Harvard Students Take Ethics Pledge

From the NY Times: A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality

When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.

Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.

(The link to the Oath itself is here: The MBA Oath. Take a minute to read it.)

Overall, this strikes me as a good project. If nothing else, it serves as a focal point for discussion, both for the students involved and for others interested in ethical behaviour in business. So my critical comments below are not intended to denigrate the overall usefulness of the code in any way.

First, a note about the title of the NYT story: I know of no credible evidence that we live in an “era of immorality.” Or at least, I know of no credible evidence that the present era is any more immoral than previous eras. If anyone knows of any evidence to the effect that this is an “era of [business] immorality” please let me know. And “I saw it on CNN” doesn’t count. Nor does “everyone knows it’s true!” We no more live in an era of (business) immorality than we live in an era of plane crashes. The fact that something makes the news often doesn’t imply that it’s happening often. But ok, on to the topic at hand; regardless of whether the current era is more or less immoral than previous ones, it’s certainly clear that business could be doing better. Will the MBA Code help?

My first point about the MBA Code is really a question: why have so few Harvard MBA students signed on? The article says about 20% have signed on. What’s up with the other 80%? Why not sign on to a code of ethics that (as far as I can tell) has no teeth? It’s got no enforcement mechanism, and it’s pretty vague. All of which is fine: the code is aspirational, not regulatory. But it does make me wonder why so few MBA’s have the relevant aspirations, or are at least willing to claim to have them. This is not unrelated to my next point…

It’s kind of unclear just what the Code demands. But the demands will have to be clearer if — and it’s a big “if” — this code is supposed to lead to concrete changes in behaviour. Note, for example, the Code’s second point: “I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.” What does that mean? Does “safeguard” mean “safeguard at all costs?” It can’t. And the promise to safeguard all of these interests leaves open the question of what to do when the interests of “shareholders, co-workers, customers and … society” conflict.

Finally, a word about professionalization. The NYT notes that “student advocates contend [the Code] is the first step in trying to develop a professional code not unlike the Hippocratic Oath for physicians or the pledge taken by lawyers to uphold the law and Constitution.” The analogy with physicians and lawyers is instructive. The codes of ethics of most — probably all — true professions include a promise of some sort to promote the public good. But the means by which professionals such as physicians and lawyers aspire to promote the public good is indirect. When lawyers know their clients are guilty, they don’t promote the public good by telling the cops. Their code of ethics forbids that. They play a role in a system of justice, and that role involves defending vigorously even guilty clients. Likewise, physicians are expected to contribute to the public good by advocating for their patients. They’re not supposed to abandon their patients, even if they think it would be socially best to do so. In such cases, there are of course limits on what professionals may do to help their clients or patients. Lawyers can’t suborn perjury, and physicians can’t steal drugs for their patients. But those are side-constraints on what is unquestionably their primary obligation. So if managers aspire to professionalism, that doesn’t, on its own, imply that they should adopt the public good as their first-order goal. What they need to do is to figure out how best to play a role in the larger institution that promotes the public good.

8 comments so far

  1. hartwomen on

    Though there may be other issues, you hit upon one of the challenges I noticed when I first read the Oath. You mention the Commitment to safeguard the interests of various stakeholders. There is no prioritization (nor would I advocate that there should be in this document). However, of course, without any prioritization and in its current form, it seems to indicate that it would be possible – in fact, always expected! – to safeguard the interests of *all* of these stakeholders at all times! That seems hardly likely in most circumstances, nor even possible.

    Second, another Commitment about which you remarked was the one that prohibits decisions and behavior that advance one’s own narrow ambitions when they harm the enterprise and the societies it serves. An outright prohibition on any decision in one’s self interest under these circumstances, without any mention of extent seems to take a utilitarian analysis to an extreme degree – an unnecessarily so, perhaps. Perhaps, I say. The Oath does not leave any option for discussion . . .


  2. Max on

    Hi. My name is Max and I’m one of the students involved with the oath. Thanks for your post! We love the discussion. Two quick points:

    1. The article did not make it clear that the number of students signing the oath is growing daily. It grew by about 50% today. Many students travel before graduation and are away from email, so I’m not convinced that people are choosing to not sign the oath. We are hopeful that a couple hundred more from HBS will sign before graduation.

    2. You make the point that we don’t prioritize between shareholders, employees, customers, and society in our safeguarding commitment. That is true. But we think this is an advancement over what has been commonplace until now: safeguarding shareholders only, without regard for other stakeholders.

  3. David on

    Chris – congratulations on your continued watchfulness and bringing this potentially revolutionary item to our attention. There is (unmentioned and perhaps perverse) joy in seeing the school that gave us (class of 79)Jeffrey Skilling is taking part in this pledge. Something of a turning point too, or equally, away from Milton Friedman’s speech act on the social responsibilty of the firm almost 50 years ago?

    Laura makes an interesting practical insight on the point of stakeholder responsibility: for Levinas the individual’s unlimited responsibility to others is an ethical principle which has previously been argued to make such responsibility impossible for institutions. That this is a personal pledge is an interesting departure in the direction of personal responsibility for individual managers.

    Two further thoughts: i.
    Would a negative recasting of all 8 promises amount to a ‘devil’s creed’ of irresponsible management practice against which to measure such conduct? ii. Is this another nail in the coffin of enlightenment individualism which appears – by a reading of these promises – to be the clear enemy of socially responsible management practice?


  4. jlaw777 on

    Max go pitch the idea to the 10 and 15 year reunion classes over there at HBS. Their tents should be up and running right after your graduation ceremony. See how it goes over and if you can get a few who are employed by public companies to sign up. Even better if you can get one current employee from a top 5 I Bank to sign it. Is is any tougher getting those guys and gals to sign. Let us know.

  5. Johnson on

    I suspect the oath will turn out to be little more than lipstick UNLESS the people who take it are indeed committed to the way of life that the oath merely reflects. Unless the graduates have spent YEARS learning how to think and behave in a way that supports the ideals the oath espouses, they will fail when forced to make decisions under pressure.

  6. Charlie Green on


    Congratulations on having this post selected as one of the Top Ten in the Carnival of Trust, at http://www.davesteinsblog.com/2009/06/09/the-june-2009-carnival-of-trust/

    A monthly selection of the best trust-related postings on the internet, this month’s was hosted by Dave Stein, and he obviously chose well. A member of the class of HBS1976, I was struck by the size of the 50% number. We might have had 15%; 50% is a sea change.

    The Carnival list of posts is small and select, making for an interesting Carnival. Again, congrats on your selection by Dave.

    Charles H Green, CEO
    Trusted Advisor Associates

  7. […] (p.s. I blogged about this back in May of 2009: Harvard Students Take Ethics Pledge.) « Pennies-Be-Gone: The Ethics […]

  8. Robert Medak on

    I am a freelancer and have signed a Business Ethics Pledge I found at http://site.business-ethics-pledge.org/. It is my wish that from corporate to entrepreneurs would work from a point of ethics. I would also like to see ethics taught in High School, and a mandatory course in colleges and universities.

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