The Place of Philosophy in Business Education |

The Place of Philosophy in Business Education

By Tim Dhoul

Updated March 10, 2021 Updated March 10, 2021

At first glance, philosophy and business don’t appear to have much in common. The perceived emphasis on action in business is not necessarily traditionally associated with philosophical thinking. So, why then does it warrant a place in business education and how can it help someone in their MBA career?

The popular philosopher, Alain de Botton, recently made the case that the two do overlap – in their desire to understand human nature. Businesses, after all, must understand their customers if they are to address their needs and keep them satisfied. He therefore argues that an understanding of philosophy could allow companies to develop a deeper understanding of a market.

In searching for fresh insights, philosophy may have much to offer. “The responsibility of philosophy is not so much to answer our questions, but to question our given answers,” was the view espoused in an article for the business magazine, Grasp.

Philosophy Underpins Business Ethics

The present way in which philosophy and business most notably interact is through the study of business ethics. Often multidisciplinary, this subject has become increasingly pertinent in business education, with the ongoing global financial crisis leading to questions being asked of businesses, perceived to be too profit-driven and not sufficiently aware of the social and environmental context in which they operate.

Andreas Rasche is Professor of Business in Society at Copenhagen Business School. “Reflection in business ethics is very much informed by philosophy. Nowadays, you also find other theories being used, for instance political theory or some elements of sociology. Nevertheless, I think the original business ethics thinking draws quite a lot from philosophy,” he says.         

Copenhagen Business School (CBS) has a strong reputation in the area of business ethics and the related field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Indeed, the school’s president, Per Holten-Andersen, is certainly not afraid to question convention. In 2012, he publicly expressed his distaste for what he referred to as ‘raw capitalism’ witnessed in both the US and Europe and suggested the West’s current forms of democracy were unlikely to stand the test of time, let alone become the model of choice among emerging economies.

Philosophy and ethics at Copenhagen Business School

For younger students interested in rigorously questioning traditional approaches and the ethics behind them, Copenhagen Business School offers an MSc and a BSc degree combining business and philosophy through its Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy. The CBS MBA, meanwhile, offers its own focus on the philosophical aspects of business through CSR, sustainability and ethics modules.

Business ethics classes stuck in ‘the elective zone’

In a paper published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education (AMLE), Andreas Rasche and his co-authors analyzed business school data from The Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey. In so doing, they found that ‘ethics-related courses in different disciplines’ on full-time MBA programs doubled between 2005 and 2009.

Yet, in spite of this upturn in the subject’s availability among business education providers – their analysis also showed that 75% of these courses were electives, a proportion that represented virtually no improvement over the four years.

Rasche explains why he considers this to be a primary challenge for business schools; “Whenever a course is an elective, students are all very interested in the subject. But, it is very hard to really get a challenging discussion going because everybody agrees that it is important. You end up preaching to the converted and that’s why I think the biggest challenge is to move it out of the elective zone and more into the core curriculum.”

The suggestion for doing this is to create a stand-alone core course or to integrate business ethics material into existing courses. The problem with these options is that MBA curricula don’t often have much room to maneuver in encompassing new, compulsory material.

“You compete for space in syllabi which are already packed,” Rasche says, before describing how one can also encounter faculty resistance from those who feel their subject area may be under threat by providing space for business ethics.

Rasche says that at Copenhagen Business School this is fortunately not the case. “On the MBA we have a core course and there you have perspectives which reach from ethics to CSR to sustainability, and then we have two electives.”

‘We need to make students familiar’ says CBS professor

One of these electives is taught by Rasche and draws from philosophy, sociology and international relations to encourage debate on the ways in which corporations can show leadership for more responsible business practices.

On the course, he tries to avoid discussing these themes in an overly abstract way so that its relevance and potential applications can be seen. “The most important thing, particularly for MBAs is to really tie it to the context of participants. I try to put it into the context of a particular industry or country, not necessarily only by using case studies but also through other means, for instance role plays or videos. Once you do that people see the relevance quite quickly,” Rasche says, before adding that his long-time collaboration with the UN’s Global Compact LEAD platform for corporate sustainability leadership provides one useful way to contextualize key issues such as labor rights and corruption.

And those detractors within business education, who query whether or not business ethics can be taught effectively, are not asking the right question in Rasche’s opinion; “Does a marketing class only create great brand managers? Does a finance class only create absolutely astonishing traders or investors? No they don’t, and this is not the point. We can’t expect that someone who takes an ethics class will become a very ethical person but I think we need to make students familiar with these topics,” he says.

Practical uses in your MBA career

A further criticism leveled against ethics teaching in business education is that it is hard to recall and apply its insights when faced with the daily decision-making requirements of many an MBA career.

Rasche, however, counters this by pointing out that decisions with an ethical dimension are very rarely the type that must be taken spontaneously. Instead, he thinks business ethics, and its borrowing from different streams of philosophy, are of great value to an MBA career.

“It really helps you to discover you own blind spots. Things which people would not have considered before, for instance, when drafting a strategy you might think about new markets or products. I think it is this ‘seeing things in a new light’ which philosophy can deliver.”

The suggestion here is that applying the critical thinking of a philosophy or ethics course to business and an MBA career isn’t just about finding fault and unethical behavior in company practice. It’s also about opening students' eyes to the kind of fresh ideas that could set them apart from their peers, with Rasche adding, “It helps them to see problems, but also opportunities they didn’t see before, and I would say this is crucial for moving up in an organization.”

This article was originally published in February 2014 . It was last updated in March 2021

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Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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