Are business schools failing at teaching business ethics?

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article featured two guest columnists debating whether or not business schools are doing a good job teaching MBA students about business ethics.  Dr. Kenneth Goodpaster, the David and Barbara Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics at the Opus College of Business, wrote a response to this article.  It was published online by Businessweek a few days ago; you can read his entire response below, as well as in the comments section of the original article linked above.

Michael Beer's observation that management education, analogous to legal and medical education, has “for the most part” not delivered on its historical promise to prepare business executives as professionals is a limited generalization, but does have some merit, and is documented with insight and historical scholarship by Harvard Business School Professor Rakesh Khurana in his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession.

In a forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, Corporate Responsibility: The American Experience, I have worked with a team of scholars to offer a portrait of more than two centuries of business thought and practice in the U.S.   The second of those two centuries has witnessed the emergence of B-schools in universities.

To level a charge of unfulfilled promises against business education during this time is not unwarranted, even if it must be carefully qualified in view of the fact that many schools do explicitly or implicitly embrace what Beer calls “higher-ambition principles.” (I’m relieved to say that one such place is the school I work for, the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas, where business students are imbued with the idea that profit is not the goal of business. Rather, it is the deserved reward for a business that offers products and services that fully meet customers’ needs, provides a safe and respectful work environment at a fair and equitable wage, and respects and protects the physical and societal environments in which it operates.)

Beer also notes that “people are quick to question whether business schools are to blame” for the regular appearance of scandals, most dramatically during the last decade. But in addition to the qualification indicated above (“most, but not all business schools”), there is another qualification worth making. It’s that moral formation is a lifelong process, not a two or three-year process in business schools, or law or medical schools for that matter.

So if we are soul-searching as a society about ethical integrity, the formative variables go beyond professional school degree programs (never mind fallen human nature).

Mary Gentile’s counterpoint in the debate urges us to “shift the debate from ‘What is the right thing to do?’ to ‘How can I make the right thing happen?’” Gentile suggests we need to approach ethics from a “new direction” by hypothesizing that the hard work of discernment can be set aside and that what remains is simply “how would you get it done?”

This is risky advice and sets up what is surely a false dichotomy. Teaching ethics (in a dedicated ethics course, a marketing course or a finance course) certainly involves paying attention to implementation, not simply moral direction. But the use of the case method has always been mindful of this distinction – the need to join knowledge (theory) to action (practice).

Gentile’s book, Giving Voice to Values, focuses attention on action plans in connection with matters ethical. Let’s just keep in mind that while it is true that concepts without action may be sterile, it is just as true that action without concepts is blind.

Kenneth Goodpaster is the David and Barbara Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics