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May 30, 2009

Taking an Oath to Serve the Greater Good

The New York Times has a fascinating story by Leslie Wayne identifying a possible new trend among business students--to take oaths to serve the greater good, especially during their careers to come. 

Should law students take similar oaths? Lawyers, after all, were involved with Enron, Madoff, and, most infamously, torture.

Lawyers, of course, are already bound by professional ethics, and serve, among other things as, officers of the court. Yet, a promise to "serve the greater good" seems to state an ambition more directly perhaps than our lawyerly professional canons (though perhaps those better versed in these might enlighten me on this subject int he comments).

There is yet another issue: whether it is important that professionals see themselves as serving the "greater good." The famous Adam Smith passage saw a greater good arising out of the self-interested behavior of individuals. But perhaps even greater good might arise from more directly socially directed behavior, such as that arising out of a sense of professionalism.

Here's an excerpt from the NYT story:

When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.

Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.

What happened to making money?

That, of course, is still at the heart of the Harvard curriculum. But at Harvard and other top business schools, there has been an explosion of interest in ethics courses and in student activities — clubs, lectures, conferences — about personal and corporate responsibility and on how to view business as more than a money-making enterprise, but part of a large social community.

“We want to stand up and recite something out loud with our class,” said Teal Carlock, who is graduating from Harvard and has accepted a job at Genentech. “Fingers are now pointed at M.B.A.’s and we, as a class, have a real opportunity to come together and set a standard as business leaders.”

At Columbia Business School, all students must pledge to an honor code: “As a lifelong member of the Columbia Business School community, I adhere to the principles of truth, integrity, and respect. I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The code has been in place for about three years and came about after discussions between students and faculty.

In the post-Enron and post-Madoff era, the issue of ethics and corporate social responsibility has taken on greater urgency among students about to graduate.

Anupam Chander

May 30, 2009 in Service -- legal profession | Permalink


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But we do take an oath in each state to get admitted to the bar, and I imagine many of them talk about some type of "greater good" - whether the Constitution, pro bono service, etc. And we're subject to professional responsibility codes of conduct. I think an oath like the MBA oath is overkill and actually works to minimize the importance of the actual ethical rules under which we already do operate.

Posted by: Archana | May 30, 2009 3:04:17 PM

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