Students require ethical, moral guidance
Published: Sunday, May 20, 2012
Updated: Sunday, May 20, 2012 19:05
Are universities producing ethical members of society? After three years at Brandeis and one particular class discussion, I am not confident that they are.
While I had assumed nothing but the best about my fellow Brandeisians, a recent conversation in an International Business School classroom left me disillusioned.
As a capstone to this year’s entrepreneurship class, we were prompted with the following ethical dilemma: You’re meeting with a customer of yours, and during the meeting you notice a cost proposal from one of your direct competitors. The customer leaves the room momentarily to get you a cup of coffee, leaving you alone with your competitor’s proposals in sight. What would you do?
To me, this was hardly a dilemma. The answer was obvious: you do nothing at all. But as I listened to my classmates, it became clear that it was not quite as obvious to everyone else.
I was in the minority. Most of my classmates indicated that not only would they succumb to the temptation of looking at a customer’s private information, but they would conceal the fact that they had seen the documents, and in turn use that information for their benefit in business.
Students used every justification they could find. As long as it benefitted their shareholders or themselves, anything was fair game.
Breaching the trust of a customer or invading his or her privacy didn’t matter if there was a potential to profit. The question of “right or wrong” was off the table; we were talking about how to justify essentially unjust behavior.
Many of my classmates exclaimed, “that’s what business is about,” and for the first time, I critically examined the intentions of my peers.
As the Hiatt Career Center constantly reminds us, creating a network among classmates is essential. As an entrepreneurial-minded student, I have always worked toward building this network.
However, at that moment in class, I looked around a room teeming with 20-year-old Gordon Gekkos and I realized that my perspective on business was starkly different than that of the majority of my classmates. “That’s what business is about.” The phrase continues to haunt me.
To know that some of my classmates—liberal arts students who represent a university that prides itself on honesty and social justice—think of business merely as a means of making personal gains at any price is heartbreaking.
Have I missed an addendum to the school motto of “Truth Even Unto Its Innermost Parts” that excuses business from a moral code? Isn’t this greed and dishonesty the same attitude that led to the financial crisis we are all suffering from today? Our current economic situation is a direct result of banks and brokers focusing solely on increasing their own profits without consideration for the others involved.
Perhaps this diagnoses a problem with the current system of education. Maybe we are putting too much focus on career development and salary in our definition of success and thereby training the mind to place the value of financial benefit before the risk of social harm.
I urge Brandeis to implement a mandatory ethics course for Business majors and minors. Before learning the tools to analyze markets, economic climates or brand positioning, students must be instilled with a strong moral code to promote sound professional judgment.
I am not picking on my fellow business students in particular; I am sure the problem is not limited to business students. This is merely a case study from a business class that illuminates the much larger need to discuss morals in all academic disciplines. As future leaders of society in any field, our decisions will have huge impacts.
As we burst out of the “Brandeis bubble,” we will have the power to determine whether those decisions have positive or negative impacts on our society.
We have the chance to make things better, but without a solid ethical foundation, we can make them worse; we can dig the economic hole deeper, create further class stratification, or destroy the natural environment.
As one of my Business professors said, “At some point in your life, you will have two-and-a-half minutes to make a multi-million dollar decision.”
It is my hope that when each one of us faces this decision, we make the right choice: that we choose ethics, morals and justice before personal financial gain.
In order to ensure that this is our priority, ethical training must be a foundational element of all curricula.
This is a plea to schools across the nation, but I urge Brandeis, a school that prides itself on honesty and social responsibility, to take the initiative.
The writer is a member of the class of 2013.