In addition to sparking a certain amount of controversy, recent proposed changes to the Uniform Accountancy Act - specifically, those that would revise accounting curricula to include more ethics classes - got me thinking about the debate over ethics in accounting education.

In the aftermath of the accounting scandals that marred the beginning of the century, it seemed self-evident that more ethics education was a good way to help prevent similar outbreaks in the future. After all, if accountants were carefully taught the difference between right and wrong, they would be better prepared to choose the ethical course, wouldn't they? A great rustling noise arose as hundreds of thousands of heads nodded in agreement, including mine.

Now, though, I'm not so sure.

While I have taken a philosophy course that spent some time discussing general ethics, I have never taken a full course devoted to the subject, let alone one on business or accounting ethics. And yet, in covering scandal after scandal, I have never run across an incidence of wrongdoing where the ethical issues weren't perfectly transparent. 

Booking sales that never happened is clearly wrong. So is setting up separate entities to hide debt and mask the true condition of a business, and approving enormous loans to executives that will never be paid back, and falsely converting expenses into capital items.

Similarly, it's clearly wrong to engage in a business partnership with a company whose books you audit, or to sign off on manifestly fraudulent accounts, or to go easy on an audit in order to gain consulting or other business from a client.

Do accountants need a class to learn all this? For all but the most seriously morally impaired, a few moments of untutored reflection should make the choice clear. You don't need three or six credit hours to know the difference between right and wrong - you just need to make sure that your sense of that difference remains intact.

So maybe more ethics education isn't the answer. Maybe we should spend less time worrying about what accountants aren't learning in the ethics classes they're not taking, and more about what they are learning elsewhere - in other classes and in the workplace -- that causes so many in both industry and public firms to ignore the native voice of right and wrong.

Maybe it's not the lessons they aren't learning that are the problem, but the ones they are.

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