Are business schools sending “moral midgets” out into the world to recklessly plunder without regard for honesty and human decency? Certainly, recent news suggests you don’t have to dig too deep into the business world to unearth leaders who appear more likely to pluck a Tootsie Roll from a five-year-old’s fist and sell it for 30% of retail than to ensure their factory workers are treated fairly or their products don’t lay waste to Mother Nature. And blaming B-schools for failing to teach students to behave ethically is nothing new – many commentators laid responsibility for the global financial crisis at the doorsteps of MBA programs, for instance. But revelations of late concerning egregiously reprehensible behavior by corporate leaders have now prompted an Emory University ethicist to loose a new blast of criticism.
“That far too much of the world’s corporate leadership is driven by moral midgets who have been educated far beyond their capacities for good judgment should be obvious after observing the events of the past week,” writes Edward Queen, director of Emory’s Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership. “For the past five to six decades, epigones of Milton Friedman have been emphasizing that the only duty of a corporation is return on investment. This lesson, drilled into generations of business school graduates, now drives tsunamis of corporate malfeasance.
“Observational and anecdotal evidence suggests that business students are not only impaired in their moral judgments but that significant percentages of them have severely impaired moral imaginations. By this I mean not only do they make bad ethical decisions, but they actually are incapable of identifying an ethical situation when they are presented with one.”
A PROBLEM OF CULTURE
Queen hangs his argument on the news about Volkswagen’s emissions-testing scandal, and the 5,000% price hike by Turing Pharmaceuticals for a drug used to combat malaria and to treat toxoplasmosis, a disease that can affect people with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS patients. Fallen VW CEO Martin Winterkorn studied metallurgy in school rather than business. Martin Shkreli, the Turing CEO and consummate entitled “bro,” has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Baruch College. While it is perhaps a stretch to blame business schools for VW’s calculated deception, Queen argues that the auto giant’s malfeasance is a symptom of a profit-at-any-cost culture that business schools feed into without properly instilling ethics in students. Never mind the debate over whether people learn ethics in their home and place of work rather than school.
Still, Queen teaches ethics to graduate and undergraduate business students, and has interviewed numerous business ethics faculty members over the past decade. It appears, he writes, that “when business students are presented with an ethics case, that is a case where they have been told that there is an ethical problem, 20% to 30% of the students cannot find or identify the ethical issue.”
MIXED MESSAGES ON VALUES AND ETHICS
So, what’s wrong with young people today, that so many are ethically vapid? In an interview, Queen points to an over-emphasis on tolerance, that makes it very difficult for many people to even say something is wrong. Students are entering business schools “almost as kind of blank slates in terms of ability to think about, to argue about, the good,” Queen says in an interview. “So for business school students, they get into these programs and there’s a lot of cultural realities that strengthen the thing about value is monetized, and on top of that, the kind of overwhelming message they’ve been getting: the only thing that matters is return on investment.
“Even if they may have a business ethics class, that’s not reinforced by the other messages they’re getting either in the school, from their peers, perhaps even from the business world as a whole.”