Hiring probe highlights failure of Asia's business schools to teach ethics

Jeremy Leong says China hiring saga highlights lack of ethics training

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 1:55am

US authorities are investigating claims that JPMorgan Chase hired the children of well-connected Chinese nationals in order to win business from mainland companies. Now, the China Insurance Regulatory Commission chairman and JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon may be implicated.

As the "sons and daughters" saga unfolds, public discourse is focusing on the high politics and ethics of corruption, conflicts of interest and abuse of power. However, we should not forget one important group of moral actors: the sons and daughters themselves.

Could they have forestalled this affair by making the strongest ethical statement of all: "No thank you, but that's not quite how I'd like to lead my professional life"?

Assuming they knew approaches were being made on their behalf, what did they think? Did they consider the ethical positions they were in? Could they have forestalled this affair by making the strongest ethical statement of all: "No thank you, but that's not quite how I'd like to lead my professional life"? Ethics is, after all, concerned with ascertaining what is good for the individual and how one should live accordingly.

The failure of these young men and women (many of whom are probably business school graduates) to exercise their moral prerogative raises questions as to how they view ethics and how ethics is taught by business schools in Asia.

The problem, as I see it, is that these business schools may not have developed the requisite philosophical tools for a comprehensive education in ethics. The business school is largely a construct of Western business culture and Asian schools often take their cue from their counterparts in the US and Europe. However, traditionally, they do not deal with philosophical inquiry very well.

Business schools are great at teaching the practical skills required for commercial activity but not necessarily the theories explaining its objectives. Professor Michael Jensen from Harvard Business School, discussing curriculum changes, took the view that "we are not providing our students with an integrated view of the role of business in society and a deep understanding of the complex issues underlying the choice of a corporate objective function. This leaves them without a philosophy underlying what they do".

Of course, Jensen was not claiming business schools are unaccustomed to teaching theory. There are plenty of business theories out there. However, they tend to be about positivistic, or descriptive "is" questions. For example, how does a market function? Or, what is an efficient manager?

Business theory tends to avoid answering the morally normative, or "ought", questions. For example, how ought a person to live in order to flourish; how ought a corporation treat its employees?

The task of finding normative philosophy behind business is more difficult in Asian societies where the definition of "happiness" is strongly associated with material success.

Any resulting de-emphasis on philosophy as a fundamental part of business ethics education can be unnerving if Asian business schools merely pay lip service to the works of Kant, Spinoza or Russell. There is nothing more dangerous than a misunderstood theory.

Asian business schools must not neglect teaching a fuller understanding of philosophy than may be the case today. Jensen notes "sound judgment and the theory it is based on is critical in helping us to decide what our objective should be, but our own values are also important in choosing the objective". In helping Asia's sons and daughters choose these values, business schools need to put philosophy back into ethics education.

Jeremy Leong is an assistant professor at the Singapore Management University and teaches ethics and social responsibility