Tom Culham was trained as an engineer and he worked in business for almost 30 years designing major industrial facilities around the world. But in his 50s, he decided to pursue a distinctly different passion: the ethics education of business leaders.
His curiosity led him to explore neuroscience, probe the relationship between unconscious feelings and principled behaviour, and write a PhD thesis that was published as a book, Ethics Education of Business Leaders: Emotional Intelligence, Virtues, and Contemplative Learning.
"The research I did indicated that the current approach to teaching ethics didn’t match up with how people actually make decisions,” Culham told the Straight by phone. “The focus was on intellectual effort, doing case studies, and finding logical and rational ways of coming to ethical decisions.”
Now the director of the bachelor of arts in management program at the private nonprofit CityU in Canada in Vancouver, Culham is applying his wealth of knowledge to an innovative undergraduate program that develops ethical leaders interested in building healthy communities. Social and environmental responsibility is at the core of its mission.
According to Culham, researchers have demonstrated that ethical conduct can be cultivated by practising certain skills, like listening effectively, writing journals, and meditating.
"They’ve used magnetic-resonance imaging to look at people when they’re making ethics decisions,” he said, “and they discovered that they make them in the unconscious part of the brain related to the emotions in the body.”
This area of the brain is called the limbic system, leading him to conclude that ethics is an “embodied knowledge”.
That contrasts with the centre for “intellectual knowledge”, the prefrontal cortex, which is instrumental in performing mathematics and is associated with logical decision-making.
Yet most people think that they are relying on logic when they make an ethical decision. What explains this contradiction? Culham said science has demonstrated that when an ethical decision is made, a signal is sent from the unconscious part of the brain to the conscious part of the brain.
Then the ego goes, “I made the decision and I made the decision because of x-y-z, which is actually a story.”
He emphasized that just because ethical decision-making is rooted in the brain’s limbic system it doesn’t mean that educators should abandon intellect or case studies. Rather, he suggested that mind-body exercises be integrated with traditional methods to engage students.
Moreover, he noted that stress can increase the likelihood of someone making an unethical decision.
“There’s been work done by the U.S. Army to find out how people respond under a lack of sleep,” Culham said. “What kind of person maintains their ethical stance under those situations? And they found that people with higher levels of emotional intelligence do that—and also people who have meditated. Even a small amount of meditation actually helps them retain their value system.”
In other words, ethics can be a learned skill, just like playing hockey, which is another example of “embodied knowledge”.
"We know through neuroscience that the brain is plastic—and that you can change some of these aspects of yourself—but you have to want to do it and you have to be willing to practise.”
CityU in Canada’s bachelor of arts in management, a.k.a. the BAM, is a 180-credit program, but people can apply credits that they obtained in two-year college or technical-institute educational programs.
They can also leverage two years of undergraduate university education. It’s ideal for people with two years of postsecondary education who are in a supervisory position or who have launched their own business.
Culham said that CityU in Canada has an agreement with Kwantlen Polytechnic University. This enables KPU students with a diploma in four areas—horticulture, environmental-protection technology, brewery operations, and computer-aided design—to apply their credits toward an undergraduate degree at CityU in Canada. This would yield a diploma and a degree in just four years.
In April and May, CityU in Canada is launching a Sustainability Speaker Series to draw more attention to the connections between principled conduct and environmental well-being.
It’s yet another example of ethics in action, which is at the heart of the BAM.More