The title of a recent Wall Street Journal article asked: “Does an ‘A” in Ethics Have Any Value?” The article discussed in modest detail several issues relevant to modern business ethics education: Should ethics be taught? Can ethics be taught? If the answer to those questions is ‘yes,’ should it be taught through a stand-alone ethics course, integrated throughout a business school’s curriculum, or both?
The article made the grim point, among others, that despite the increased teaching of business ethics over the years, we continue to have ethical scandals. The article concluded by quoting Dean Delaney of Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business who said “If we don’t find a way to instill [ethics] in people, we’re going to repeat [Enron-like scandals] over and over again.”
I argue that we should first be realistic. Despite the best efforts of pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and others over a few thousand years, humans remain a long way from perfection. A few decades of teaching ethics in business schools is not going to create a sea change in human behavior.
Nonetheless, there remain strong reasons to teach business ethics. First, business schools should always teach what they think is important. And if the ability to run a business legally and ethically is not important from both a practical and a moral point of view, what is? Mortgage bankers, commercial bankers, and investment bankers ran the entire world economy into a ditch just a few years ago. We haven’t stopped teaching finance. We need to teach the subject of finance better and smarter, not stop teaching it. The same is true with ethics.
Second, despite Dean Delaney’s desire to instill ethics in people, totally altering the moral compass of MBA-aged or even undergraduate students is likely a fool’s errand. Most people’s desire (or lack of desire) to be ethical is largely set by the time they are college age. The more realistic goal is to teach those students who do wish to be ethical how to live up to their own moral standards and to teach organizations how to hire ethical employees and incentivize and motivate them to act ethically and legally.
In my admittedly limited experience, there has been a significant improvement in this arena over the past 15 years or so. I would not attribute all of that improvement to business ethics education, but it may have played a role. In the late 1990s, it was extremely common for my business students to tell me that ethics was not important and that their main goal in life was to start a tech company, sell it, and become a millionaire by the time they were 30. They didn’t want to go to jail, but beyond that they viewed ethics as largely irrelevant. I virtually never heard students admit in public that they would like to devote their efforts to doing anything other than making as much money as possible.
Now, I can’t think of the last time one of my business students dared say in public that his or her goal was primarily to get rich. Some may think it, but it is not something that most of my business students view as being acceptable to say in front of others. It is much more common for students to say that their ultimate goal is to make the world a better place, often by working for or starting nonprofits. I think there has been a sea change in the life goals of our young people. My surmise is that this is largely a cultural shift, caused in part by lessons learned from the Enron-era and subprime scandals. A second cause of this cultural shift arises from the fact that students are now expected to engage in volunteer activity in order to build an appealing resume for college applications. Their initial motivation to volunteer may be self-serving, but students increasingly view volunteerism as something that is expected of them and many learn that it is satisfying, personally rewarding, and even enjoyable to help others. Money as a driving force has faded away a bit, even for business students. At least, that is my experience. I don’t think the fact that business schools have increasingly taught ethics, CSR, and sustainability is the main driver of that change, but it has likely contributed.
[ See Melissa Korn, Does an ‘A’ in Ethics Have Any Value?, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7, 2013, at B4.]