Isaac Post

It’s the beginning of the fall semester and MBA programs across the world are preparing students to become good business leaders.

Over the past few years, and in reaction to high-profile corporate scandals, many MBA programs have added additional courses on business ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR). But for people outside of the universities, the content of these courses remains obscure. What are future corporate managers being taught under the heading of ‘business ethics’? In what context are students instructed on their “social responsibilities” as businessmen and women? Is a good dose of Milton Friedman all that is required or is there a need for something more?

Consider Harvard Business School.

The main CSR course at HBS, “Business Leadership and Strategic Corporate Citizenship” is an optional course offered during the 2nd year of the MBA program. The syllabus for this year’s version is instructive. The professor introduces CSR by explaining the three reasons why corporate leaders ought to act in a socially responsible manner: (i) it helps the world and is simply the right thing to do; (ii) corporations have an obligation to “give back” to society because it is society that has given business the license to operate and to make profits in the first place; and (iii) it increases profits in the long run.

“We endorse all three reasons for corporate social responsibility,” says the professor, “but we will largely ignore the first two” because, well, because this is a university, not a high school debating club.

Now consider London Business School.

The United Kingdom is arguably “ahead” of the U.S. in terms of adopting CSR policies (they have their own government website and minister responsible for CSR). So how does the UK’s preeminent business school compare to Harvard in this regard? First, the LBS course, “Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility”, is a required course that one takes at the very beginning of the MBA program. Second, as the title indicates, this course combines CSR with business ethics. As outlined in a 2004 syllabus, ‘business ethics’ focuses more on the decisions of an individual manager with respect to the corporation, whereas CSR focuses more on the relationship between the corporation as a whole and the rest of society.

Isaac Post

Isaac Post is a Regulatory Policy Analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Be the first to read Isaac Post's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.