Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ethical Theory in Business Ethics Courses

It may seem like an oxymoron, but faculty administrators at even research universities can be hopelessly narrow-minded regarding knowledge and how it is to be conveyed. For example, how often are faculty members encouraged to give a lecture or two re-teaching material largely missed on exams (followed by another, shorter examination on that material)? Do faculty administrators work with faculty members in professional schools to see to it that the applied courses are not severed from their basic (i.e., more theoretical substratum) discipline? One of the secrets in the “sauce” at Yale’s professional schools (e.g., Law, Divinity, etc.) is this salience of the respective basic disciplines (e.g., political theory and theology, respectively). Synergy comes gushing through once the false dichotomy is recognized. Before I went to Yale, I was a masters and doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, where the dichotomy was alive and well in the university’s social reality; I had to “walk back” the dichotomy myself as I discovered philosophy (and religious studies) while I was still studying business.

Business ethics was one of my doctoral fields of study at Pitt. The philosophy department there was at the time one of the best in the U.S., so used an elective to take my first course in the discipline. I began with two intro courses; before I knew it, I was taking junior and senior courses, such logic and philosophy of mind. The latter course turned out to be the most intellectually intense course I took in my 18 years as a university student (had I discovered philosophy in college, I would have three rather than five degrees). It occurred to me at the time to start taking ethical theory courses, as business ethics was one of my doctoral fields. Within philosophy, I gravitated to practical philosophy—in particular, to ethics, political theory, and philosophy of religion. I treated these as foundations for the field of business, government, and society in business.
It dawned on me that none of the business doctoral students concentrating in business ethics had taken an ethical theory course in philosophy. That is to say, I was stunned to find a subfield of ethics reduced to management. Ethics proper is a subfield of philosophy, not business; ergo, business ethics is ultimately grounded in philosophy, with managerial implications. I think business schools have put the cart before the horse and letting go of the horse. A cart without a horse isn't going to go very far (though perhaps it can go in circles).

From my educational experience, I contend that ethics courses in business schools ought to emphasize ethical theory, with managerial implications/applications used as much to illustrate the theories as to understand the ethical dimension of business. Managers in the business world have told me that business schools should do what corporate training cannot, rather than being duplicative. I think deans miss this point, perhaps because they are so oriented to sucking up to corporate managers in order to get corporate donations. In my own thinking, theory enlivens rather than detracts from praxis. I think business school faculties are in the grips of the false dichotomy. Corporate managers would doubtless admit that they are ill-equipped to teach ethical theory. Moreover, training is a better fit with what corporate folks do. Business schools, or else philosophy departments, could offer regular as well as continuing education courses in business ethics with ethical theory readings, lectures, and discussions going beyond the superficial “rights, utility, and justice” hackneyed reductionism of business ethics courses in business schools. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Exclusivism Eclipses Veritas at Yale

Michael Simons, head of the cardiology department of the School of Medicine, made unwelcome sexual advances in writing to Annarita Di Lorenzo,  a researcher 18 years younger at the school in 2010. Simons wrote that he wanted to kiss the woman’s lips, and every part of her “body in every continent and city of the world.”[1] Referring to Frank Giordano, the woman’s boyfriend at the time and subsequently husband, Simon wrote that the woman was choosing the wrong man.  Simons would keep Giordano from important meetings and assignments. The relationship between the two men became so difficult that Jack Elias, the chairman of medicine, took over the direct supervision of Giordano to protect the untenured instructor from Simon.

Nevertheless, Yale’s provost, dismissed a university committee’s recommendation that Simons be permanently removed from his position in favor of an 18-month suspension. Faculty members claimed that Simons’ success in snagging $5 million annually from the U.S. Government in grants in 2012 and 2013 had been a factor, as well as the fact that the provost had been chair of the economics department, where Simons’ wife was a faculty member. The monetary element would not be lost on virtually any academic administrator at any university, but the “old boys club” sticky web of connections at the elitist Yale could mean that “outsiders” suffer considerable abuse there; the Provost’s dismissiveness of the university committee’s recommendation is but one indication of how distorted the moral compasses can be among the most powerful in the “club.”

As most Yalies undoubtedly know, incremental exclusivisms exist within Yale; the pleasure for a faculty member in being selected to a higher post and a student in being “tapped” to join one of the secret societies strangely depends in no small measure on being able to see others excluded (i.e., hurt). In other words, rather than finding the sheer opening of a door to be fulfilling, the true pleasure lies in watching the door hit others in the ass the hinges swing back.

For example, as a student at Yale, I spent an “all-nighter” going through the admissions ritual of one of the debating parties in the Yale Political Union. Once I was in, the party’s chairman suggested that I attend a party that the party would be giving on an upcoming Friday night.

“The party owns a secret society,” he explained to me, “so you and all other male members of the party can join the society. This Friday at the party we will be tapping people so you will want to be there.”

Assuming that I would be able to join the society too, I cancelled my pre-existing plans and attended the party, which was in a room half way up the university’s clock tower. In actuality, only three people were tapped. They had all been officers in the party’s elite, so I quickly realized that the chairman had wanted me to attend not because I would be tapped, but, rather, in order to watch his friends being selected. The chairman subsequently lied to party-members—saying that I had misunderstood him. Whereas most party members in such a situation typically resigned with great fanfare during one of the weekly debates, I did not resign; instead, I simply had nothing to do with the party or its little cadre of officers. To this day, I am a member of a party in the Yale Political Union.

My point is that deceit used to protect the club within the club at Yale is not a rare deed. Perhaps you can grasp more fully why De Lorenzo may have felt no avenue left to her but to leave the university,  why her husband’s career was effectively stalled by a jealous faculty administrator, and why the provost dismissed the committee’s recommendation. The pyramidal exclusivism within Yale is so strong that unfairness and even outright aggression may seem justified to some.

1. Tamar Lewin, “Handling of Sexual Harassment Case Poses Larger Questions at Yale,” The New York Times, November 1, 2014.