MBA Ethics Education: All Decisions are Ethics Decisions

This is the third in a series of blog entries on ethics education for MBA students (the first two are here and here).

One of the key challenges involved in teaching MBA students about ethics is to figure out just what the scope of the topic is. Just which issues are “ethical issues?”

As management guru Peter Drucker once pointed out, “there are no finance decisions, tax decisions, or marketing decisions; only business decisions.”* In other words, decisions that seem to be about a particular aspect of a business cannot (or at least should not) be made as if they have nothing to do with other aspects of the business. And decisions taken by people who are primarily responsible for one area (e.g., marketing) cannot be made as if they have no implications for the work of people in other areas — or as if those decisions could not benefit from input from those other areas. Likewise, the leaders of a company cannot plausibly delegate such decisions and thereby wash their hands of them. Delegation may be necessary, but it can never be complete. A tax decision or a product design decision is not “merely” a tax decision or a product design decision — it is a decision that can affect the fate of the company as a whole.

In a similar vein, it’s worth pointing out that there really is no clear distinction between “ethical” decisions in business and straightforward business decisions. Every decision made within or by a business affects someone. HR decisions have a clear ethical component, as do decisions about things like purchasing (recycled paper or no?) and waste disposal. A decision to allocate resources — money, time, authority — to one person or project is inevitably going to advantage some over others. Even design decisions privilege one view about what is beautiful or useful over others, and what kinds of tradeoffs to make between, for example, price and utility and simplicity. Those are ethical matters. Essentially if any individual or group is helped or harmed, if rights or privileges are at stake, then it is an ethical decision. As a result, it is hard to think of any decision made in business that has no ethical element to it. For this reason, it is wrong to think of “ethical” decisions as some quirky species of decisions. All business decisions are ethical decisions. Of course, it is true that some decisions will present themselves as “ethical” decisions because the stakes are so high, or because the values involved conflict so significantly. So it makes a kind of intuitive sense to call those kinds of decisions “ethical decisions.” But we shouldn’t be misled, by that shorthand way of speaking, into thinking that other decisions don’t have an ethical component.

The dilemma this poses for business education is this: should business students (MBA students in particular) be required to take a separate course in ethics, or should ethics somehow be made part of each of the courses that an MBA student takes? Both approaches have their downsides. On one hand, designating (and requiring) a course on ethics establishes the topic as a serious topic, one to be taught to MBA students alongside Finance and Marketing and Strategy and so on. But if you put ethics into a separate course, you risk ghettoizing the topic, and implicitly encourage professors in other disciplines to say things like, “Don’t worry about the ethics, here — you’ll learn that in your ethics course.” But there are risks inherent in the alternative strategy, too. If you try to weave a bit of ethics into every course, then ethics ends up being taught by profs who may not have any particular expertise in, or passion for, the topic. Indeed, ethics may get pushed to the end of the syllabus, and may have a tendency to fall off the agenda altogether when other topics take longer than expected.

Ideally, an MBA program should probably have both — a dedicated ethics class as well as a concern for ethics woven throughout the curriculum. Ultimately, an integrative approach is required. That means designing a curriculum that finds ways to weave ethics into classes on Accounting and Organizational Behaviour, but that likewise takes Accounting and OB seriously in the way it teaches ethics.

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*Drucker is quoted in Roger L. Martin’s 2007 book, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, (p. 79). Martin is Dean of the Rotman School of Management.

3 comments so far

  1. Jackie Lemke on

    I agree that you cannot separate ethics from any business decision or any business course taught. Ethical behavior and decision-making are part of a person’s everyday living from the time someone is raised as a child to adulthood. It is a huge whole in our educational process that students are not at least warned or challenged to bring their ethical decision making processes into the work force. Business environments are a constant challenge to ones ethical standards. Many business cultures result in employees, basically, parking their ethics at the door. Decisions are made and individual objections are swept under the rug as if the workplace is a protective bubble. Courses such as advertising, marketing, engineering, accounting etc. are taught with the intention that this is the basic, accepted process which will give an employee a start to apply in any work situation. Similarly, the tools one has in their toolbox for ethics are there but need to be brought to the forefront or integrated into each course so that people are reminded and provoked to realize that they cannot separate ethics from business decisions. If teachers are not prepared to build the concept of ethics into their courses then they need to be trained to do so and it should be required. We all carry around a concept of what we feel is ethical. Teachers need to bring courses around to everyday situations which will make learning less sterile and more realistic.

  2. Nicole Edge on

    As a business instructor, in accounting, I’ve had to grapple with the issue of incorporating ethics into the classroom. The textbook used in the course devotes little time to the subject (it’s an intro course and frankly it skims the surface of a number of areas) so I’ve supplemented it with small discussion prompts and an assignment that requires students to find articles in the “real-world” and post a brief discussion. All of which, because it isn’t on the mid-term/final exam usually gets some griping from students in the feedback reviews. My fellow instructors don’t necessarily dedicate classtime to the subject. So where am I going with this? I totally support ethics being incorporated into EVERY class, but I also think it is in an important enough issue that it should also have a separate class dedicated to the exploration of how decisions are made, and specifically how ethics are shared, supported and enforced in the community (not just the business community). I believe in the issue enough that I’ve headed back to university to find alternative ways to explore the issue further… looking at our community cultural products as an entry-point into the issue. Because decisions are not just made in business… we make them every day in where we invest or not, purchase or not, select services or not…

  3. […] MBA Ethics Education: All Decisions are Ethics Decisions (…there really is no clear distinction between “ethical” decisions in business and straightforward business decisions…) […]


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