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Ethicists at the Gate: Can Harvard Business School make its graduates behave?


Duhigg, C. (8 December, 2002) “Ethicists at the Gate: CanHarvardBusinessSchool make its graduates behave?” The Boston








Duhigg, himself a student at HarvardBusinessSchool, addresses the pitfalls of “ethical education” in the classrooms of America’s elite business academies. Economic ethics is not new to business training, but in an era of Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco, schools are attempting to reinvigorate their traditional integrity moorings. According to Amitai Etzioni, sociologist and former HarvardBusinessSchool professor, “Business schools have been forced to face the fact that they have failed to produce honest brokers.”


The HBS education operates according to case studies. Duhigg describes two such ‘conversations’ meant to direct the moral compass of Harvard students. First, there was the famous 1982 Johnson & Johnson recall of $100 million worth of contaminated Tylenol pills. The decision by then CEO James Burke, a 1949 graduate of HBS, “is widely regarded as the epitome of responsible corporate behavior.” But if this situation seemed clear, a second conversation was more ambiguous. Duhigg and his fellow students were apprised of a situation in which a Swiss company learned that the carpets it was marketing may have been produced by forced child labor.


A documentary detailing the realities of child labor upped the emotional drama of the ‘conversation,’ but this did little to settle the spinning moral compasses of students. Says Duhigg, “By the end of class, the only consensus among us was that everyone, free-traders and child-labor critics alike, held a view that could be seen as ethically defensible and indefensible at the same time.”


This, then, is Duhigg’s first contention: ethical education is inevitably ambiguous. Business students and instructors do not, and perhaps can not, ‘know’ the ‘right’ course of action.


His second contention is that the problem in American business ethics today is not the fault of economic training, but of ourselves. He observes that Americans of the 1990s were blithely obsessed with greed, only to then cry out for ‘values’ today. In other words, classroom ‘conversations’ bent on benchmarking the ‘ethical’ will not sway the already-determined compass of moral or immoral students.



Questions for Reflection and Discussion



1.      Have you experienced poor ethical decisions in your workplace?



2.      Should business schools attempt to instill in students a moral compass?



3.      Are teenagers of today typically taught to question the ‘greed’ impulse, or to conduct themselves with integrity in financial affairs?



4.      Is capitalism inherently flawed when it comes to ethics?







Duhigg’s position arises from the peculiar way in which the capitalist ethos strives to marry a bottom-line agenda with ethical protocols. The point he fails to consider is whether or not social justice in economic markets and forces can figure in the concerns of free-market leaders. Not every HBS graduate will commit fraud, but one wonders if any are pressed to consider whether there are, or ought to be, innate moral principles that check the surge toward financial success.


Christopher S. Yates cCYS