Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility

Article excerpt

Teaching business ethics and corporate social responsibility can enliven teaching and learning in business studies by opening up some of the core ideas of business activity to critical scrutiny. Implicit in this is the need for business studies as a subject to examine important contemporary issues and move on from an approach rooted in social, economic and cultural changes that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. This article explores these issues and concludes with some teaching suggestions. The recent spate of film-based documentaries which focus on issues of corporate social responsibility create exciting opportunities for classroom-based work.

Ten years ago, in a previous article for this journal (Hall and Raffo, 1997), I highlighted the looming dangersof the business studies curriculum becoming cast adrift from broader social science thinking and consequently lacking that critical edge so necessary for serious examination of business. In the intervening period a number of developments have increasingly restricted the opportunitiesfor critical reflection upon business activities. Not least, there has been an increased emphasis upon teacher and school/college performance and a consequent and overwhelming focus upon summative assessments. Many business studies teachers have actively and successfully resisted this process, for example, by using the many excellent examples of teaching and learning materialson the biz/ed website. But a critical study of the subject has often been subsumed by more pressing matters such as assessment objectives, levels of response and, of course, the time-honoured activity of second guessing the preferences of examiners.

While these largely assessment-driven educational developments have been constraining teachers' work, there have been significant shifts in the way in which business activity is viewed. In the 1980s and early 1990s, business studies asa school/college subject experienced an unprecedented growth in popularity. It is surely not coincidental that simultaneously societal and political attitudes towards business were moving in a largely favourable direction. Business activity came to be viewed in a much more positive light and was seen as fundamentally important to human wellbeing. Its capacity to increase prosperity and enable individuals to enrich their livest hrough ever-increasing levels of consumption, best realised with minimal government intervention, was valued. In such a climate, it is perhaps not surprising that business studies came to be characterised as an essentially affirmative, if not celebratory, study of business activity. In this article I will refer to this view of the subject as "orthodox business studies".

Changing views

In recent years there have been some clear signs that this view of business is breaking down. Increasingly concerns have been expressed in response to a combination of factors such as:

* environmental decay, linked largely to global warming

* corporate scandalssuch as Enron

* the conduct of businessesin the armstrade

* the exponential growth in senior business executive earnings in the UK and US.

Students are exposed to debates raising serious questions about business activity in a manner that would have been unlikely twenty years ago. Of course, these issues are not new, but they are now far more likely to impinge upon the consciousness of young people studying this subject. However, these issues are largely dealt with under the banner of corporate social responsibility or business ethics and, consequently, they remain largely marginal within the business studies curriculum. Racing business ethics and corporate social responsibility more centrally within the curriculum offers great potential for this critical gaze to be unleashed.

In orthodox business studies, business activity is viewed as largely benign and can be judged according to the extent to which economies grow, corporate objectives are met and consumers are satisfied. …