Can we teach ethical behavior? One CPA changes his mind to ‘yes’

The question – Can you teach ethics?

Jared Monger, writing at, talks about the ethics class he recently attended which changed his mind from no to yes.

A participant in the class explained why the answer could be ‘yes’:

“Ethics is the framework by which individuals make decisions. Frameworks and situations can be taught, so that when they are encountered in real life, individuals have already had a chance to decide what they would do in advance. This increases the likelihood they will act ethically.”

Here’s the breakthrough for Mr. Monger:

So ethics training, when done correctly, is really a role playing game in your mind. You get to visualize yourself as the criminal without committing the act and resolve not to make the same mistakes.

The value, according to the participant, is to allow someone to see what real ethical choices look like and what might develop from following the so-called ‘low road’.

I agree. That we can teach.

Did you see that qualifier, “when done correctly?” I think much of the teaching of ethics in the CPA profession is done poorly.

Merely reciting the AICPA or state ethics rules won’t change attitudes or behaviors.

I recently completed a mandatory 2 hour class on regulations which shows me how not to teach ethics.  California now requires 4 hours of general ethics training every two years and a specific 2 hour class on regs every six years.

The bulk of the text in the course was quotes from the state regs.  It had only a few explanatory comments included.  I intentionally choose to learn from the course, but that was in spite of the course.  Did manage to get a couple of blog posts out of it.

Finishing the class filled the square (an old phrase that means you grudgingly did the mandatory task just to get it done). The class did not even try to create attitude change, make the case that following the profession’s rules is the right/ethical/moral thing to do, or encourage the participant to take the high road.  It just filled the square so participants can get their license renewed.

It is possible to teach ethics.  On the other hand, some don’t want to learn.  I realize a few people refuse to hear anything until the handcuffs go on.  However, I believe most people can learn.

But we need to teach smart.

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