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Should business professors instill empathy over ethics?

January 13, 2017 - 12:00am
David Surdam

A recent article in Ideas at Work depicted the limitations of teaching business ethics to college and MBA students. The dean of the Columbia University Business School reflected that his students lacked experience dealing with people without fancy degrees or living on below-average incomes. These students displayed little empathy and perhaps a large dose of entitlement: "I deserve a fancy salary, big house, and sporty vehicle."

A question arises: Are business professors able to instill empathy in their students?

UNI professors have an advantage over the august Columbia University business school professors. I suspect the vast majority of the Columbia MBA students come from wealthy families; true, their student body is probably more international and cosmopolitan than our students, who often come from small-town and rural backgrounds. In that sense, the Columbia students have a greater diversity of backgrounds, but these students may have grown up in wealthy "ghettos," segregated by socio-economic status. Many of the Columbia University students probably have never attended a boat show (where the participants come from a wide array of backgrounds) or gone to school with impoverished fellow students.

Most UNI students went to public schools with peers from various socio-economic backgrounds. I know my classmates in our Oregon community had parents whose occupations ranged from millworkers and loggers to doctors and lawyers. Some of our primary and elementary school classes were segregated by ability, but music and PE classes jumbled the students. You met and interacted with students of various backgrounds. From what I can see, many, if not most, Iowa students experienced similar mixing. There are few enclaves of well-heeled families, whose children attend tony private schools. Although Americans often associate poverty with urban poverty, there are plenty of impoverished Americans in the rural areas.

Although I found mixing with students from different socio-economic backgrounds challenging (my father was a skilled blue-collar worker with a college degree), I now realize what a benefit the experience was. I learned that differences in socio-economic background did not preclude friendship, understanding, and respect. Unlike the Columbia students, who all claimed not to know of anyone who voted for the 2016 Republican Presidential candidate, I know quite a few of my high school classmates that did.

Because UNIBusiness students have a much higher likelihood of having rubbed elbows with a wider spectrum of people, especially with regard to socio-economic backgrounds, they may well come to us with greater understanding of and, yes, empathy for students from different situations.

To buttress this inherent advantage, I try to impress upon my economics students how fortunate they are to have been born in late-twentieth-century Iowa. Iowa has problems, no doubt about it; the state's incarceration rates of African-American males is scandalously high, for instance. For most of our students, though, the public schools were reasonably good. Because many students attended high schools with small enrollments, they could engage in many extra-curricular activities. I daresay a much higher proportion of our students have been on athletic teams; performed in musical programs; and participated in other endeavors. True, being a "big fish in a little pond" has its drawbacks (you don't really know how talented you are), but overall, Iowa is an excellent place to grow up.

Our students need to realize how fortunate they are, relative to other Americans and people around the world today but also compared with people from the past. Gratitude may well be associated with empathy. The cliché, "there but for the grace of god, go I," is important. The so-called "haves" are, in reality, just a twist of fate away from being a "have-not." The ability to see that a less-fortunate classmate's life could have easily been yours (to start with an accessible comparison) or to understand or feel how a classmate feels is a mark of empathy.

UNI professors, then, would have a head start in instilling or, more likely, building upon our students' inherent empathy. We need to awaken their realization of this empathy and tie it to ethical behavior, and economics is a good platform for doing so. Economics classes often deal with policies affecting income distribution, both past and current. Various economic situations pose stark contrasts between efficiency and equity. I'll revisit this topic in a future piece.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.

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David Surdam

Professor of Economics

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Submitted by Dylan Wiedner on
Empathy and Ethics is something that I have talked about in Business Ethics in Society, and is something that I continue to think about as I approach my time to enter the working world as a business professional. In many situations, I can see where ethics should come before empathy. To ensure that you are doing the right thing for a business, sometimes you may have to step on some toes and break some relationships. But most importantly, I personally believe that you can show empathy and understanding while still holding true to your ethical beliefs. I found this interesting talking about small town Iowa and how we have a leg up on the understanding of empathy. I really do see that as a benefit that comes from growing up in a small town with a variety of family styles.