Blogs & Comment

Should we teach students about the “social impact” of business?

Should students take "social impact" business courses, which teach "social responsibility, innovation, engaged citizenship or plain old public service,” rather than business ethics courses?

As regular readers know, I’ve blogged a lot about the vocabulary we use to talk about ‘doing the right thing’ in business. Here’s another example of a term that some people seem to want to use to capture that entire topic: “Social Impact.”

See for example this piece, by NYU’s Paul Light, in the Washington Post: It’s time to require students to do good.

I’ll start by pointing out that the headline is inaccurate, though that’s likely not Light’s fault. (It’s more likely the fault of the newspaper’s headline writer. Hard to say.) At any rate, Light’s article isn’t about making students “do good;” it’s about teaching them courses about doing good. And that’s a very different thing.

Light points out that many business schools now offer courses on what he refers to broadly as the “social impact” of business. “Social impact,” he says, can variously be defined in terms of “social responsibility, innovation, engaged citizenship or plain old public service.” (Note that Light is in trouble here, already, implicitly assuming all of those terms are good things. For counter-examples, see my recent blog entry on unethical innovation.)

Anyway, Light says business schools are increasingly realizing that they need to teach students something about the social impact of business (and presumably, more specifically, about how to maximize positive social impact and minimize negative social impact.)

For what it’s worth, I should point out that many business ethics classes — presumably among the courses that Light sees as part of the trend — absolutely would not focus primarily on social impact. And that’s a good thing, because social impact is just one of the many ethical issues that arise in business. Courses on business ethics can cover a large range of issues, many of them not directly related to social impact:

  • product safety (which is mostly a concern to customers, who very often make up only a tiny segment of “society”)
  • employee health and safety
  • truth in advertising
  • the environment (which, depending on your philosophical views, may have ethical importance independent of society’s reliance on it).

Each of those topics has relatively little to do with social impact, and indeed there can be important tensions between, for example, what is good for employees and what is good for society.

But maybe Light doesn’t want courses in business ethics more generally; maybe he really does think it most important to focus on social impact, thereby ignoring the issues (like those noted above) that got the field of business ethics off the ground in the first place. Such a focus by business schools would be incredibly unfortunate, because it would leave business students radically unprepared to face the ethical challenges that they really will have to face on a daily basis in their professional lives. And even if courses on “social impact” do tackle a broader range of issues (including the ones listed above) the title of the course is going to mislead students into thinking that social impact really is the key issue after all.

Finally, I’m confused by the fact that Light views “social impact” as a skill:

Making social impact part of every student’s curriculum would send the signal that social impact is an essential skill….

What are we to make of this? Is social impact really a “skill”? Personally, I’m not sure how to make sense of that turn of phrase. I suppose we can read Light somewhat more charitably as meaning that an appreciation of the social impact of business, and an understanding of the key issues and how to respond to them, are essential parts of a sound business education. And surely he’s right. But we ought at least be clear on the fact that what we’re struggling with — and what we need students to struggle with — is the complexity of the role and impact of business in society. Calling it a skill misleadingly implies that we know what to do about it all, and now we just need to do it. If only life were so simple.