Ethics: In the Real World, Kant Can't Help (but Here's What Does)

Photograph by Stephanie Phillips

Every decade or so, scandals rock the business world and revive a long-running debate about the place of ethics in the business school curriculum. On one side stand advocates for greater attention to ethics in management education. On the other side are skeptics who say that ethics can’t be taught; businesspeople facing ethical dilemmas aren’t likely to draw on some long-ago class for guidance; and no amount of exposure to the subject will deter future Bernie Madoffs.

I am a professor of business ethics, and I agree with the skeptics on those charges. But the response to their objections should not be to neglect or abandon ethics in management education but to take a more comprehensive approach—in focus, scope, and ultimate goals—and integrate ethics with the institution’s mission and the entire curriculum.

Our focus at Boston University School of Management is not to provide the final word on right and wrong. Nor are we trying to turn students into moral philosophers, though they are exposed to the major schools of ethical reasoning from Aristotle to Kant to Jeremey Bentham and John Rawls. What we are trying to do is provide undergraduate and graduate students with ethical frameworks they can use in decision-making—the tools needed to recognize and consider the ethical dimensions of decisions—just as we provide them with the tools for doing strategy or finance.

The first management class all undergraduates must take is Business, Society, and Ethics, where they initially encounter ethical frameworks in the context of global management and the complicated analysis necessary for making appropriate decisions. An ethical framework is a decision-making model. For example, Bentham’s Utilitarianism tells us to make decisions that benefit the greatest good.

We are looking at how best to integrate ethics into all required courses. Specific business disciplines will immerse students in the kinds of dilemmas that are likely to arise. For example, in marketing classes students may be asked to decide how to market a snack product for children as all-natural when it is actually not healthy because it is high in sugar. Though many professors have explored ethics in these classes, the approach has been uncoordinated. We believe that the consistency provided by common decision-making tools and language will create an indelible educational experience.

In the senior year, a final course in Strategy and Policy will integrate ethics in decision-making with skills in creating business strategy, teaching students how to serve the needs of shareholders, as well as other stakeholders inside and outside the company. This course will give us the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of our approach and revisit some of the problems students tackled their freshman year, applying the theories they have been studying for four years.

Students in the MBA program will experience a comparable immersion in ethics with real-world experience that includes a public service project.

Our goals are twofold:

• We want to prepare each student for the world of work, where the reality is that good people often get pressured into doing things they shouldn’t, or they fail to take the ethical dimension fully into account, including its contribution to the health of the business. Our approach isn’t intended to turn these future managers into moralists. (Immanuel Kant isn’t likely to be much help in a difficult situation with a superior.) Rather, we want to give students practical techniques for resisting pressure—the ability to mount compelling business-based counterarguments to courses of action they recognize as ethically dubious.

• We also want students to see ethics in decision-making not merely as a matter of avoiding malfeasance but in the positive context of creating value in the businesses, communities, and the world in which they work. It’s easy to tell cautionary tales about spectacular misdeeds, but the larger aim of ethics in management education is to produce leaders who will be better able to meet the challenges facing the world, its organizations, and its people because as students they learned how to practice socially responsible leadership.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.