Toxic Business Ethics (2009 Jul)

by Barry A. Liebling

When does making a promise to be ethical promote the opposite? A flawed moral code inevitably leads to bad consequences. Some people are pushing so-called “ethical” orientations that are wrong-headed and noxious. If you are caught off guard a corrupt system of “ethics” can leave you confused. Take it in, and it will make you sick.

The New York Times (A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality by Leslie Wayne, The New York Times May 30, 2009 ( has reported that nearly 20 percent of Harvard Business School’s new MBAs have signed a student-written MBA Oath ( These new MBAs are endorsing the notion that “greed is not good” and are pledging to act “responsibly” and “ethically.”

If you inspect “The MBA Oath” you will see that it is tainted with collectivist-leftist-interventionist sentiments – just the recipe you might expect from writing that is fundamentally hostile to individualism and free market capitalism. Consider some of its key features.

The author of The Oath, Max Anderson, writes that it is intended for “MBAs who aim to lead in the interests of the greater good” and also “serve the greater good.” How should that be interpreted?

He is separating himself and his cohorts from conventional business professionals who aim to make profits and is binding himself to the not-for-profit world dominated by teachers and social workers. Many of these professionals boast of working for the “greater good” rather than lowering themselves into the tawdry world of commerce. The “greater good” theme is a spin-off of the doctrine of altruism where striving for your own prosperity is eyed suspiciously, while saying that you serve the interests of others – preferably strangers – especially those not likely to reciprocate is regarded with approval.

The “greater good” of The MBA Oath crowds out what should have been said. Nowhere does the pledge affirm that the honest pursuit of profits is moral and that all people should pursue their rational self-interest. The writer does not reveal that calls for altruism and “sacrifice for the greater good” is a ploy to lull the unsuspecting into surrendering their judgment.

The Oath has the MBA promise to “safeguard the interests of … shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.” This is a slick attempt at equivocation. Notice that the first three items on the list are human beings who, like all individuals, have rights and deserve respect. But the fourth, “society” is the fictional entity that collectivists have always used to intimidate their opposition.

You can bet that as far as Mr Anderson is concerned the interests of “society” overshadow those of real people. Significantly, the apparition is referenced a second time where the new MBA promises to “contribute to the well-being of society” and a third time where the neophyte is urged to “guard against decisions and behavior that advances my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.” And who is in a position to know what “society’s” interests are? Government officials, their academic advisors, and leftists pundits are anointed to fathom the will of the polis.

An alternative to The MBA Oath would be to pledge intolerance to the violation of anyone’s natural rights and to shun those who would trample on individual liberty. As far as “society” is concerned a new MBA could condemn the use of coercion in business – which includes rejecting the myth that “the interests of society” give the government justification to redistribute wealth from those out of favor to members of protected classes.

Near the end of The Oath the student pledges to “strive to create sustainable economic, social and environmental prosperity worldwide.” Of course, this is a direct reference to the notion of the triple bottom line – a program of radical environmentalists and statists where all business activity is evaluated according to its impact on “people, planet, and profit.” And the official judges with the authority to direct business policy are invariably from organizations that regard the non-human planet to be more important than people and profits to be a necessary evil. In essence, the new MBA who signs is promising to support the anti-industrial environmentalist movement.

Of course, not all business students share the same political philosophy. Certainly some are yearning for a world of public-private partnerships and the suppression of unfettered production and trade. The best students recognize The Oath as toxic and will not swallow it.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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