Twenty percent of students graduating from the Harvard Business School this week have taken an oath to be ethical. What a difference is that going to make?

They certainly will not be the first to make a solemn promise. In the United States, that honour belongs to the students of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. Meanwhile, at the Columbia Business School, students have already been required to take an integrity pledge for the past three years.

At Harvard, however, this voluntary, student-led initiative seems to tie in neatly with a crusade spearheaded by Rakesh Khurana, organizational behavior professor and author of From higher aims to hired hands (Princeton University Press, 2007), to ultimately transform management into a profession. Having a code of conduct or standard to which members of the same occupational group could hold themselves accountable, as well as responsibility over a distinct body of knowledge and practice especially useful to society, constitute the hallmarks of a true profession. For this purpose they deserve all the encouragement they can get.

But, apart from helping to convert management into a profession, will oath-taking effectively prevent today’s batch of MBAs from engaging in all sorts of ethical abuses as many of those before them have? I think not.

To be blunt, I don’t even consider it necessary; at least not in the strong sense that without an oath, we cannot expect to have ethical business leaders. In the first place, codes of conduct have not exactly been lacking. If you find them useful, you could even buy copies of Enron’s ethics code bearing Ken Lay’s signature in mint condition for $425 on eBay.

Furthermore, it defies reason that anyone, not only MBA grads, ought to promise that, “I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner,” not to mention, “I will take responsibility for my actions…” or “I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise.” Otherwise, what are we to make of the more than 600 other members of the Harvard MBA Class of ’09 that did not take the oath? The greater part of the promises seem, at best, obvious, if not redundant.

I do not rule out that, in some circumstances, such oath-taking may prove convenient — in particular, when individuals have reached a point in which they are almost utterly clueless in choosing between right and wrong. That comes quite close to the stage when what the medieval Schoolmen called synderesis, the first principle of moral reason often expressed as, “Do good and avoid evil”, gets blurred. (The Schoolmen also assured us that this principle, no matter how fuzzy it becomes, is never really obliterated in one’s conscience.) I dread to think we have gone that far.

In a litigious society such as that of the US, formally making these promises could even have its downsides. Spurred on by lawyers, it would give the unscrupulous an excuse to sue and claim exorbitant damages. And as we know, these threats of litigation only serve to raise transaction costs as parties strive to cover worst-case scenario risks.

Even if it did not produce these negative externalities, mere oath-taking, I’m afraid, would not solve the problem it is supposed to tackle. These promises are subject to an endless parsing that no “full version” will ever put to rest. To the trained eye, there are also quite a number of inconsistencies that jump out of the text. For instance, the preamble reads, “As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing together people and resources to create value that no single individual can build alone.” (The italics are mine.) But a few lines below, it also declares allegiance to “the pursuit of self-interest” as “the vital engine of a capitalist economy”, while at the same time declaring that “unbridled greed can just be as harmful.” Euphemisms aside, self-interest, no matter how “enlightened”, is just another name for greed. And if greed were truly the motor of a capitalist economy, how much greed would be “enough” or “just right”? How could that be reconciled with one’s vow “to serve the greater good”?

Similarly, the pledge contains a commitment to the interests of one’s constituencies or “stakeholders”, which includes “shareholders, co-workers, customers” and other members of society, apart from oneself. But when those interests run into conflict with one another, as they often do, whose interests should prevail? There is no indication in this regard.

Besides the principles or norms that could be found in the oath, ethics equally requires a substantive account of the goods that people in an organization or within society as a whole pursue, as well as a narrative of the virtues or excellences of character that those same individuals are supposed to develop or cultivate.

Among these elements, virtues are key because they alone permit one to interpret rules properly and to identify goods correctly. And virtues are learned or acquired not by oath-taking, but by some form of apprenticeship, as with other forms of practical knowledge. In other words, one becomes virtuous only by following the example of other virtuous people or mentors. Candidates, anyone?

Alejo José G. Sison is a Business Ethics scholar at the University of Navarre. His latest book is entitled Corporate Governance and Ethics: An Aristotelian Perspective (Edward Elgar, 2008)

Alejo Jose G. Sison

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...