Teaching morality at business school


Why are ‘ethics’ courses taught at business schools?  The meaning of ethics is ‘moral principles’.  Why do business schools teach morality?  I was reminded of this question yesterday when one or two students at Melbourne Business School chose to attend the ethics class that was on at the same time as my financial institutions class.

I am not opposed to the teaching of morality — far from it.  The purpose of the education system is to create human capital and transmit society’s mores from one generation to the next.  I just don’t think that morality should be taught in a graduate business school of a university — it should be taught in primary and secondary school.  The average age of MBA students, across all students, is about 30 years.  If people don’t know what is right and wrong by the time they are 30, then surely it is too late.

It might be argued that some moral questions can only be addressed when students are fully matured, and have a wealth of life experience.  Ok, but there is another problem with teaching morality at university (outside the Philosophy Department).   You can see this problem as follows.

What is the answer to the following question:  “Why is it wrong to hurt other people, if that action benefits you?”.   In primary school the answer is easy: “Shut up — it is obvious that it is wrong to hurt other people, unless in self defence, and everyone knows that.   If you do hurt anyone, then you will be punished.”   At University it is not ok to say “everyone knows that”.  It is not ok to be dogmatic about morality such as teachers in primary school and high school are.  At University it is ok, even essential, for students to ask “but why” until we get to the fundamentals from which the answer is derived.

Teaching finance is a piece of cake in this respect, because finance is a branch of micro-economics and therefore it is based on well defined axioms.  These axioms are contestable.  If you can construct a better economic paradigm (set of axioms and theory based on those axioms) then it will replace the old paradigm (it might take a while).   In this context a ‘better’ paradigm is one that is more accurate and more general in predicting economic outcomes.  But what underlying bedrock prinicples does the study of morality rest upon?  There are two answers to this questions.

First, if you believe that the universe was created (by God) then it is natural to believe that moral law was created at the same time that physical law was created.   Creationist beliefs and the belief that morality is embedded in the fabric of the universe are perfectly consistent. “The starry skies above us, the moral law within us” wrote Emmanuelle Kant to express his view on the moral and physical nature of the universe.  In a ‘created’ universe the answer to the question of why it is wrong to hurt other people is “because God says so”.

Alternatively, if you believe that the universe has no creator and no purpose, then it follows that humanity is an accident of nature, and all morality is a human construct.  Moreover, there is no rational basis for differentiating between one person’s moral foundations (or axioms) and another persons.   Unlike the study of finance, in the study of morality there is no rational basis for separating different moral paradigms of different people.   In an ‘accidental’ universe the answer to the question of why it is wrong to hurt other people is “because I say so”  where the ‘I’ here is the teacher of the class.

So, in an ethics class, the answer to why one action is moral and another immoral is because either God says so or the ethics teacher says so.

Well, in a modern professional graduate school neither of answers is satisfactory.  Of course, that is why morality is normally taught at elementary school  —  it can’t stand up to deep questioning.  And we don’t want deep questioning.  We want children to simply accept society’s mores without too much questioning:  don’t hurt others, accept that we are all equal, obey the law, don’t free ride, respect property rights, make the best of your talents, help the less fortunate, be strong in adversity, etc.   These are obviously, a mixture of classical, Judeo-Christian, and enlightment values.  But that is how it is in Australia, like it or not.

You might say that the study of morality is not like the study of finance.  It does not have to meet a rationality test.  It doesn’t have to strive for general explanations or be empirical by confronting theory with data.  Well, yes, I agree.  Science is not the only thing that universities do.  After all, universities are medieval and not enlightment institutions.   The study of art and culture is just as important as science.

That argument applies to the broader university, but not the graduate business school.  Apart from ethics, what other subject taught at business schools is not a part of management science.   Marketing, decision science, strategy, operations, accounting, leadership, and all the rest, are all a part of management science.

We do need to have an ongoing conversation about ethics in the business community, and business schools are a natural forum for that discussion.  But teaching goes well beyond an ongoing discussion.  Teaching implies intellectual authority in a teacher – pupil setting.  Where does that authority come from in teaching morality to 30 year old students?


14 Responses to "Teaching morality at business school"
  1. I think you’ve entered dangerous territory here, Sam, talking about the basis of morality. The dichotomy you present between an arbitrary morality based on revealed religion or an arbitrary morality based on the whim of a particular atheist is false; of course there could be other bases for a system that is designed to maximise human happiness.

    If you’re interested in the topic, check out “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris, which is about the science of morality and the prospects for morality which is based on scientific principles.

    In any case, there’s room in business school to be teaching people about situations in business that have an ethical component, without really needing to explore the basis of moral precepts our society generally accepts as self-evident, isn’t there?

  2. Sam,
    I would assume that was is being taught at business school is “applied ethics” in the same way as much of what is being taught in finance (accountancy, decision science, strategy etc) is applied maths.  it is about applying what you already know about ethics/maths to a business context.

  3. I’m glad that those of us in the Philosophy Department have an exemption, allowing us to teach moral philosophy to our students. If you came along to a moral philosophy class, you’d learn that there are lots of rigorous, interesting and productive ways to understand the difference between right and wrong (good and bad and other evaluative notions) beyond Divine Command Theories and brute individual subjectivism.

    But that’s not my point. As other commenters have pointed out, there’s a rich field of work in applied ethics, in which the aim isn’t just to inculcate some moral principles or codes, but where we’re trying to understand better the consequences of our actions, the way we might evaluate plans and priorities and outcomes, and better make decisions, defend them against objection or critique, and respond to claims upon us. I know little about the details of Business Ethics, and what’s taught at business school here in Melbourne or elsewhere — but I do know that lots of exciting, challenging and rigorous thinking goes on in the field more generally, and that this is of immense value to our students who need to learn how to better make difficult decisions, defend them on the basis of general moral considerations in various arenas (public, corporate, private) and manage to sleep at night, too.

  4. I think you’re wrong to suggest that there can be no rational basis for ethics. We all have a rational self-interest in a world governed by rules and norms that enable us to reach our desired goals and potential. I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here – just check the writings of JS Mill, John Rawls, Amartya Sen etc

  5. Given the international nature of business schools, i assume that Ethics in biz school need to be about introducing different sets of rules and how decisions to be made to fit in these contexts. But the course name did prevent me from even reading the outline further before I decided not to enroll.

  6. Unless the course has drastically changed since I took it at MBS 12 months ago, the purpose of the subject was to open the mind of the 30-somethings to the different values of different cultures and societies and how this affects what we perceive to be accepted norms.  While there are a number of core moral principles that tend to be universal (i.e. don’t kill, don’t harm children etc) there are often considerable ‘grey areas’ that are highly circumstantial, and most of the time, life is not simply a matter of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.  Your point that at the age of 30, you either have morals and ethics, or you don’t, is the exact reason why a person of this age SHOULD take a course like this – because by this age, we’ve usually stopped questioning the reasons why we consider something to be right or wrong – our age and past experiences often blind us to the reality of a situation (especially in a business environment) when there are many different competing interests and variables.

  7. I took the MBS course 12 months ago, and what I took away from the course was an understanding of the difference between morals and ethics.

    Morality has to do with right and wrong. Ethics is about how morals are applied. Ethical dilemmas occur when you have conflicting morals in a given situation.

    Under that circumstance, it’s really useful to have frameworks to help you identify and prioritise the applicable moral principles to resolve the dilemma (as best possible).

    While we may have learnt morals in primary school and high school, as our decisions become more complex, we benefit from more sophisticated ethical frameworks and understanding.

  8. I watched the Inside Job on the weekend.

    I must say that I found out only 1 thing new, and shocking:

    How prominent academic economists are being paid to write papers in favour of a particular system/perspective without disclosure of that payment.

    From someone who started out in health (where, ultimately, only a small few can be harmed each time) this is shocking.

    I’m not necessarily arguing for ethics courses… don’t think this would really make a difference.

    But would ask: do Australian Economists write papers without disclosure of payment?

  9. As a current student of Management & Ethics, I have to comment on how tremendously useful it is as a subject. It helps expand our perspective on everyday issues without being preachy – and it’s about the thought process we use in our approach to problems and situations, rather than set rules on morality. It highlights that too many of us accept ‘moral rules’ without thinking critically about them, or considering the ones that are more subtle.

    Furthermore, ongoing discussion style courses enable you to continue those discussions with yourself at any time you face a complex issue. ‘Scientific’ courses in which the ‘authority’ of the lecturer is central might be great for the lecturer’s ego, but the ongoing learning doesn’t last longer than the last lecture of that course. Why do we value lecturers who impart their ‘this-is-fact’ wisdom more than those who start off important discussions in our head? The ‘authority’ of the professor in ethics comes from their ability to impart messages in the most effective manner.  

    In my mind, the question of why the course is taught in business schools has a simple answer: it’s only in our 20’s and 30’s, as managers in organisations, that our approach to ethical issues has a potentially significant and lasting impact on a large group of people. I wonder if the outcome would have been different (or had a greater possibility of being different) if the Enron guys had discussed the ethics and temptations of power, how these temptations are groomed and how they could be controlled. Business student learn from case studies – there are many excellent cases in ethics which discuss the temptations of power. If ever I was to be in a situation where I could abuse such power, these case studies would without fail be a warning light in my head.

    Leadership is both an art and a science (unlike finance, operations, accounting etc.). Leadership requires the leader to make decisions, which in most cases cannot be done without relating to ethics of some sort – whether we are aware of it or not. Given that business schools are so keen to teach ‘leadership’, isn’t it then a responsibility to also cover the role of ethics in our decision making?  I venture to say that we might have better leaders if our approach to leadership was this comprehensive.

  10. The article shows a very limited vision of ethics as normative “right or wrong” principles, it fails to understand that ethics is part of “decision making”, which himself puts on the position of science. Economics is basically a discipline (no science) that tries to explains certain behaviors. Science or economics, by themselves, are unable to guide us anywhere, as decision making in society will inevitable be superseded to ethics and politics, as values, habits and their evolution have to be considered before pure logic and reason. We are primarily ethical beings than economical beings. 

    Unfortunately, the position of transparency of right or wrong as “immanent” principles, easy to discern and comprehend for all individuals equally, an argument that goes back to Socrates, is not only a flawed conception as science is, as it is impossible to prove or not prove (refer to Popper), but an authoritarian view that forecloses debate… we already know “right or wrong”, so why discuss it?

    That puts the authoritative figure, name it “Bible”, “Judeo Christian tradition”,  “Prophet”, “Leader” or even professor of ethics, religion or “scientific” decision making, as the recipients of morality an wisdom, were others are “wrong”, “ignorant” “evil” “terrorists”, etc… Any study of history of mankind and its most catastrophic events will find deeply entrenched that discourse on the propellers of the most flawed attempts of mankind to progress, name all “isms” and religions here, and don’t forget the fine “science” of finance.

    That discourse on the classroom translates directly to a model where the enlightened will fill the void of a student devoid of knowledge. Unfortunately there are may authoritarian figures and institutions lingering that still holds that vision and are, of course, not aware of their own limitations.

  11. If we dig a bit deeper, most of subjects that taught in business school are quite soft. Even finance is much softer than looks, because most of nice formulas are based on arguable assumptions.

  12. Sounds like the timetabler who scheduled Financial Institutions and Ethics at the same time might have been trying to make a point – one or the other mate!

  13. I had 4 hours of ethics class at UNSW, taught from a guy from the School of Philosophy. It was a really good lecture (my notes http://andrewharvey4.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/seng4921-lec-01-theoretical-underpinnings-of-ethics/ and http://andrewharvey4.wordpress.com/2009/03/21/seng4921-lec-02-moral-reasoning-professional-ethics/).

    Though I don’t think I could have taken the class any earlier, any earlier I don’t think I would have asked “but why” so I wouldn’t have been enlightened by the subject.

    I went into the class expecting a primary school approach “this is right, this is wrong”, but instead (thankfully), I got “here are some interpretations of morality and what it means by some famous philosophers”, which is how I think it should be taught.

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