04 June 2009

The 20% Oath

Last week, The New York Times published an article entitled "A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality". It tells the story of a number of student-led initiatives in American business schools toward developing an oath for B-school graduates.

The oath—its content varies by school—pledges the students to, in the words of the article, "act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their 'own narrow ambitions' at the expense of others."

For millennia, physicians have made similar vows:

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.... In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients.

Many trades act similarly, and, to take the article at face value, business school seems to be catching up. But this is, by far, not the most interesting part of the piece.

No. It's glossed over in the article, but what boggles the mind is that only twenty percent of the graduating business school class at the institution profiled had actually agreed to the oath.

Eighty percent of business school graduates could not agree to acting responsibly and ethically!

Does this bother anyone else besides me? I warrant that probably somewhere on the order of eighty percent of physicians also do not abide by the Hippocratic Oath, but at least we all take it. At least we all promise to try to live up to its standards, and, I'd wager, most of us do so without our fingers surreptitiously crossed.

Are business school students simply more honest? Is it simply a case of, "I know I'm going to break this, so why take the oath in the first place?"

Or is there something more telling going on? Perhaps it's my naivete, but in light of the etiology of our current economic downturn, I'll admit that the other 80% bother me. Deeply.