A new approach towards teaching business ethics
In the past decades, ethical scandals and widespread critique on shareholder based capitalism have drawn more attention to business ethics education. In the business ethics classroom, students have the opportunity to become critical moral agents. However, classical approaches to teaching business ethics – often relying on teaching abstract moral philosophy – have been criticized for not involving students on a personal level. This stimulated the development of new pedagogical approaches towards business ethics. We studied such a new pedagogical approach. In our inductive case study, published in Academy of Management Learning & Education, we explored how students experienced a course where world literature was the main source of study material. Every week students read and discussed a piece of world literature taking place in different times and cultural contexts – from ancient Greece to modern America, from colonial times in Africa to the aftermath of WWII. They analyzed the texts, applied moral theory on the different narratives, and made links to moral challenges in modern day business. For more information about this pedagogical approach see Sucher (2007).
Every week students read and discussed a piece of world literature taking place in different times and cultural contexts – from ancient Greece to modern America, from colonial times in Africa to the aftermath of WWII.
The benefits of a narrative approach
Students reported a deeper way of learning compared to regular business ethics courses, even case studies. They felt absorbed in the narratives and were emotionally involved with the protagonists and their moral predicaments. In the class room there was laughter, but also crying. Narratives also offered a safe arena in which students could explore different moral concepts and practice their moral imagination. Not only reading the narratives was beneficial for the learning experience for students – discussing the stories in a group setting illustrated how people can interpret the same moral challenge in a different way. This was often eye opening for students.
Narratives also offered a safe arena in which students could explore different moral concepts and practice their moral imagination.
Developing ‘moral muscle’
When we asked students how they experienced the course, they indicated they had developed ‘moral muscle’ – a dynamic moral capability that needs to be developed through regular reflection and practice. Moral muscle consists of a gradual increase of moral awareness, the motivation to practice moral decision-making on a day-to-day basis, and the desire to build moral character. Having a strong moral muscle means being at ease in taking a moral stance and feeling equipped to make moral decisions. Similar to regular muscle, moral muscle needs regular attention and practice to grow stronger. People showed different starting points and learning routes of moral development. Some students started the course with a rather rigid conception of ‘right versus wrong’. After the course, this group showed a stronger appreciation for the complexity of moral decision-making and the value of other moral perspectives than their own. Another group started the course from moral relativism (there is no right or wrong) and during the course this group started to realize that developing their own moral code was important in order to make moral decisions. In the context of moral development, these different learning paths illustrate that people in the same course can learn different – at times opposite – moral capabilities. This is in contrast with existing theory that assumes that all people go through similar developmental steps of moral development.
Having a strong moral muscle means being at ease in taking a moral stance and feeling equipped to make moral decisions.
Practice moral muscle
The gradual development of moral muscle and its similarity to regular muscle also suggests that without moral awareness and regular practice, moral muscle will likely decline. Students thus realized that in order to be effective moral leaders later in their future career, they would have to start now with practicing their moral decision-making. And they would have to keep paying attention to the moral complexities of organizational life. Our study suggests that exposing yourself to a variety of moral challenges via world literature – and ideally discussing this literature with other people – could be a valuable way to practice or your moral muscle and broaden your moral horizon.
Students realized that in order to be effective moral leaders later in their future career, they would have to start now with practicing their moral decision-making.
- Here you can find our research study, published in Academy of Management Learning and Education. (Link: https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2020.0072)
- For more pedagogical information on how to use world literature in the business ethics classroom, see the book of Sandra Sucher (Harvard Business School): Sucher, S. J. (2007). The moral leader: Challenges, tools and insights. Routledge.