Can Ethics Be Taught in Business Schools?

It’s a common refrain. Don’t blame the business schools for all the bad stuff happening on Wall Street. It’s not the b-schools’ fault, because after all, ethics can’t be taught. The first bit there is reasonable enough: the recent financial crisis is the result of a complicated convergence of factors, apparently including bad decisions by quite a number of individuals, and some poorly-structured institutions. But the latter part, implying the futility of ethics instruction at business schools, is simply wrong-headed.

For the latest iteration of this mistaken view, check out this opinion piece by Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, in the Globe and Mail: Can we teach ethics? When pigs fly

Ethics is a serious business. And that’s why, reading in last weekend’s Globe and Mail about the gurgling wave of ethics education sweeping North American business schools, I had to laugh.

“MBA programs around the globe,” wrote Joanna Pachner, “are rushing to prove that they teach students to be good – not just rich – by revamping their curriculums and encouraging debates about ethical corporate behaviour.”

I blogged about the MBA ethics oaths here. But Orwin’s real focus is on business school curriculum:

I’m not suggesting that business students are bad people, or that those who would teach them to be good are any less competent than the rest of us. It’s just that the whole notion of teaching ethical behaviour rests on a fundamental misconception – namely, that ethical behaviour can be taught.

But Orwin’s criticism is off-target, for two reasons.

The first problem is that Orwin neglects that the main goal of business education is to teach people management skills. So we can usefully teach people to devise management structures that minimize wrong-doing on the part of their employees, even if we can’t change the characters of future managers themselves.

The second problem: people like Orwin wrongly assume that the key to better behaviour is modifying character. But that flies in the face of our best understanding (as represented in the criminology literature) of the psychology of wrongdoing. The key to wrongdoing is not primarily that wrongdoers have the wrong values (from which it would follow that ethics classes need to accomplish the difficult, perhaps impossible, task of instilling the right values in just a few short months of instruction). The key to wrongdoing is much more likely to involve faulty ways of thinking about certain behaviours, namely thinking about them in ways that “neutralize” them, morally, effectively exempting the wrongdoer from moral blame. (A simple example is the redescription of theft as “borrowing”, or the redescription of stealing from one’s employer as “merely taking what I deserve”). The arguments behind such neutralizations are generally fallacious, and fallacies of reasoning are something that can be taught, either in an ethics class or indeed in a first-year Critical Thinking class.

Thus it’s not that Orwin is wrong in claiming that virtue cannot be taught. It’s that he’s wrong in thinking that that’s a decisive argument against ethics education.

My take on the moral psychology of wrongdoing, and the conclusion it implies about ethics education, is adopted entirely from Joseph Heath’s wonderful paper, “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective,” Journal of Business Ethics 83:4, 2008. Here’s the abstract.

44 comments so far

  1. Terry Hamblin on

    Virtue has to be taught; it is vice that comes naturally. Theologians call it original sin. Any parent sees it in the ‘terrible twos’.

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Perhaps. But my point above is that there’s little empirical support for the notion that vice is actually the problem in most cases of wrongdoing. We don’t know if virtue can be taught to *adults*, but it’s mostly beside the point anyway.


  3. Fibocycle on

    Aristotle distinguishes between two categories of virtue: intellectual and moral. These virtues are differentiated in line with his perception of the soul. Intellectual virtue includes scientific knowledge (episteme), technical understanding (techne), intuitive reason and practical and philosophic wisdom. Business schools tend to concentrate on episteme and techne in order to inculcate students with the most up to date tools in which to enter a competitive and profit oriented social paradigm. The intellectual virtues acquired are a consequence of teaching and can only blossom through experience, whereas moral virtue is acquired by habituation. The exercise of intellectual virtue allows us to make choices that are based on understanding, practical wisdom and good sense—resulting in judgments that are fair and equitable. Intellectual virtues are required to allow for the habituation of moral virtue which in turn facilitates actions that are aimed towards attainment of an end which all men have in common—happiness. Rational deliberation using the intellectual virtues and actions that incorporate moral virtue are the means by which this end is attained. I believe this is where our education system—not exclusively business schools—fail to indoctrinate students towards recognizing the teleological nature of mankind.
    In his critique of modernity MacIntyre (1984) points out that society has lost the concept of a teleological purpose to life and has in lieu of pursuing eudaimonia has directed the actions of man towards a tainted and shortsighted goal—one directed towards the fulfillment of self-interest with little or no consideration directed towards the community. The cultural milieu of emotivism has produced a society where moral judgment is not grounded on any rational method but merely results from the projection of personal preferences in the most convincing of manners. Emotivism can be best understood by the embodiment of what is the moral life through the roles archetypal characters play in society. . MacIntyre utilizes three typical characters to present his argument: the rich aesthete, the manager and the therapist. It is in the role of manager that we find the rationale of producing graduates of business schools. “The manager represents in his character the obliteration of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations” (MacIntyre 1984: 30). The manager treats ends as given, concentrating his intellectual skills on technique and effectiveness.

    While business schools have excelled at producing graduates that demonstrate competence in engineering investment products based on complex mathematical models (derivatives, ETFs, Swaps etc.) and implementing their exceptional ability at marketing and optimizing productivity, little has been done to enlighten the student as to how to use his/her acquired intellectual virtues in a manner which promotes morality. Although students leave the university environment excelling with intellectual resources, there is no attempt being made to demonstrate how these attributes can be used to habituate excellence of character. Business schools tend to minimize their responsibility to indoctrinate students with a sense of moral obligation or a proclivity towards the pursuit of moral excellence. Although it can be argued that ethics cannot be ‘taught’—it is a cop-out that virtue cannot be taught. It is the connection between intellectual virtue and moral virtue that our business schools have chosen to shirk.
    I believe that professors such as Dr. MacDonald are providing an essential aspect to the education of future captains of industry and that the subject of business ethics should be taken much more seriously by those who are responsible for the determination of the curriculum at business schools. Practical reasoning and business ethics should be requisite courses at all business schools and the importance of them should be stressed so as to allow the student to comprehend the vital connection between intellectual virtue and moral virtue.

  4. Bernard Francis on

    Great article. Virtue is indeed taught, but there is empiracle evidence to support that learning values happens long before business school (ages 1-15), and it’s a diminishing capacity after that. The key is to take values out of business ethics education. One reason is in a truly global market there are diverse values, and the second reason is that adults don’t like to be taught values or right and wrong. If business ethics is about specialization, enterprise purpose, and meeting the demands of a market then it is simply easier to understand. It becomes math and not moral philosophy. The market will vote whether or not you’re on the right path. The alternative is to do it the way we do today with very weak veneer style compliance and ethics groups that are powerless to halt bad behavior, and then the market decides anyway which is usually catastrophic. Finally, like the example of philanthropy, moral philosophy is a critically important endeavor, but an individual endeavor and not a corporate one.

  5. Jon V. on

    You bring up a great point there at the end about redescribing something so people justify it.

    I have heard people argue about downloading music illegally because they had their music stolen. But if we take this to its logical end then they should see fit that it is okay to steal a car if theirs is stolen.

  6. Max on

    Ethics, as we know, is concerned with morals, fairness, respect, caring, sharing, no false promises, no lying, cheating, stealing, or unreasonable demands on employees and others, etc.
    Yes, ethics can be taught in a classroom, if the school/university, professor and the students adopt a practical approach, in preference to a philosophical one.

    In business, the bottom line is often considered to be money, rather than anything else. In other words, many leaders follow the stockholder approach, rather than the stakeholder approach (which emphasizes the needs of stockholders and others, such as employees, customers, suppliers, the government, the community, the environment, the government, etc.).

    Business ethics calls for an awareness of social responsibility and this includes addressing social problems such as poverty, crime, environmental protection, equal rights, public health and improving education. Hence the stakeholder theory in preference to the stockholder theory, and the emphasis on public relations, better human resource management and other areas.

    Business decisions often concern complicated situations which are neither totally ethical nor totally unethical. Therefore, it is often difficult to do the right thing, contrary to what many case studies will have you believe! Moral values such as respect, honesty, fairness and responsibility are supposed to dictate our (ethical) behavior, but are often ignored in times of stress and confusion, when one must stand by one’s principles.
    Business ethics is concerned with dealing with dilemmas that do not have a clear indication as to what is right or wrong. On a regular but frequent basis, leaders have to deal with potential conflicts of interest, wrongful use of resources, mismanagement of contracts, false promises and exaggerated demands on resources which include personnel. In a proposed sale, is it the seller’s duty to disclose all material facts regarding the product or service in question or is it the buyer’s responsibility to find out the pros and cons of what he or she is getting into? Should the seller answer each question exactly as it was asked, and ignore some pertinent information? Or should he or she provide a broader answer, which addresses the spirit of the question? Is the buyer responsible for due diligence? This is a gray area.

    Downloading of music from the Internet may reduce sales revenues to distributors and recording artists. Some people maintain that downloading music, like sharing books, makes music more accessible
    and may result in increased sales through added exposure. Perhaps downloading should be subject to a fee of which a percentage should be forwarded to the recording artists and distributors.
    As a business author, I have been distributing abridged versions of my books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, women, trade unions, etc., free of charge for the past few years to anyone who sends in a request to

    Alas, many business schools provide some form of training in business ethics, with emphasis on a philosophical approach, in preference to a practical one. This needs to be rectified in the light of experience in the real world.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Consultant and Author.

  7. Chris MacDonald on


    But there’s not much there that seems to deal directly with the substance of the blog posting above, other than the fact that you touch on ethics eduction.

    You do note that b-schools put an “emphasis on a philosophical approach, in preference to a practical one”. As far as I know, that’s not true.

    And if (as Heath argues) the main cause of wrongdoing lies in the way people *think* about their actions, then a touch of philosophical thinking might just be a good thing.


  8. Bernard Francis on

    Max is close, and he’s right that business ehtics education relies heavily on right and wrong. But who is to say what is right and wrong? It doesn’t matter. The markets will tell you if you’re trying to serve them. So Max, close, but not all the way there. Business calls for an awareness of social responsibility, but only because 1) markets that you serve may care, and 2) social and economic development (not CSR) improves the inputs to, and the performance of, the enterprise. Play nice and be good is too outdated for the complexity of international business.

  9. Chris MacDonald on


    Ethics is fundamentally about right and wrong, and you figure that out by looking at the best arguments. There’s no getting around that. In a business context, you also have the challenges of a) avoiding self-serving rationalizations, and b) implementation, both of which can be non-trivial problems.

    Markets simply will not always tell you right from wrong. Certainly not in the short run (remember Enron) and not necessarily in the long run, either. Markets seek economic efficiency, which is not the only moral value we care about.


  10. BAM on

    James March would tell us that one can no more become ethical by taking classes on ethics than one can become female by taking classes on femininity. Maybe he’s right.

    However, I would focus more on the irony, as a member of Northwestern’s JD-MBA class of 2009, that these same people who are saying they’re going to train the next generation of MBAs not to exploit every opportunity to their fullest advantage simply because there’s a profitable trade to be made, are in fact the very same people who raised tuition on us 40% year-over-year after our first year because we were a captive audience. They even waited until one day after the transfer deadline for most American law schools. Now, I don’t want sympathy – I know, boo hoo, you poor JD-MBAs – but I do want to point out the hypocrisy inherent in the fact that the people saying that they’re addressing sharp practices and moral hazard among business school students are the same ones who reached into my class’ back pocket for an extra $40k simply because they knew no one could stop them.

  11. Chris MacDonald on


    You are, of course, talking about just one particular set of professors — I hope you’re not generalizing to all of them.

    As for your rather odd analogy — well, if being female were primarily about how you think about yourself, then yes it could be taught, just as we can teach you better & worse ways to think about ethics.


  12. Bernard Francis on

    Enron? Exactly the point. Right and wrong can not be taught to the adult business person. It’s too late. Fraud is in the heart, and simply can not be warned against or controlled by processes – it’s simply too late. Look at AIG and their extensive ethics and CSR program (some at AIG behaved unethically because they did not have long-term owner interests in mind). Markets do indeed tell you right from wrong. Where is Enron now? Voted down by natural mechanisms of the market. Ethics may be about whatever you believe they are about, or what a group agrees moral norms are – you have no more information than I or Aristotle, or anyone else. But business ethics is different, and most effective, for the manager practitioner, when ruddered by owner interests and not “right and wrong.” Again, who is to say? A market is to say. I think Max is very close to being right on.

  13. Chris MacDonald on


    The market didn’t bring Enron down, to the best of my recollection. At least not without the intervention of federal prosecutors.

    And no, fraud is not mainly in the heart. That’s an old, largely-discredited understanding of human wrongdoing. See the Heath article I cite in my blog entry, for an introduction to the considerable criminological evidence for that.

    “Who is to say?” We all are. Together. Through discussion, debate, argumentation. There are good and bad arguments in favour of various points of view. That’s what makes business ethics worth talking about.


  14. Bernard Francis on

    With all due respect Chris, “We all are. Together.” That is a market. That is the market. Let humans act human, grant rights, establish social norms, no matter how varied. But let corporations serve them. And if you’re a corporation, if you want to survive, tune your human capital towards market interests. But don’t pretend to adopt those interests or values. That’s called marketing, or a code of conduct, and conduct indeed is planned long before you hired the thief, or complacent worker.

  15. Chris MacDonald on


    No, we are not the market. For starters, we are not all consumers of every good. But besides, the market is a set of institutions, not a group of people. Those of us (and ONLY those of us) who participate in the market get to “vote” there, but only in proportion to our spending power. The market is one decision-making mechanism, but it’s not the only one, and it’s not the best one for all decisions.

    If I don’t have a dime to spend in the marketplace, but I can provide a compelling rationale for why a particular behaviour is unethical, do I not deserve to be heard?

    And lets not forget that not all business transactions are market transactions. A great deal of behaviour within business goes on within the walls of corporations, namely what are called “administered transactions” within the corporation. Those aren’t market transactions, and so the market doesn’t have direct control over them.

  16. SevenCell on

    Chris, finally got back to reading this full post. As usual, very well said – not that you need to be told. Please keep writing lots as We’ll keep visiting!

  17. BAM on

    It’s not my analogy, but rather that of James March. He actually said it of leadership, but if I know March, he would extend it to something as abstract as ethics.

  18. Chris MacDonald on


    Ah, OK.

    March would be wrong, I think. It’s a weak analogy (a topic I happen to be teaching to my Critical Thinking class tomorrow morning!)


  19. Mr. on

    Great article. I have worked with, and am friends with, many MBAs, and they are mostly decent people who have often been socialized to think that everything they do is great, including things that others would find ethically dicey. I agree with you that the problem is not one of character but how situations are framed. Unfortunately, I question how seriously business schools are taking this problem. When I was in graduate school I cross-registered for an ethics class at Harvard Business School. It had all of 15 MBAs actually taking it, and the content was so vacuous that I eventually dropped it.

  20. Bernard Francis on

    Ouch. I can’t let that go ;-). The market is not a set of institutions. The market is the consumption of business output, and it is the strongest decision making mechanism in regions where people are more free. If there are other stronger decision makers (government?, force?) then it’s not a market. It’s Finland. “The Market” is many markets. There is no person that is a non-consumer. And if you don’t consume in a market you have the voice of activism, presumably because of some externality you oppose. But you do not deserve anything – you only do what you do. Externalities are just that – an uncertainty as to where a cost is shouldered, an attempt to assign that cost. But all business transactions are indeed market transactions because in the long-run markets vote yes or no to your output (or you’re not in business, you’re an NGO). There is no place to hide unless of course you don’t need assets that are more valuable than your liabilities. Votes may not be in the form of a dollar. It can be by legislation, which comes from people/markets that desire an adjustment. But again, people.

  21. Tony on

    I agree. Thanks for clarifying this area for me.

    I’m an MBA and I was taught Ethics but I’ve been asking myself what was the use. I was always moral, but I know classmates who would only be moral because of the laws. And would gladly push the envelope if the law let them.

    Now I can see that the right approach is to see how Ethics curriculum can stop wrongdoing in employees.

    FOR example, most wrongdoing is a result of “Groupthink” i.e. overvaluing consensus typically found in homogeneous teams. Ethics curriculum could emphasize that groups need to embrace heterogeneity and allow more opposition.

    Sadly few Ethics classes are taught this way.

  22. Max on

    You are right in believing that “a touch of philosophical thinking might just be a good thing” but too much of it, without due practical emphasis, is not advisable for those who will some day go out into the real world. I am in touch with some professors and students at top universities in North America and I have reviewed several case studies in ethics and noted the approach adopted therein. Hence my comments.
    Also, you mention that “Ethics is fundamentally about right and wrong, and you figure that out by looking at the best arguments. There’s no getting around that.” Yes, but…in complicated situations, it is extremely difficult to arrive at the “right” decision, from an ethical, rather than a logical or legal point of view, especially when people of diverse backgrounds, different upbringing, culture, religion, education, ethical IQs, interests (some of which may be conflicting etc. ) are involved.
    There are gray areas, some of which I have already discussed e.g. in a proposed sale, downloading of music, etc. Or…if a customer cannot afford our prices should we direct him to a competitor whose prices are more affordable? Or should we allow him to face the risk of not satisfying his needs/wants due to financial considerations? Or…if an employee is deserving of more money and a promotion but we can afford neither, due to our structure and finances, what do we do? Or…if we claim to encourage the hiring of minorities are we justified in disregarding an immigrant on the basis of his very limited command of (say) the English language or do we hire him and suffer, or do we hire him conditional upon improving the standard of his English within (say) three months or do we hire him and pay for him to attend classes in English to speed up his progress in this area? Or…if my boss has confided in me about the pending layoff of a fellow-employee and I have promised to keep silent on this subject and I know that this employee is planning on buying braces for his daughter and a new carpet. What should I do?” Or…if I am aware that a fellow-employee is scheduled to take up a new job offer within sixty days, but my boss is not aware of this and plans to give him a new opportunity which I am interested in, and the fellow-employee is supposed to leave soon. What should I do?” Or…am I allowed to type personal letters by using the company’s computer? How about using the company’s telephone for personal calls which are extremely important?

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

  23. Chris MacDonald on


    People don’t make up a market in any interesting sense minus the institutions that facilitate trade. A market is not an anarchy. And voting with your dollars is only one way of voicing (or deserving an opinion). I know of no reputable modern point of view arguing to the contrary. I’m not making an anti-market argument here. Markets are wonderful. I’m just saying they cannot plausibly be thought to solve all problems.

    And we obscure more than we reveal by saying that all issues in business are ultimately market decisions. Should I skim money from a trust account? Should I sleep with my secretary? Should I engage in racist hiring practices? Surely the answer isn’t just that we should forego such behaviours if-and-only-if they are likely to be punished by the market.



  24. Chris MacDonald on


    Sorry, I must be missing something. I don’t see how your long list of ethical questions amounts to an argument, or even a counter-example to anything I’ve said.

    Those are all ethical questions, yes, some tougher than others. And?


  25. Bernard Francis on

    Chris, you’re mixing your personal values with my business. The reason you should not sleep with your secretary is because when other employees see that, it reduces cultural performance. They see what it really takes to get ahead, for example. From that point on they are less productive and innovative. You should not engage in racist hiring practices because diversity increases enterprise innovation and performance. You should not steal from the company because it reduces profit and increases the companies risk. These are the only reasons not to engage in the behavior you pose from the perspective of commercial ethics because the are ultimately outputs to markets; those, and when discovered your market votes with their feet. What you do in your personal life is your business and should stay there. If the values based business ethics you are supporting worked at all, there would be none of the things you pose going on. The fact is, however, that kind of behavior prevails in big business. As a businessman, I look at results and the business ethics results are dismal. Certainly you are not supporting that what we are teaching and doing in business ethics works? When I am faced with this values stuff, I always refer to very small quality businesses. They have no ethics program. They are successful over time only if they meet the needs of their markets. It has nothing to do with right or wrong – the decisions are based on profitability over the long-run. As always, what you are doing is a great service to business ethics community. Lover your blog and your work.

  26. Chris MacDonald on


    Surely I should avoid racist hiring practices because racism is wrong. And there are good arguments for why it’s wrong, and there are no good arguments for it being right. Racism may (or may not — an empirical question) also have pernicious effect within the company. But it’s wrong regardless of its effects.

    Market competition is generally good — it produces good social consequences. But for the net benefit to be positive, competition must be constrained.

    As for “values-based business ethics”, I’m not sure what you mean by that. I specifically denied that we should be teaching particular values in ethics classes, because faulty values are seldom the problem. But we can and should teach people the difference between a good ethical argument and a lousy one.


  27. BAM on


    Agree to disagree. I think the analogy is apt.

  28. Chris MacDonald on


    Fine, feel no need to reply. But an analogy is only good if the similarities between the 2 things are more significant than the differences.

    I don’t see much that’s relevant and in common between the femininity and ethics. You might as well say “one can no more become a good driver by taking classes on driving than one can become female by taking classes on femininity.” Has a ring to it, but clearly not true.


  29. Max on

    “Those are all ethical questions, yes, some tougher than others. And?”
    My point is: in complicated situations such as those posed in my questions, and earlier on re: downloading of music, sales situations, etc., it is extremely difficult to determine the (ethically, rather than logically or legally) “right” course of action, while bearing in mind, also, the fact that people of diverse backgrounds, different upbringing, culture, religion, education, ethical IQs, interests (some of which may be conflicting etc. ) are often directly or indirectly involved and/or affected by the decisions in question.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

  30. dripab on

    Totally agree with this post. No reason to think that someone cannot be taught the theories of ethics. In France and Germany, we have mandatory classes at elementary and high school where this is supposed to happen (called “philosophy” in France and “Ethik” in Germany).

    Another question though is whether considerations of ethics have any chance vs. the mighty forces of the free market. Are businessmen not doomed to succumb?

  31. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment.

    Actually, I take ethical behaviour to be the norm, and unethical behaviour to be the exception.

    In fact, the market requires ethics in order to function properly. There’s no inconsistency between the market and ethics, properly understood. The key is in understanding which rules apply in a competitive domain like the market.


  32. Cristine Clarke on

    Teaching Ethics is a multi-pronged approach that needs to start young. I am teaching an introductory course at the High School level. Ideally my course builds upon parental teaching and religious instruction (if applicable) and provides a scaffold for undergraduate and ultimately grad school work. Thanks for stirring my thinking on this process.

  33. PeteWalker274 on

    Chris – Great article; my related suggestions for the general public:
    – Ethics belongs in the limelight to raise the publics’ expectations, reduce gullibility, and remove excuses from the wrong-doers. The limelight includes a reasonable amount and complexity of ethics inclusion in all schooling.
    – Knowledge from advances in the behavioral and neurosciences are closely related to the applied aspects of ethics (i.e. an individual’s ethic).

  34. Chris MacDonald on

    Due to technical difficulties with the Comment system, I’m posting this on behalf of Mark Edwards.

    Mark writes:

    “Hi Chris,

    Obviously this is a hot topic and, as someone who teaches business ethics, I can understand why. I think your comments on this are spot on. If we regard the aim of teaching business ethics to be the complete re-orientation of a student’s personal moral compass, then Professor Orwin may well be right – we are deceiving ourselves if we think a semester course in business ethics can achieve that. But I suspect this is not the objective of most courses in this area and it is certainly not what I aim for in teaching business ethics. The approach we take here at UWA is to teach skills in how to become more aware of, and more able to implement, our existing personal ethical values and commitments. In other words, not to remake students’ ethical profile but to give them some experience and guidelines as to how they should act on and express in the workplace the ethical values that they already hold or would like to live by given half a chance.

    We use the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum developed by Prof Mary Gentile to do this. And I heartily recommend that you and your readers check out this approach:

    Rather than going through the more traditional route of the analysis and discussion of ethical dilemmas using various ethical theories, GVV takes an implementation approach to ethics. GVV focuses on the question of “how” to express our concerns, how to overcome the neutralisations and rationalisations that Joseph Heath talks about (thanks for that excellent reference – a brilliant paper) and how to develop processes for voicing our ethical values in powerful, yet well considered and targeted ways.

    I should also mention here that UWA hosted a visit by Mary Gentile a few weeks ago and that we use many aspect of the curriculum she has developed in our postgraduate and MBA business ethics courses.


  35. DarryleHuffman on

    I am working on an Ethics Masters degree. The reason that most do not want to to take more than one class in Ethics is you have to explore the spiritual dimensions of accountability. Not many want to go into that realm of thinking. If they do then they want to make a hasty retreat.
    Can you have Ethics without some form of Spirituality?

  36. Chris MacDonald on


    Yes, of course you can have ethics without spirituality. Many ethical people are atheists, and I know of no correlation between spirituality & ethical behaviour.
    The core ethical theories that are taught in ethics classes are entirely devoid of spiritual content. I don’t see any obvious connection between the two things.


  37. Julian Friedland on

    I think you narrow the landscape a bit too much here, making the teaching of applied ethics into the mere teaching of how to avoid fallacious rationalizations. Virtue can indeed be taught via ethical theory. We often come to see that, say, continuing to act in certain ways that many if not most accept as ethical actually makes a lot less sense upon theoretical reflection. Then, we can begin to behave differently, thus instilling different habits. Teaching ethics is not just about teaching how to avoid wrongdoing, but how and why to behave better. So it can also thereby inhibit poor habit-forming. However, different theories will sometimes have different notions of what counts as virtue, e.g., utilitarians vs. libertarians. And depending on which side one takes a more convincing, different prescriptions for action will derive. See my related article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Ed on teaching business ethics.

  38. Chris MacDonald on


    Fair point. And you might be right that virtue can be taught; it’s just that, to the best of my knowledge, we just lack any evidence (beyond anecdotal evidence) that it can be learned.

    My point is that whether we can or not matters less, if virtue (in the sense that it implies character) is not the crucial ingredient.

    But I think what you’re talking about, anyway, isn’t the teaching of virtue per se (which takes longer than a school term), but rather the teaching of the patterns of thought that can foster the acquisition of virtues. And in that regard, we’re on roughly the same page.


  39. Franklin on

    Whether the teaching of business ethics is effective will depend on how it is taught. If it is taught in a prescriptive manner as if it were a catachism, it will be less effective than if it is seen in a more holistic humanistic, dare I say, even theological sense. Ethics is much more complex than understanding game theory. The great managers I’ve known, and I’ve known a number of them, have been able to see beyond themselves and have embraced their greater responsibily to community and the treatment of individuals. It goes beyond theory and integrates what is taught in modeling and discounted cash flows and the human element and the consequences of our actions. It takes into consideration all of the stakeholders in the business.

    Tough job.


  40. Anonymous on

    first and foremost there is a difference in teaching undergraduates and MBA students, then there is also a difference in teaching in various MBAs, say accounting MBA or marketing MBA, ant last issue – did MBA student had BE/CSR course as undergraduate or not (even perhaps A PHILOSOPHY course in high school like in Germany, France, Austria, etc. such background in formative years creates at least some part of context and sensitivity for CSR issues.
    Finally, BE CSR cqn be taught, but can it be learned? it depends how one understands, not business, but ethics.
    Say lying, to what cooking the books comes down at least ethically speaking, is a practice, a routine, or as L. Wittgenstein says: “lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one” (Wittgenstein 2001 §:249) If this is true, then imorality can be learned, and morality too.

  41. Julian Friedland on

    Excellent point. Very much like Aristotelian virtue ethics. It’s a matter of training, one might say, the whole person. If the ethics professor for example emulates ethics to boot, he/she becomes a model (however imperfect) of how fulfilling the virtuous life can be. And from this, a living practice can catch on. Of course, this is unlikely to happen if the student is deliberately detached, cynical, or even hostile to transformation. And I think this is sometimes more the case at the MBA level, since those folks are older and their habits more ingrained.

    Interestingly, this is related to happiness in general:

  42. […] Can Ethics Be Taught in Business Schools? « Socially Responsible Investing & Value Alignment LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  43. hemant bhat on

    I come from a land where ethics are natural. But business as it has seen to grow in the world has thrived on doing ounethical things under the garb of “having to do for the sake of business & prosperity”
    I think it is high time this stops. Since truth needs no verification , so should be business.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I’m not sure what you mean by ethics being “natural.” But if you mean education isn’t required, I’m afraid that’s a dangerous view.

      Most people, for instance, are not born knowing what “conflict of interest” is, or the situations in which it is important, or how to deal with it. People need to be taught which kinds of ethical problems are most likely to show up in business (including some that ONLY show up in business) and how to respond to them.


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