “Future Professional” publication:

  • Ethics content should be seen as integrated in the curriculum and mission, communicated through the culture, language, narratives and role models of the faculty; and through the shared experiences that extracurricular activities and group research projects foster.
  • The concept of ‘professionalism’ should be taught intentionally and discussed critically (through integrating narratives, experience and philosophy) with the objective of humanising the technical content and helping shape perceptions, responsiveness, emotions and intuitions as part of the professional identity.
  • Individual and group identity should be leveraged as part of the education experience. A course that changes how an individual thinks of herself, and of her classmates/co-workers, has a greater chance of success than one that simply tries to educate the learner/practitioner and impart knowledge and skills. As such, problem-based learning has been shown to improve group cohesion and learning triggered by solving problems, which is of particular importance to developing socio-emotional intelligence, communication, management, and motivation in professionals.