by Cornelius von Baeyer


The traditional reason for using case discussions in business ethics is to encourage people to reflect on the ethical appropriateness of specific actions in a familiar workplace context.  In doing so, individuals expand their understanding of ethical issues while developing and honing skills necessary for the practice of moral judgement.  Examining cases also provides opportunities to learn from the mistakes of others.  More ambitious goals might include stimulating reflection on the ethical appropriateness of shared organizational practices and the market setting in which organizational practices are shaped.

The theory of discourse ethics, however, suggests that we ought to expect more from case discussions.  (See my article on Discovering Discourse Ethics for a brief outline of the theory).

1. Such discussions should establish and foster conditions of civility and openness in which all members of the conversation are encouraged to voice their concerns.

2. We should expect discursive interaction to stimulate and reinforce a commitment to moral values in approaching specific problems and in work life generally.

3. Encouraging discursive interaction should implicitly signal the unacceptability of silent acquiescence, encouraging one to defend one’s convictions, to question actions and policies, and to hold others accountable.

4. Discussion of ethical problems ought to create shared understandings of organizational operations, constraints, norms, rules, and culture, as well as provoke reflection on the appropriateness of these shared understandings.

5. An organization which encourages and sustains dialogue oriented towards understanding ought to see an improvement in its in its ethical climate and consequently in the morale of its employees.

6. Case discussions ought implicitly to reduce reliance on the paradigm of the rational moral individual caught alone in moral quandary.  We should expect to find community ownership of moral problems.

Preliminary findings from a year-long experience of case discussions in a major department of the Canadian government provide positive support for these expectations, although results are not yet definitive.  (See the brief description of the project in What’s Workplace Ethics; more detail is available in The Ethical Compass, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 1998).  The experience gained already allows us to recommend the case study approach to other organizations.


Excerpted from “Case Discussions and Discourse Ethics” by Dr. Stephen Maguire and Cornelius von Baeyer, Educating the Ethical Professional, Proceedings of the Third Annual Laurier Conference on Business and Professional Ethics, A. Carson & J. McCutcheon, eds., Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, October 1998.

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What’s Workplace Ethics? | Discovering Discourse Ethics | Codes of Conduct: Panacea or Bunk? | Interpreting Your Code | Index of articles


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This page updated 13 May 99.