Can Business Schools Teach Ethics?

It’s that time of year again. Fresh young faces are flooding onto campus, and lineups are long at the university bookstores. Once again, there is a rush of new faces past the door of my office at the Ted Rogers School of Management. And once again, editorials are being written about whether business schools can do anything effective in the realm of ethics. Far better than most, in this regard, is a recent piece by Professors Ray Fisman and Adam Galinsky, of the Columbia Business School and Kellogg School of Management, respectively. Is it possible, they ask, for business schools to train students to be ethical?

Fisman and Galinsky’s piece has a lot going for it. The view they put forward is realistic, but not cynical. Nor does it make the all-too-common mistake of assuming that the goal of an ethics course is to “make students ethical.” And it rightly, to my mind, focuses on the psychology of wrongdoing — on looking for ways to counter the psychological forces that result in decent folks doing bad things.

Beyond recommending their article, I’ll only add the following comments:

Echoing a suggestion I made nearly two years ago, Fisman and Galinsky suggest that business students need to be taught to become “Moral Architects” (their term, not mine). That is, business students need to be taught skills relevant to shaping the environment in which they, and others, work in order to push behaviour in the right direction.

This is exactly right, but if anything Fisman and Galinsky underplay the question of design. A great many business school graduates will go on not just to work in business, but to be managers, and managers are tasked with designing and managing work environments. So even if ethics classes aren’t capable of changing students’ behaviour, it is important to ask whether they can give students the skills to help shape other people’s behaviour in the future.

My final point is about the focus on business students. Why focus on them? Fisman, Galinsky and I all teach at business schools, so for us the answer is obvious. But from a broader point of view, it may be a mistake. If we are concerned with ethical conduct in business, we need to look at all of the training grounds for business, and that goes far beyond the business school.

I often ask my own students, do you know what the difference is between a Business major and an Arts major? The answer is that a Business major already knows she’s going to work in the world of business. The Arts major is almost certainly going to end up doing something in the world of business; she just hasn’t realized it yet.

But of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to make a business ethics course mandatory for arts majors, based on the simple fact that many arts majors will end up in business. So the burden, for all intents and purposes, is likely to stay with those of us who teach at business schools. As I watch the fresh young faces flow past my office door, I can only hope that we are up to the task.

3 comments so far

  1. jpbauer on

    Great post. I never thought of it before, but you are absolutely correct, Arts Majors can someday find their way into management positions.

  2. […] related to this week’s themes comes via Chris MacDonald’s Business Ethics Blog. He links and discusses an article in Slate Ray Fisman and Adam Galinsky, professors at Columbia Business School and the […]

  3. Maxwell Pinto on

    Well-designed & implemented ethics programs can
    (a) raise people’s ethical IQs.
    (b) help good people to do the right thing consistently and
    (c) make it more difficult for wrong-doers to succeed.

    Whether such programs can change the basic nature of individuals such as Madoff, Black and Lacroix is another matter altogether.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Consultant and Author


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