Issues in Philosophy Philosophy for Business Students

Philosophy for Business Students

Business schools are one of the more unusual locations to find philosophers, and yet there are quite a few business schools that do integrate philosophy into the curriculum beyond Business Ethics.  London Business School runs a “Nobel Thinking” course, Copenhagen Business School offers a Master of Science in Business Administration and Philosophy, Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Australia’s philosophy-based “Foundations of Management Thought” is a core MBA course, and the University of Oxford offers the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) undergraduate degree.  Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and Duke also offer similar programs.

I connected with Brian Berkey–Assistant Professor in the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at Wharton with a secondary appointment in the University of Pennsylvania Philosophy Department–about teaching philosophy to business students. Brian has taught courses in business ethics and environmental ethics in Wharton’s undergraduate program, which also covers broader issues in moral and political philosophy.

What philosophical concepts resonate most with business students? 

One of the ideas that’s (perhaps surprisingly) appealing to business students is that we have demanding duties of beneficence. One possible reason for this is that they’re used to thinking of the efficient use of resources as an important value, both for individual business decisions and with respect to the design of economic institutions. Once it’s pointed out to them that we can redirect resources that we’d typically spend on luxuries in ways that can save lives, it’s hard not to see this reorientation as another matter of efficiently distributing resources.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of my students are at least somewhat drawn to broadly libertarian ideas. At the same time, a lot of them are also concerned about inequality and its effects, and virtually all of them think that climate change is an important issue that both governments and businesses are obligated to take steps to address. There are a lot of interesting tensions in these areas that we focus on in my courses, and the students tend to be quite engaged and receptive to thinking through the issues.

What are the main challenges with teaching philosophy to business students?

The main challenges aren’t so different from those involved in teaching any introductory course in which most students haven’t taken any philosophy previously. Some students come in with misconceptions about what the course will be like, and so there’s a need to spend some time introducing students to what philosophy is. It can take a bit of time to get some students to see and become comfortable with the fact that in philosophy, we’re aiming to arrive at well-justified answers to difficult questions, while knowing that deep disagreements will persist. In my experience, these challenges are no more difficult to overcome teaching classes at Wharton than they were teaching introductory courses in philosophy departments elsewhere.

How do you ‘sell’ philosophy to business students?  How do you get past the thinking that philosophy is too esoteric to be practical in the business world? 

One of the things that has worked pretty well is that in the second week of my business ethics course I cover philosophical methodology by using the trolley problem to talk about issues like appeals to case intuitions vs. appeals to general principles, ways to challenge principles and case intuitions, how to think about applying principles to cases, etc. Then we spend a class period discussing the ethical issues raised by the development of autonomous cars. For a long time there was a lot of resistance, both from students and also from some philosophers, to the idea that thinking about cases like those involved in the trolley problem could help us make progress in thinking about real-world ethical issues. But autonomous cars force us to think seriously about precisely these kinds of cases, since they need to be programmed to react in one way or another in cases that share the morally relevant features of trolley problem cases. Discussing these issues does a lot to help students see why it’s important to think philosophically about the ethical issues facing companies that aim to produce autonomous cars, as well as regulators who will need to develop policies regarding the production and use of such cars. And I think that this makes it easier for them to make similar connections to potentially important applications when we cover other theoretical issues as the course progresses.

Why do you think business students should learn about philosophy? 

Business students should be exposed to philosophy for roughly the same reasons that all students should. It’s an essential part of a well-rounded education. It prepares students to think critically about difficult questions, especially normative questions. It encourages clarity of expression, both in writing and in discussion. It emphasizes respectful debate about complex and controversial questions.

For business students, especially at a place like Wharton, it’s also important because many of our students will go on to hold positions in the business world in which they’ll be responsible for making decisions that will have significant consequences for a lot of people. I think it’s important that they’re at least exposed to the kind of ethical debates and the modes of ethical reasoning that are included in philosophically-oriented courses (and rarely in other courses). This at least lets them see that they can’t simply take for granted that, for example, aiming to maximize profits (within the boundaries of the law) is always acceptable, or that cost-benefit analyses can capture everything that we have reason to care about from a moral perspective.

A long time ago a business student told me that what he found most valuable about learning philosophy during his MBA was that it helped him to impress women at the bar.  How seriously do you think business students take philosophy?

I’ve only taught in our undergraduate program, and my sense is that at least many of the students end up enjoying engaging with philosophy more than they expected to. And a lot of them seem to recognize that there’s value in thinking philosophically about ethical questions in business, and more generally. On the whole, I’ve been impressed by the level of engagement and the seriousness with which the students treat the issues.

I suspect that there are more significant challenges when it comes to engaging students philosophically at the MBA level, but since I haven’t taught MBA courses I don’t have the experience necessary to speak to that.

At Wharton, how many subjects are philosophy-based?

I don’t know the details of the MBA curriculum, but there is a Responsibility course that is sometimes taught by philosophers in my department. At the undergraduate level, many students take our Ethics and Responsibility course in order to satisfy a Wharton requirement. All six philosophers in the department teach this course at least on occasion, so a lot of the Wharton undergrads end up taking at least one philosophically-focused course. We also offer philosophical electives, like Markets and Morality, International Business Ethics, and the Environmental Ethics and Business course that I developed last year.

I’ve already mentioned a few business schools that teach philosophy.  Are there others that I’ve missed?  Should business schools be offering more philosophically-oriented courses? 

There are other business schools that have philosophers on the faculty, though in many cases they have only one. Georgetown’s business school is one of the few places with several philosophers on the faculty, and I’m sure they have a significant number of philosophical courses in their curriculum. Other business schools that I know have at least one philosopher on the faculty include the University of British Columbia, Rutgers, and Fordham.

I think it would be great if business schools offered more philosophically-oriented courses. At the least, I think business students should be exposed to normative ethics in a serious way in the course of their business education. And that’s not likely to happen without philosophers on the faculty to teach the ethics courses, or at least to provide some guidance to those without philosophical training who teach ethics courses.

What advice do you have for other philosophers who are teaching business courses? 

One thing I’d say is that they shouldn’t water down the philosophical content of the courses or worry too much about emphasizing practical applications. If it’s approached in the right way, business students, just like other students, can be led to see the value of philosophy. I teach my courses in pretty much the same way that I would in a philosophy department. I have the students write quite a bit, and I don’t give exams. A lot of the students appreciate that, both because it makes the class quite a bit different than most of their other classes, and because they recognize that I’m taking them seriously as students, rather than lowering expectations because they’re business students rather than philosophy majors.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m currently working on papers about corporate obligations of justice, the ethics of boycotts, and collective obligations and demandingness. My broader project over the next few years, of which these papers are a part, involves connecting theoretical work that I’ve done on obligations of justice and moral demandingness to debates in business ethics.

Brian Berkey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also an associated faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at Penn, and an affiliated faculty member of the Institute for Law and Philosophy at the Penn Law School.


Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


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