Tag: Higher Education

Business Ethics as an academic discipline

December 27th, 2009 — 7:35pm

The following is an excerpt from Professor Julian Friedland’s article, recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education . It discusses the challenges of teaching business ethics as an academic discipline:

Students who succeed in my classes learn to apply canonical ethical theory to contemporary business dilemmas, wrestling with their values and reconsidering the proper role of business in society. That is not easily done. It can be daunting for business students to re-evaluate their own views about, and relationship to, the corporate world they are about to enter as potential leaders. But once they get a taste for it, their intellectual curiosity blossoms. A few years ago, I added to my syllabus a section on consumer ethics, forcing students to confront issues of personal choice and responsibility. If consumers spent more responsibly, there would be fewer market failures; the same goes for investors. So how self-interested should we be? To grapple with such questions is to do applied ethics.

It remains to be seen if many business professors will achieve tenure by doing ethics properly speaking. Most of what now gets published in top business journals under the rubric of “ethics” is limited to empirical studies of the success of various policies presumed as ethical (”the effects of management consistency on employee loyalty and efficiency,” perhaps). Although valuable, such research does precious little to hone the mission of business itself.

While the public clamors for the return of managerial leadership in ethics and social responsibility, surprisingly little research on the subject exists, and what does get published doesn’t appear in the top journals. The reasons are varied, but perhaps more than anything it’s that those journals are exclusively empirical: Take The Academy of Management Review, the only top journal devoted to management theory. Its mission statement says it publishes only “testable knowledge-based claims.” Unfortunately, that excludes most of what counts as ethics, which is primarily a conceptual, a priori discipline akin to law and philosophy. We wouldn’t require, for example, that theses on the nature of justice or logic be empirically testable, although we still consider them “knowledge based.”

The major business journals have a responsibility to open the ivory-tower gates to a priori arguments on the ethical nature and mission of business. After all, the top business schools, which are a model for the rest, are naturally interested in hiring academics who publish in the top journals. One solution is for at least one or two of the top journals to rewrite their mission statements to expressly include articles applying ethical theory to business. They could start by creating special ethics sections in the same way that some have already created critical-essay sections. Another solution is for academics to do more reading and referencing of existing business-ethics journals. Through more references in the wider literature, those journals can rise to the top. Until such changes occur, business ethics will largely remain a second-class area of research, primarily concerned with teaching.

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