"Insidious" might be a stretch…slightly devious, perhaps.

I’ve been meaning to write about an Economist blog post from December about MBAs which points to a debate between three professors from MIT and Harvard about whether MBAs are the cause or the cure (or something in between) of the current economic troubles:

The reaction of many budding financiers and consultants when faced with an economic downturn is to pack it in and go to business school. Business school applications soar in number during recessions. A lively debate between Andy Lo and Jay Lorsch and Rakesh Khurana questions if business schools are actually to blame for our current turmoil.

Messrs Lorsch and Khurana, professors of human relations and leadership at Harvard, think so. They believe business school can encourage the “culture of me”, or individuals solely out for their own self-interest.

An interesting debate, but I was more interested in a subsequent point made by the Economist blogger. Emphasis is mine.

This reminds me of a discussion I once had with one of my professors, the dean of a prestigious business school. Shortly after the Enron debacle he asked me how business schools could better teach ethics to help reduce such behaviour in the future. I told him you cannot teach ethics to MBAs. By the time you’re an MBA student (typically mid to late 20s) you’re either an ethical person or you’re not. No business school class can make you realise embezzling money is wrong if that’s your inclination. Most MBA students are ethical; they learned from their parents long ago.

I know where he’s going with that, but I don’t think I entirely agree. I don’t think there’s an on/off switch marked ‘ethical’ in the brain that’s either a 1 or a 0; I think it’s a scale, like all other traits and characteristics defined by a single word or concept. I think that trying to teach ethics gives students tangible examples that may later prevent them from doing something overtly unethical…so while it’s not making students think more ethically per se, it might make them act more ethically, and that’s just as important.

When I was in the software industry I worked with enough sales people to know that some individuals:

  1. are so far down the ethical scale that they wouldn’t recognize normal business ethics anymore;
  2. have jobs where incentives structures reward unethical behaviour;
  3. have received no ethical teachings which may have staved off unethical behaviour, as described above.

In all three cases I can see ethical training helping, or at the very least doing no harm. In my undergraduate business degree we were compelled to take a business ethics class (which I actually quite enjoyed, but then, I am a socialist) but had no such requirement in my MBA courses. We could have used some, certainly; I heard some truly astounding moral rationalizations during discussions on child labour, advertising and the like.

What do you think? Can ethics be taught?

0 responses to “"Insidious" might be a stretch…slightly devious, perhaps.

  1. I don’t think ethics can be taught. They start at a very young age. I would agree with the Economist blogger. By the time you’re an MBA, you’re either an ethical person, or you are not.

    I also took a business ethics course in my MBA. Yes, it was optional. And for the record, it was a total joke.

  2. I agree with the Economist blog and with Shaiza: you’re ethical or not by that time. And yes, everyone’s thical to some degree or other, it’s not completely binary. But that degree is pretty much* set by then.

    What business ethics courses do is to teach unethical people how to hide their lack of ethics. It teaches them to avoid the minor lapses that would otherwise give them away. But when the stakes are high enough the unethical behaviour comes out.

    *People can change a bit as adults, but it’s rare and usually by very small amounts.

  3. I just don’t buy that ethics can’t be learned after the age of 21. Ethics are learned behaviour…they’re not chemical or physical. It’s not like hearing loss or color blindness.

    Let me take a different tack: MBA programs and business undergraduate programs tend to foster a culture of big-swinging-dick-ishness, as if everyone were training to be an extra in American Psycho or Glengarry Glen Ross. Of course, it’s less so now than it must have been in the 80s, but I still felt it in my years at biz school: that sense that ethics didn’t apply, that greed was good, that Friedman was king…that ethics were just something which got in the way of the profit motive. At best they were an unwanted expense; at worst they were a labour movement. If nothing else, maybe an ethics course would help to counter that outdated mentality.

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