Is taking an ethics oath a good idea?

A recent story about Harvard Business School students taking an oath of business ethics seems to have caught wind with a few media outlets. The Huffington Post picked it up, NPR interviewed two HBS students about it, and even Michael Lewis (“Liar’s Poker”) referenced it on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
In my opinion, I’m all for it. Why not? What is the harm in pledging to act in good faith? At worst, it won’t do much good, but at best it can have a marginal effect.

Again, an oath alone won’t solve all of our problems, because the underlying problems are complex and multifaceted. However, from a human standpoint I think it’s a great thing that some business school students are trying to do the right thing.

Or to put it another way, the cyncism and jaded mentality of human behavior (“assume the worst, always”) is what I call the Dick Cheney School of Psychology. That kind of negative, fatalist view of the world may not be the primary cause of bad behavior, but it certainly can be an important lubricant used to justify bad behavior.

It’s the common refrain and tone you’ll hear from those who were part of the problem:
“it’s human nature to be greedy and bad” 
”people will always cheat and steal if there’s incentive” 
”between my own ass and someone else’s, I’d save my own ass at all costs”

All of which is true. But the cynic’s world view (i.e. many MBAs and business types of the past) is to see that before anything else. To be far more willing to see the bad in people, and less willing to see the good. And that, in itself, is a naive view. Because everyone has the capacity for both, given the appropriate circumstance and frame of mind.

It’s sort of that view that “if the whole world is a race to the bottom, why fight it, join that race!” which precisely leads otherwise upstanding people to justify why they’re doing bad things.

That’s why if an oath at least helps to be even a small counterpoint to the cynicism that could creep in over time, then I’m all for it.

Because I am willing to bet that those who have misbehaved or will misbehave do so because they don’t want to see the good in themselves or in others — regardless of whether such misbehaviors are “illegal,” or legal but ethically questionable. They are more willing to discredit the good, and amplify the bad in others as way to justify why their misbehavior is “par for the course”. Because if they did see more good than bad in themselves, the misbehavior would be incongruous to who they are — and they would simply own up to their wrongdoing when caught, and apologize without making any excuses for it. And even if they weren’t caught for their misdeeds, they would at least feel guilty or remorse for what they did IF they didn’t have such a cynical view of themselves and of others.

Again, an oath is a good appetizer, but not the “main course.” The main course is still a change in regulation and corporate governance. but that doesn’t make the appetizer worthless.

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