Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Role of Business Schools in Promoting Values in Business

I have only just had the time to finalise the text of my presentation at The Global Ethics Forum, Geneva, 30th June to 2nd July 2011, on the topic: "The Role of Business Schools in Promoting Values in Business".

Here it is:

Mr Chairman, many thanks for that very kind introduction, and do allow me to jump straight into my presentation, starting with the caveat that I have a large topic, in relation to which we have of course only a tiny amount of time, and that will have certain consequences, meaning some exaggerations and distortions, rather than reaching for the ideal of academic precision - at least to start with – though I hope that we can jointly aspire to that, in the time available for interaction in this room after the presentation, and we can of course continue more informally afterwards for the duration of the Forum.

I should also say, in the interests of transparency, openness and due disclosure so you can assess my biases that, having been an atheist, I am now a Hindu follower of Jesus the Lord. He was anti-religious; I am anti-religious too, but also specifically anti-Christian: so far as I can see, Christianity is a systematic attempt to distract attention from the person and teachings of Jesus the Lord, by distrorting and subverting him and his teachings. In order to get any true idea of Him, one needs to throw out all the rubbish that has been put about by churches and priests, and read the Gospels and indeed the rest of the New Testament for oneself.

So to our topic, which consists of two parts:
- what is the proper purpose of business schools?
- insofar as business schools may be agreed to have any role in promoting anything, what values might be involved?

I take it that, given the presentations that are scheduled, it is not intended for me to focus on the first debate, about the role of business schools. I will therefore take up the second question, regarding values.

It appears to me, and not only in relation to business schools, but in our dominant global cultures as a whole, that two key issues are dodged.

The first issue is: WHAT values are we talking about? A Muslim is granted permission to have up to four wives, in addition to concubines and “temporary wives”, and the ideal is as many male children as possible. By contrast, a modern secular materialist (typical of today’s elite, whether male or female) wants as much sex as possible, perhaps with as many different desirable partners as possible, but does not want even one spouse OR child! I could of course draw many other such contrasts. When confronted by facts like these, some people say: “No, no, by values we don’t mean that sort of thing at all, we mean values such as honesty”. I guess it is these sorts of folks who search for a “Global Ethic” on which people of all backgrounds can agree, and Hans Küng and others have at least come up with some lists of “values”, such as “honesty” to which they feel that the majority of the important religions (however defined) can agree.

However, the problem with lists of such words as “honesty” is that the words mean something different to a traditional Hindu, a traditional Muslim, a traditional Christian, a traditional tribal, a modern or post-modern atheist, and so on. For example, to a follower of Jesus, honesty is a more or less absolute value (I say “more or less” because some of us see extreme circumstances in which it may be necessary to tell an untruth in order to save another individual’s life or even the lives of groups of people; I reject this position, but I quite understand and sympathise with those who take this, shall we call it, more generous position. By contrast with that absolutist or generous position in relation to honesty, however, is the fact that a Muslim is permitted by the Koran to tell lies to advance the cause of Islam, and the moment someone achieves “spiritual enlightenment”, according to the dominant Hindu traditons, he (or nowadays also SHE) is released from earthly moral considerations such as honesty because he or she is considered to have ascended to a higher level where morality does not matter (that is the principal reason why our gurus have such lavish and immoral lifestyles, and their devotees continue to be loyal to them though know about those things; specifically, in addition to fraud and of impropriety, the discipline of Tantra urge you to undertake what most people would consider sexually immoral behaviour in an attempt to transcend the bounds of individuality, morality and reality).

But if you were to take the sorts of “global statements of ethics” that are developed by Hans Küng, by assemblies of dignitaries from the Abrahamic Faiths, and so on, you will find a startling and uncomfortable fact: the actual ethical basis of these, as well as of international business and (increasingly) of international politics, is the ethics of the New Testament without its supernatural basis.

So let us call this «universalist» ethics by its proper name: «denatured New Testament ethics» or, if you like, «humanitarianist ethics derived from the New Testament, but which insists not only on avoiding acknowledging its debt to the Bible, but also on attacking the Bible»

That apart, is there any other problem or challenge that arises as a result of smuggling Biblical ethics into a humanitarianist context? Well, let me put one challenge like this: we ignore or deny the problems that are created for practicing Biblical ethics in non-Biblical cultures. It is of course hugely difficult to practice Biblical ethics in any non-Biblical culture, as any business executive or political leader knows – and the kind of sleight of hand represented by “global ethics” provides no guidance regarding how this kind of “denatured Biblical ethics” is to be actually practiced successfully in cultures that may be dominantly tribal, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese and so on.

The result is that we have the quite proper observation, and indeed objection, that whole non-Biblical cultures are being measured internationally by extraneous Biblical norms (e.g. by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia when he said that the UN Declaration of Human Rights was “a Christian document” and should not be imposed on Muslim countries such as his; or, this week, by Premier Wen of China on his visit to the UK, telling them to stop bothering him about human rights in China, because Westerners don’t understand Chinese culture. That is of course quite true, because the West still has some sort of commitment to human rights, whereas Chinse traditions have historically had no human rights, only rights for rulers.

So that is the first issue (WHAT values) which is usually dodged in discussions of values in business schools or indeed in the dominant discourses about values.
The second issue that is dodged is: Can values be values if they don’t cost you anything?

I don’t know how many so-called “business ethics” courses you have taught or audited, or how many discussions you have participated in about business ethics courses, but I have found a remarkable dearth of mentions of ethics costing you a lot in business. And when such stories are offered, how often are such stories praised, and how often they are slighted (on one ground or another)? Usually you hear drivel about how ethics helps you in business! Honesty is sometimes called the best policy - but that, of course, is nonsense. If honesty is only a policy that helps you in business, then you will change the policy when it stops helping you in business! So, honesty only moves from being a policy to being a value if you are prepared to lose business because of it, to go bankrupt for it.

If the first issue that is dodged in discussions of business ethics is that of WHAT ethics, and the second issue that is dodged is whether values can be considered values if they don’t cost you anything, the more important issue, the most fundamental issue is that “business ethics” itself is dodged by B-Schools, because it is treated as if the problem is one of «ignorance», so that the remedy proposed is that of information or discussion. The information communicated is usually pretty superficial, at least in my assessment of it, and the discussion can be summed up as “the bland leading the blind”, “a sharing of feelings” and “You’re all right, mate, and I’m certainly all right”.

Let me now change gear and draw attention to the scandalous truth that is usually ignored: what most business ethics courses don’t do is to challenge the very specific set of values – WRONG values, or lies – that are systematically inculcated by the mainstream curriculum. These might be called the “hidden agenda” of the business school. What is this hidden agenda, this miasma of lies, that is systematically inculcated by the business school, what are these lies that are communicated and must be adhered to by our students if they are to make a “success” of their time with us?.

Here are a few:
- Greed (which we refer to politely as «profit maximisation») is good
- There is no such thing as society
- Everybods looks after, and everybody should look after, only Number One (and be suspicious of do-gooders)
- Society will look after itself if markets are left free
- Technology will solve all problems
- Corporations should have the same rights as individuals, in addition to the privileges they already have as companies
- Morality and law are necessary inconveniences around which I should find as efficient a way as possible, while I focus on making as much money as I can, as quickly as I can, without considering the context or consequences too much
- Don’t even think about questioning the system; focus on getting to the top of the system – you can, if you really want to, start thinking of questioning the system when you retire; but, even then, what is recommended and even admired is if you simply do one or two small things to reduce the worst effects of the system.

How come we are so successful in shrouding the minds of otherwise bright, thinking,knowledgeable, critical people with such a miasma of lies?

Precisely because these lies are rarely taught, they are mostly caught - because they are implicit in the curriculum by what is included and what excluded; as well as in the structure off the B-School as a phenomenon.

Our participants come to us because we are expensive and prestigious institutions to come to, so they make an expensive investment of time and money to learn how to enhance their earning power and position, not in order to learn to serve society better.

That raises, naturally, the question of whether there is any “system” to which we consciously or unconsciously adhere, and to which we expect our b-school participants to adhere.

Here are some key characteristics of “our system” that cannot be questioned or even thought about, however negative the consequences of these systemic features:
- Fiat currencies (i.e not backed by anything real like gold, a basket of products, or the GDP itself)
- Usury (the use of money to make more money)
- High-frequency trading
- short-term-oriented stock exchanges
- the shadow financial world bigger than that recognized by the regulatory bodies and outside the reach of the regulatory authorities
- Regulatory bodies designed to be ineffective, and then weakened from on high by nods, winks and specific instructions – which are what have created bust after larger bust
- The ascription of these busts to “business cycles” rather than to the effects of morally wrong practices which finally come home to roost (I am not arguing that there are no such things as business cycles, rather that the busts are ascribed 100% to these, and the role of hubris and over-reach, which are moral matters, is rarely addressed – and, when it is, as after the current crisis which started in 2007, it is still extremely difficult to get any movement on the moral matters involved.

Mr Chairman, so I come to my conclusion: Till we articulate what values we stand for and what we are against, till we articulate what values we are prepared to encourage businesses and business leaders to pay a price for, till we are prepared to identify and debate the real values that are implicitly and explicitly communicated by business schools, all the fuss that is made about “business ethics courses” and “ethics teaching in business schools” will continue to be so much lukewarm air.

Thank you.

ENDS Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Andrew Adudu said...

Thank you very much Dr. Guptara for this insightful article.

I knew there was something wrong with the business schools of today and you have graciously given words to the disgust I feel about my business school and many others.