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Teaching Ethics to business school students

If there was one mandatory course that all business school students are allergic to, it would be ethics. Not that business school students have a personality flaw that makes them hate the subject, it is just that we intensely dislike being preached to. We are smart, intelligent and savvy enough to figure out what is right and wrong, practical and absurd and given the choice would rather not get into an obtuse debate on morality. Turn that preaching into hypocritical bullshit, the natural common reaction is to zone out and ignore the instructor.

There is no easier way to a mid life crisis for business school faculty than to teach the ethics course. It is penance, exile, torture, abuse, despair all rolled into one.

R. Edward Freeman

Not so for Ed Freeman at Darden.

When Adnan first mentioned that he actually had an Ethics professor that he liked and would rather not miss his class, my outstanding faculty radar immediately went into auto mode. With Adnan’s connivance and Freeman’s consent I managed to sneak into a class on Tuesday afternoon, in between appointments with Darden Faculty.

It would be an understatement to say that in that short 60 minute session, Ed Freeman redefined my image of “The ethics professor”. A Taekwondo black belt, author, philosopher and blues maestro, Ed is a rarity in the business school faculty space. And while I missed the class before and after, I was amazed by his refreshing ability to flip ethics teaching on its head.

Rather than a long discourse on black and white, Ed’s class focused on the grey line. The concept was the psychology of obedience and disobedience and its application to self awareness. From a morality framework, Ed posed the most powerful question I have heard in ethics teaching. How well do you know yourself and will you waver and give in to pressure or temptation. If you have the answer to that question, (in most cases yes), the smartest thing to do is to not walk that path at all. The morality debate around “should or should not” is trivial; the real questions that need to be asked are all centered on self awareness.

Ed used the Milgram experiment to set the context for the discussion and his treatment of the class reminded me of John Whitney and the first run of In Search of the Perfect Prince (the Power Plays course) at Columbia, the summer crash that changed the life of everyone who took it with John.

Mark Ed Freeman on the list of people you should meet at least once before you decide to speak on ethics. And if you have been singled out for punishment and a life of misery and ridicule by your Dean, give Ed a call. He will take it.

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