Is there any point in trying to turn out ethical business school graduates? Writing in the FT, Mary Gentile, a former Harvard Business School teacher, concluded that there wasn’t. Indeed, she said, after years of working in the field: “I began to wonder if it was even ethical to try to teach the subject.”

The problem was two-fold. First, the students who took the ethical position in class risked appearing unsophisticated. Those who argued against them seemed smart and worldly-wise.

Second, the ethical problems discussed pitted right against right – students had to choose between two options, neither of them illegal or entirely immoral. She feared this encouraged students to question whether ethical behaviour was possible in the first place.

Her article is part of an anguished debate about whether business school teaching was responsible for the recent financial crisis. This worry is not new. The Enron-era scandals, in which MBA graduates featured prominently, prompted similar anxieties.

There are two obstacles to teaching ethics. The first is that there is no consensus on what business’s purpose is, or what an ethical company should look like. Is business’s role to make society better or to make shareholders richer (and thereby, perhaps, society better)?

The unsettled nature of the question is reflected among business school students. We can see this in last year’s initiative by some Harvard students to create an MBA oath. In its original form, the oath, as well as promising to “act with utmost integrity” and “develop both myself and other managers”, said: “I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.”

A year on, the oath has more than 4,000 signatories from 300 business schools around the world but the wording has changed. The part about co-workers and society has gone. I e-mailed the MBA Oath website to ask why. The language had “evolved”, they said. Perhaps the original phrasing would come back. They did not seem sure.

So students seem divided. The faculty probably is too. But I suspect more of the teachers are in the business-for-society camp and more of the students in the business-for-shareholders one. This is not a finding I could submit to a peer-reviewed journal, just an impression gleaned from more than two decades of contact with business schools. The students, on the whole, seem harder-edged than the teachers. Many of them are doing an MBA because they want a swift route into senior management. But plenty are doing it because they want to make money. Given the debts they take on to do their courses, they will need the cash. Many head for investment banking or management consulting.

The faculty often does consulting too. A favoured few write books that make them rich. But most of the teachers are more concerned with journals, conferences and tenure. It is tough teaching ethics to people whose outlook is at odds with yours.

The second obstacle is that it is never easy transferring classroom learning to real life. Ms Gentile wrote: “Just think what might have happened at BP if individuals there not only knew what the right thing to do was …but also knew how to do so effectively.”

It is desperately hard to speak up in any organisation. Few whistleblowers are thanked for their trouble. This is why, in spite of the apparent uncertainties of its founders, the MBA Oath is a constructive approach. It could help to create a community of managers who could turn to each other for aid and support in solving their ethical dilemmas. It is also, of course, a self-selecting group. Those who don’t care won’t sign.

What can be done about them? It is too much to expect business schools to inculcate ethical thoughtfulness in those who failed to acquire it at home. Perhaps schools should concentrate instead on getting their students to think about the consequences of misbehaviour.

Some schools invite reformed business fraudsters to speak. Jim Ridler, who teaches ethics at the Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ontario, does not like this approach: he argues that paying convicted criminals to enjoy time in the limelight does not convey the right message. Instead, he takes students to the local prisons. These jail visits have their hazards, he says: you have to make sure you leave with the same number of students you arrived with. But he believes the experience is sobering.

Business schools could perhaps come up with other ways of driving home the consequences of bad behaviour. Students could take turns being handcuffed and marched out of the classroom in front of their colleagues. The ensuing discussion might be a little more urgent.

michael.skapinker@ft.com

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