This essay is part of our insights and resources to encourage discussions around the principles outlined in the Audit Manifesto.
We have worked closely with audit trainees and university students studying accounting. A fundamental question that motivated this work has been how to develop behaviour and moral reasoning capacities that can move audit professionals beyond compliance and box ticking.
Some research indicates that accounting students are less ethically aware and capable of moral reasoning than other professional groups of students; business ethics education does not necessarily result in internalised ethical values or guarantee ethical behaviour. Although codes of ethics may help raise moral awareness, there is no guarantee that they will have a positive impact on a professional’s moral judgment. Also, because factors such as culture, context, ethnicity and life experiences can influence values, there can be marked variations in how individuals and groups of professionals perceive ethics.
Behavioural sciences such as sociology, cultural anthropology and psychology, offer a lens through which to view human actions, but their research on ethics often focuses on how incentives and punishment influence unethical behaviour. This can simplify the nature of reasoning and obscure theories about how morals influence behaviour, making them irrelevant to practice.
While behavioural science (simply said) measures what is observed, it is not capable of providing a more complex understanding of the underlying motivations, reasons, capacities, and history that yield certain behaviour. Because it is harder to control, predict or observe how behaviour may be impacted by culture, context, and judgment, the process of reasoning is dismissed and replaced by controls and incentives for behaviour that can be observed.
Instead of dismissing the role of reasoning, our work has tried to unpick contexts and other factors that can enable an individual to engage with ethics and moral reasoning. As a result of this, AuditFutures has argued for an emphasis on the development of critical capacities of judgment, rather than on compliance and learned behaviour. So a number of our projects have explored a key question:
What needs to happen in order to enable individuals in moral reasoning?
Considered in the context of how to build a modern audit profession, this question should be followed by a reflection on which objectives should guide ethical courses and which methods and approaches to teaching should be used to foster capacities of judgment – and these are matters that we have explored through our Philosophy for Accounting initiative.
Audit trainees and seasoned practitioners may benefit from adopting a philosophical approach when considering the development of behaviour and moral reasoning; although some may need a guide to help them through this moral maze.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality is not based purely on irrational passions, but on desires that are justified when reason connects desire to its function or essence or purpose. As such, morality is a response to human sociability and to reasons provided by people’s immediate social and cultural context. Moral motivation then comes from being able to identify and understand reasons for acting in a way that can lead to the highest good or purpose.
This seems to indicate a need to revive the importance of philosophical perspectives and a deeper understanding of human rationality, and to appreciate that this takes place within the mind and responds to reasons. Certain approaches to teaching ethics may be more or less appropriate. Those who are keen to understand more about this – and why culture, narratives and environment are key to developing virtues and habits of mind – may benefit from reading our reflections on new ways to teach ethics.
There are some significant problems to be overcome. Bad narratives tend to dominate audit, and there is poor understanding of audit’s purpose among students, academics and audit practitioners. We have seen this in a number of workshops and research activities, and there are serious implications for the profession because:
Observations from AuditFutures’ work point to disjointed discussions within practice and academia about the nature of what is the public interest, common good and professionalism. We see tensions that are a direct result of different hypotheses and theories about what is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, just or unjust, and this can give a voice to particular values.
One example is a philosophical myth that has been shared across many business circles that ‘it’s a jungle out there’ and ‘it’s every person for themself’, which denies the view that our individuality as humans is socially defined and interpreted.
There is plenty of scope for future discussions on the purpose and teaching of ethics.
The publication Future Professional: The Journey was created to prompt new discussions about the role of education in fostering the future professional. It reflects what has been learnt from various AuditFutures educational initiatives and some of the following ideas from this publication may offer ways to move forward.
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