Does studying ethics make you ethical?

Ethics Here's a question: If we are required to study ethics, does that make us more ethical?

"That's a stupid question," one might answer. "If we're studying ethics, then ethical behavior is top-of-mind for us. Of course we're more ethical as a result."

On the other hand, if regulators find it necessary to require ethics training among professionals -- as they've done for CPAs in certain areas -- what does that say about our ethical default settings?

All of these questions came to mind during a presentation at the Illinois CPA Society's annual Midwest Accounting and Finance Showcase. The presenter -- Dr. Mollie Painter-Morland, a tenured associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at DePaul University and associate director of its Institute for Business and Professional Ethics -- opened the session by wondering aloud about the effectiveness of required ethics training. What's our motivation for being there, she asked -- to become more ethical, or to meet our CPE requirements?

Fair question, and I've heard more than one person raise similar sentiments recently -- most notably Chris Ballinger, CFO of Toyota Financial Services, who told a crowd at the 2009 FEI Summit in Dallas, "If you're learning ethics for the first time at age 25 (or later), it's too late."

Point taken. But when we're talking about CPAs, I see a couple of flaws in that line of thinking.

First, ethical behavior is in a CPA's DNA. I think it has something to do with that middle initial. Protecting the public interest carries with it a huge responsibility to do the right thing -- to always be thinking about doing the right thing. That type of self-examination is part of being a CPA. Taking an ethics course isn't the first time a CPA has studied ethics. CPAs live that stuff every day.

Painter-Morland herself said as much during her Illinois presentation. CPAs, she said, know things that other people don't. That knowledge is used to protect the public, and the public places its trust in CPAs. Combine that with the facts that CPAs must safeguard public goods and maintain objectivity and independence, and you have some important reasons why ethics training is such a hot topic.

So we've got ethical people being required to study ethics.

Redundant? Maybe. At the same time, I believe the very act of reinforcing their ethical core values through regular study increases the likelihood that CPAs will stay true to those values.

And remember this: "People are looking for someone they can trust. That's right in our wheelhouse," AICPA Chair Ernie Almonte told CPAs at the Midwest Accounting and Finance Showcase. "If you have an unwavering set of core values, you'll never have to ask what's the right thing to do."

Do you have that unwavering set of core values?

Even if the answer is, "Yes," you still have an ethics CPE requirement to meet. Check out our list of accepted ethics CPE and sign up today.


Bill Sheridan