Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Should College Graduates Swear an Oath to Social Responsibility?

Peter Singer writes favorably about a new trend at Harvard Business School. New MBAs are taking an oath to use their skills and credentials to promote corporate social responsibility rather than just the bottom line. For years, mainstream capitalist theorists, such as Milton Friedman, have argued that the only responsibility corporate managers have is to make as much profit as they can for their stockholders (as long as they obey the law). Now, with the meltdown of the housing and credit markets, some MBAs are thinking they need to have a wider ethical perspective.

Singer admits that over 80% of Harvard MBAs have not signed on board to be more ethically minded, but he has hope.

This made me wonder whether college graduates shouldn't be encouraged to think about their social responsibility. As Singer points out, the idea of professionals swearing to "do no harm" is not a new idea. We should remember that the idea of a bachelor's degree comes from the medieval notion of having succeeded at being a baccalaureus--literally a squire to a knight. That is, one has mastered a set of special skills supposedly to be used for the benefit of society (saving widows and orphans and such).

There is a Graduation Pledge Alliance that champions the idea of college graduates taking such an oath. The oath goes something like this: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work.” The idea has not really taken off beyond a few liberal arts and religious schools.

Is the idea of college graduate social responsibility an idea whose time has come or naive wishful thinking?

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At 4:05 PM , Blogger CTS said...

Many colleges, like mine, claim to graduate people with a sense of social responsibility. The trouble is, too many faculty get 'nervous' about what this might mean.

The nervousness, it is worth observing, is equally divided among the political perspectives of our faculty. The conservatives think we will indoctrinate students into leftie thinking; the lefties [at least the pomo crowd] worry that we will give the impression that there are any 'values' that are more rationally defensible than others.

At 10:15 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

CTS: It certainly seems the case that the idea of social responsibility has profound political impact. As Singer points out, it rubs against the grain of most corporate thinking and the emphasis on the market as the most efficient and ethical means for distributing good and services. I think that debate, between corporate social responsibility and market fundamentalism, is probably a harder one to engage in than the postmodern discussion about whether or not values are rationally defensible (relativism seems simply silly when you think hard about it)


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