I’m not a perfect fit for my major, I’ve realized. In truth, none of us probably are, or will be, but going into community college I had a particularly isolated and personal view of the social good of a “Business Education,” and ended up as a management major somewhat begrudgingly and in a round-about way. One of the things I have realized somewhere along the way from my community college to here, and that struck me profoundly as I watched the documentary “Inside Job,” is that for many in the field, and especially those who unerringly know they want to be on wall-street, in large corporations, or even for entrepreneurs, business is synonymous with power. I don’t say that to rag on corporate America unnecessarily, or condemn anyone who enters the fields of management or finance as inherently greedy or evil – every profession or lifestyle has its appeals and we have our motivations for pursuing what we do, that’s no true revelation. Perhaps artists pursue freedom, prestige, expression, and scientists pursue discovery or knowledge, etc. etc. What then, does my field of study specialize in? Once when I relayed my current major to a relative their response was “Oh. Good. We need more people who know how to make money.” There’s an interesting simplicity behind that answer – we chose “Business” to make money. But as Michael Walzer said, “Money, supposedly the neutral medium, is in practice a dominant good, and it is monopolized by people who possess a special talent for bargaining and trading.” Walzer sums up his idea of a dominant good this way: “I call a good dominant if the individuals who have it, because they have it, can command a wide range of other good.” So, possession of a dominant good is possession of power, and it isn’t a stretch to say that we future managers, finance majors, “business-people” hope by virtue of our education to “command a wide range of other goods.” Short-hand; we want power.
Granted, this is a gross oversimplification, and in addition to that the purpose of our power trips (solving societal issues such as inequality or regional poverty for example) might vary far from the dramatic, greedy connotation above. My point is that I hate business people. Just kidding, not really. Sometimes I do hate the thought of being one though; growing up, who wants to imagine that? What 8-year old has that as a life-goal? That’s because, for me at least, there was no clear, tangible outcome. As a paleontologist (my childhood dream job), the outcome of my field of study was dinosaur bones. Boom. Done. Life is complete. My actual point with all of this however, is that as you realize that the true outcome, the fruit so to speak, of an education in business, is having what Walzer refers to as “a special talent for bargaining and trading – the green thumb of bourgeois society.” Our mantle, essentially, is a lifelong concern with and manipulation of the distribution of wealth and goods. Therefore, as much as any philosopher, economist, or policy maker, we should be deeply aware of how our action and inaction affect distributive justice. Despite this clear responsibility on the part of the private sector, we clearly see that it’s not always considered part of our purview. Some universities clearly see this connection and are in embedding those values in their students (plug for Bucknell Univeristy management faculty), some are not.
Perhaps the most worrying thing to me about the “Inside Job” documentary, was the position of the Deans and professors on whether or not research about financial service industries that was funded by financial service industries displayed a conflict of interest. A clear and angry “no” was the response. We think of Harvard as the tip of the spear, and yet we see professors such as Martin Feldstein consulting and doing research with financial services firms to justify the actions leading up the the recession. We can therefore assume that if these are the personal beliefs of those teaching the next generation of “business people” that this lack of personal responsibility concerning distributive justice seeps into their pedagogy as well. Am I just lucky that I ended up with a scholarship to a liberal arts school that teaches something different? Would my beliefs be skewed by a different chain of events leading to my education at WVU, or some other state school? Ultimately, how unique is it to teach Stakeholder management, distributive justice theories, multiple ethical theories, triple bottom line thinking and responsibility across the five management classes I have taken so far? Too unique, I fear.
Image: Martin Feldstein