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?