In a recent Bloomberg column, Chicago Booth professor Luigi Zingales proposes that business schools teach a more robust set of ethics. This sentiment has been mirrored by Felix Salmon, Matt Yglesias and several other prominent bloggers. I recently graduated from the Kellogg School of Management, and was both a participant in a values-based leadership (read: ethics) class and the student leader responsible for investigating violations of the school’s Honor Code during my time there.
Zingales fails to address a key point by considering the impact of globalization on the study of ethics in business. Kellogg, like many other top business school, has a global footprint - 36% of my class held non-U.S. citizenship. These students come from many different cultures, and share many different value systems. And thus it is highly unlikely that they will share, hew to, or find themselves working in, a system of universal ethics. In my own experience at Kellogg, a disproportionate number of ethics investigations involved students from non-Western value systems, which suggests to me that these lapses stemmed as much from misunderstanding or misalignment as they did willful and deliberate violations of the rules.
Unless business schools are prepared to take a stand and insist on Western values as the “right” system, it will be tremendously challenging to extract a set of universal ethics and teach them coherently. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect the very highest ethical and moral values from our leaders, but that the modern geopolitical and business climate is rife with very real disagreements about what is right and what is wrong.
At the very least, it seems that business schools could provide students with frameworks for making decisions based on their own values. This is more or less exactly what students at Kellogg learned to do in the values-based leadership course, and exactly what Zingales is critical of when he speaks about courses that illustrate various ethical situations, and don’t instruct students on how to act. While this has a certain appeal in obvious cases (Zingales mentions the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal), as we all know there are many, many cases in life that don’t have obvious right and wrong answers even under a shared set of values. When teaching in a global business school environment, this discussion becomes infinitely more complex.
While I disagree somewhat with the approach Zingales suggests, I do believe there is an interesting opportunity to educate global business leaders not only on how to think about ethical decisions, but how their decisions will be perceived in cultures around the world. Given the global makeup of the classroom, this could be a tremendously insightful conversation for everyone in the room. Fostering this conversation, I believe, is the real challenge that faces business schools in the 21st century.