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The Unsurprising Failure of 'Ethics'

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The headline and the lede sentence of Bloomberg’s coverage of the Duke cheating scandal make it clear that the chattering classes are reading this as an indictment of the much-touted ethics courses that proliferated in business schools following the business scandals of the turn of the century. “Duke Cheating Probe Shows Failure of Post-Enron Ethics Classes” Bloomberg’s headline shouts. “The cheating episode at Duke University may cause academics to conclude the post-Enron emphasis on teaching ethics in graduate business schools is a failure,” the lede declares.
But was any of this as surprising? These ethics courses have long struck us as misconceived. First, as we said earlier this morning, business students probably don’t pay very much mind to ethics professors who regard business as an inherently shady activity. Second, the goals of these ethics courses seem to be either impossible or undesirable. The impossible: sometimes it seems the ethics courses aim at changing the behavior of business students—and, given time, the broader business community—with pop platitudes cribbed from Kant, a project that imagines that human behavior is far more malleable to rhetoric than the evidence demonstrates. In a great article protesting the state of business education in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Kauffman Foundation president Carl Schramm wrote that “Presumably the goal is to prevent future Enron-like scandals, but how likely is it that human behavior can be changed for the better by tacking on a course on ethics?”
Schramm went on the describe the other more achievable but even less desirable goal of the ethics courses: convincing students to put politics over the business.

Another misguided trend is that of offering courses in the nebulous area of social responsibility. The implicit message of those courses is often that business goals should be subordinate to political goals. Business serves society by creating wealth — that is its true social responsibility. Business schools do their students and society a disservice by teaching that corporations should pledge primary allegiance to political ends, which could harm their ability to create the wealth upon which civil society depends.

So if the latest scandal at Duke helps us do away with the myth that the ethics course requirements for an MBA were going to ameliorate business corruption, fraud or reduce agency costs, we might all have those 34 cheaters to thank for peeling the scales from our eyes.
The Broken M.B.A. [Chronicle of Higher Education]