Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Would a Business Ethics Class Have Prevented Bernard Madoff from setting up his Ponzi Scheme?

Ethical fortitude: Born or Made?

The blank slate (also know as Tabula Rasa) view of the human mind argues that individuals are born with empty minds that are subsequently forged, shaped, and influenced by environmental forces. A natural corollary of this premise is that individuals are born with equal potentiality and predilections. Hence, one's personhood is construed as strictly driven by one's idiosyncratic life path. Are charismatic leaders born or made? Are empathetic therapists born or made? Are magnetic and charming personalities born or made? If you believe in the blank slate premise then the answer to each of the latter questions (and countless others) is obvious: they are made!

Let us now turn our attention to the recent Madoff and AIG debacles. Of course, these are not isolated examples as there are endless other cases of ethical lapses and criminal behavior in the business world. These include Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken (insider trading; mid-eighties), and Martha Stewart more recently. Over the past few years, we have seen a large number of corporate scandals including those involving Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (Enron), Bernard Ebbers (WorldCom), Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco International), John and Timothy Rigas (Adelphia), and the rogue traders Jerome Kerviel (Societe Generale) and Nick Leeson (Barings Bank). One should not forget to mention Rod Blagojevich the recently ousted governor of Illinois, who based on his haggling over the then vacant Senate seat, might have an illustrious future career in the Souks of Old Jerusalem wherein price haggling is a national pastime.

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What does each of the latter ethical, if not criminal, scandals have to do with business schools? Business schools love to appear "responsive to market and environmental realities." Hence, many schools have recently rushed to infuse their curricula with "ethical content." The argument is that by exposing business students to such material, it will reduce the likelihood that they will engage in such breaches in the future. Let me be very clear. Business ethics courses will have little if any impact on the proclivity of future managers to engage in ethical/unethical behaviors. Whether an individual is or is not ethical is largely determined by stable personality dispositions, and is certainly not affected by exposure or lack thereof to business ethics classes. That said, I think that business ethics classes are important and should be taught in business schools but not because they will "inoculate" future executives from unethical behaviors.

Those who believe in such pedagogic interventions are likely the same folks who argue that religion provides us with our moral and ethical precepts. Otherwise, it is proposed that void of Divine morality, we would sink into a world of moral relativism, to which Albert Einstein retorted: "I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern without any superhuman authority behind it." Catholic priests have been exposed to all of the religious and moral education that one can hope to have. This did not stop many of them from being some of the nastiest recidivist child molesters.

Bernard Madoff is a psychopath. For more than a decade, he stole money knowing that in so doing he was destroying hundreds if not thousands of lives, without experiencing any remorse or bouts of conscience. Psychopathy appears to be an innate trait. For example, contrary to popular belief, many of the most infamous serial killers (e.g., Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer) had rather normal childhoods bereft of any abuse. It is likely the case that the scores of ethical fortitude in any given population are normally distributed, as is the case with so many other traits (e.g., IQ, weight, height, and countless personality traits). A small percentage of individuals are void of ethical fortitude, the great majority of people lie somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, and a third and small group of people are pathologically honest (e.g., moral scrupulosity can be construed as a disorder given that it can lead to dysfunctional living). Where an individual falls along this continuum has little to do with the environment and much to do with his/her idiosyncratic and largely innate personhood.

Of course, the blank slate premise is a much more hopeful mantra in that it proposes that no one is born "damaged." Perhaps Bernard Madoff was not hugged enough when he was a child. Perhaps crushing parental expectations drove him to his criminal behavior. Perhaps his high school sweetheart cheated on him and he is transferring and redirecting his "revenge" onto unsuspecting investors. The nonsensical "environmental" causes are endless. The reality is that some people are born evil and the blank slate premise serves as feel-good obfuscation of this obvious veracity.

Source for Image:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BernardMadoff.jpg

Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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