Yesterday on Facebook I started quite the little discussion after posting a discussion about MBA education based on an article on Bloomberg. The author of the article, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Essentially the article argues that the method used to discuss ethics results in amoral education. What this is saying isn't that they are teaching a lack of morality, it's that they aren't teaching the actual moral result of these choices in a way that makes it clear that one option is moral while the other is not. Without explicitly stating which option is moral or immoral, it can create ambiguity (we know that business people hate uncertainty) and the illusion that either one of the options could be moral.
Why does this cause a problem? First, not many people actually have any education in ethics to begin with. If someone put together a list of 8 must take classes ethics would be somewhere around 100. Ethics courses aren't easy and they make you really look at how you think about things, figure out why you think that way and try to make you change the way you think. They aren't always successful, but ethical thinking is like critical thinking, the more exposure you have to it the more you are able to practice it. The second reason why this is a problem, is that many people going into business school may have less scruples, be willing to take advantage of people or are amoral. Not everyone is, but we know from research that business leaders tend to have personality traits of psychopaths. We also know that in games like prisoner's dilemma business leaders act the most ruthless (same goes for economists). The only question is the direction of causality. Does business school create these types of people, does it exacerbate these personality types or do these people go into business already behaving in these manners? I don't know the answer to that question.
While I was in the Netherlands I listened to a seminar that discussed the way that ethics is taught within the Dutch military. All new recruits must go through ethics courses and then every so many years they are required to recertify on the ethics course. The goal is to bring in new officers with a sense of ethical norms that can prevent atrocities and allow officers to do the right thing when they need to. Of course the military believes there is a fine line between creating a thinking solider and a solider that ends up in analysis paralysis because they are going through too many ethical situations in their mind. The goal of the education is to ingrain many of these ethical situations so reaction is more instinctual even for the ethical choice.
I believe that there is a similar balance that needs to be considered in business. What are the social norms for ethical behavior in many institutions? Well, I think that this really does depend on the institution and the environment that they are in. I think there are no ethical norms within the big banks, which has been played out over and over again with the sub prime, then LIBOR and now HSBC's money laundering. Perhaps the ethics are there, it's just considered ethical to make as much money as you can without getting caught doing something that is obviously screwing someone over. The question becomes, can a truly ethical MBA graduate come into an environment and succeed? I think that they will be able to do well compared to your average person, but they will quickly be out shined by their unethical colleagues. These are businessmen, they understand incentives well, so they will adjust their behavior based on their incentives. This is a normal and rational thing to do.
Are there ways to instill more ethical behavior at companies? I think there are ways. Some are through legal changes, which lower the bar for what is considered a crime when it comes to fraud and unethical behavior. This would either drive the behavior more underground (likely) or change some of it. Other ways would be through forcing a cultural norm where these companies are punished through lack of investment and loss of business. This one has a coordination issue. Many people have no qualms about ethical issues that would use a service like this. Additionally, the sheer number of firms behaving unethically makes it unrealistic for a person to buy ethically made products. I wrote about this at the Urban Times, noting that Apple is being singled out when the entire industry behaves in this manner.
Ethics needs to be taught at many different levels, it encourages critical thinking and self reflection. Developing ethical leaders in all respects of business and politics should be a goal of all universities. However, ethics courses are being cut and many people just don't see the value in them.